A single news item is only important to a reader if it makes sense within a larger context. An example that journalist Matt Thompson offers up is the torrent of news items about health-care reform. Each item only makes sense if you understand the bigger picture. CUNY Professer Jay Rosen hails an NPR piece that explained the “mortgage mess” to him, providing background information necessary to fully appreciate new news about the mortgage industry.
If you’ve been following the ongoing conversation about context in some journalism circles, there’s a good chance you weren’t compelled to view the example hidden above. For you, that context was superflous because of your personal knowledge and understanding of the topic.
If, on the other hand, this is the first time you’ve heard the idea that news items need context to be useful to readers, a summary of related posts might be helpful. The conversation about context may have started four years ago when Nico Flores opined that content is meaningful only as “part of a wider conversation.” Author Jeff Jarvis ran with the idea, declaring that “content does not exist without context.” In 2008, Matt Thompson launched Newsless.org, hoping to advance the conversation about how to “fix” context, which he describes as journalism’s ailment. In 2009, Dave Winer argued that “streams” of news need structure, using Twitter’s lack context as an example. What followed were many tweets and more blog posts, all leading up to a “Future of Context” panel that was part of the South by Southwest conference earlier this month.
Every person who reads a news item, brings a unique set of life experiences and knowledge to put the news into some bigger story. Each reader also has a unique set of questions based on their ignorance of, and interest in, particular parts of that story.
One way to provide only the desired parts of a story for individual readers, might be to hide story elements until the reader clicks on a link to expand that part of the story. This is an old trick (shoddily implementod in this post) that might find new usefulness in this new context of … context.
I hoped to submit this post to Matt Thompson’s The Future of Context site, but technical requirements forced me to publish it here instead. Please follow the conversation about context happening on that blog to find out how journalists can create and deliver news in ways that can be more relevant and useful to readers than existing forms of storytelling.