Posted Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 9:09 a.m. by Chris Amico in Thinking Out Loud about data, journalism and research

Steve Yelvington talks about being a local expert. This pushes farther a concept Jeff Jarvis advanced a few months back: The building block of journalism is no longer the article. Matt at Newsless describes this as systematic knowledge accumulation (he's talking about within journalism, in this case, but I think it's applicable here).

Let's think about what that might look like a bit. For a given topic or issue, I might want to pull together:

  • News articles
  • Blog posts
  • Forum topics
  • Links to other places talking about the issue
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Profiles of people who show up a lot (usual suspects)
  • useful datasets (maybe even APIs)
  • Background information

Most of that is just an accumulation of everything a news organization produces, organized by tag. The New York Times pretty much does this with its Times Topics pages (good example: The Stimulus). But all three posts I linked above call for something than just organization, and that's where the last bullet point comes in.

At some point, someone needs to look at this pile of information and take a broader view, figure out what's significant and what questions remain unanswered. Newsless suggested something similar, in the context of exit interviews with outgoing beat reporters:

I’d be tremendously curious to hear from these departing journalists a birds-eye-view of their beat. What were the most important developments they covered that even those readers who weren’t paying attention should be aware of? What from their beat should their community be keeping an eye on in the near future? What processes had they developed for covering the beat? Which stories had they always planned to do but never got around to? What advice would they give to anyone who wanted to pick up where they left off?

Unshackled from the need to be viewed as opinionless arbiters, ex-reporters might be able to give a more honest, probing, far-reaching assessment of their beats than they could while they were on the job. A collection of these interviews for every city would be a marvelous trove of knowledge, the beginnings of a stellar information asset. The interviews could be conducted by anyone — local bloggers, the reporter’s former colleagues, rival news orgs, Facebook friends.

As I said in a comment on that post, I did something similar when I left the Antelope Valley Press after two years on the education beat. I'd covered two 25,000-student-and-growing districts (AV High School District and Palmdale Elementary) and one that was tiny and shrinking (Acton-Agua Dulce Unified). The week I left, I wrote a series of notes to my successor outlining what was worth knowing about the districts, who was worth talking to and how I'd gone about covering the beat.

Building that into the process of news, adding in aggregation, curation and reflection by reporters who really know a beat means moving institutional knowledge beyond the newsroom walls.

News as we've known it--in articles with inverted pyramids--lives somewhere between Twitter and Wikipedia. What I think Steve and Jeff and Matt (and others) are all talking about is making this broad view just as institutional, being instantaneous and encyclopedic at the same time. Being experts.

Note: the Times does almost exactly this. I think this is new. Times Topics started as simple tagging but major topics now have extensive background notes.


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