November 6, 2013

It’s not news that the news industry is experiencing a period of remarkably intense change, driven by the rise of digital technology and the resulting demise of barriers-to-entry and bundled media products. There is no shortage of commentary, analysis and discussion about how this change is affecting the production and distribution of journalism – for example in the excellent report by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky titled “Post Industrial Journalism”, published recently by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. These are indeed interesting times for the production and distribution of news.

We see, however, relatively little analysis or discussion of how these changes are affecting the consumption of journalism by individuals. Questions that seem central to the very purpose of journalism remain either intuitive or unasked: Why do people even consume news? What are the fundamental elements of news, as experienced by the individual? What is the best way to organize news in terms of the individual needs that it addresses? How do the reasons for consuming news vary by individual, by context, by subject matter, etc? How well does the news environment satisfy those reasons? Are those reasons changing? The lack of obvious interest in these questions is particularly surprising given the vigorous search for innovative ways to offer value in the digital media environment, and suggests that it has been difficult to identify or articulate a ‘theory of news’ that could serve as a starting point for exploring the consumption side of the new marketplace for news.

It should come as no surprise that the hypothesis that I propose as the basis of a possible ‘theory of news’ is centered on the critical role of narrative, or story, in people’s perception of their world. While it is obvious that news is about ‘stories’ in the intuitive or colloquial sense, it is perhaps less obvious that the growing body of cross-disciplinary work on narrative can be directly and formally applied to understanding the consumption side of digital media or that such an understanding of news consumption might be used to produce useful media products.

Take, for example, an experience that is probably familiar to anyone who consumes news from many different online sources (news sites, Twitter, Facebook, personalized streams, news apps, blogs, etc.). This behavior can be interpreted as being about seeking new stories that are interesting to that consumer and seeking new developments in interesting stories that the consumer is already aware of. As the consumer develops an interest in a particular story they must therefore personally ‘de-duplicate’ events across multiple documents in order to construct the full story in their mind, and their personal experience in doing this becomes something like  ‘knew that’ – ‘knew that’ – ‘knew that’ – ‘thats new!’ -‘knew that’ – ‘knew that’, etc. They are forced, in effect, to act as their own editors – a new role for consumers that was much less necessary in the pre-digital media environment. This frustrating experience is exacerbated by the very tools provided by digital media sites in an effort to simplify the discovery of interesting content, such as document-oriented topic clustering, entity-based personalization of news streams or search tools. From the consumer’s perspective navigation and consumption based on stories and their constituent events rather than on documents would probably be more satisfying.