Future to Newspapers: Jump in the river

Here’s the problem with most news: it isn’t. It’s olds. It happened hours ago, or last night, or yesterday, or last month, or before whenever the deadline was in the news organization’s current “news cycle”. It’s not now.

Unless, of course, it’s been fed out through syndication and picked up by a news reader or feed search engine (e.g. Google Blogsearch or Technorati) that’s paying attention to how long ago something got posted.

Note that feeding is not cycling. Rivers don’t flow in circles.

News is a river, not a lake. It is active, not static. It’s what’s happening, not what happened. Or not only what happened.

But what happened — news as olds — is how we’ve understood news for as long as we’ve had newspapers. The happening kind of news came along with radio, and then television. Then we called it “live”. Still, even on the nightly news, what’s live is talking heads and reports from the field. The rest is finished stuff.

There’s a difference here, a distinction to be made: one as stark and important as the distinction between now and then, or life and death. It’s a distinction between what’s live and what’s not.

This distinction is what will have us soon talking about the life of newspapers, rather than the death of them.

Because it’s not enough to be “online” or to have a “presence” on the Web.

To be truly alive, truly new, truly part of the life of its readers, a newspaper needs to be on the live web and not just the static one. It needs to flow news, and not just post it.

It needs to flow rivers of news, or newsrivers.

A year from now every newspaper will have a newsriver — if not many of them. Most papers will copy other papers, of course. But one paper will start the trend, take the lead, and break the ice that’s damned up their purpose in static sites and tombed archives.

One of them will see that there’s a Live Web as well as a static one. And that the Live Frontier is where the action is, and will be.

I’m betting they’ll follow the New York Times, just like they always do.

If that happens the Times will, as it has done before, follow Dave Winer, who has been showing them how with for years.

As usual, Dave has been taking the Times, and all of journalism, to school. (Not that they want to go, but he’s taking them anyway.) His latest post is A new view of NY Times news, and it’s a great demonstration of open source development out here in the everyday world. The dude isn’t just talking about the cheap-as-water billion-dollar idea that will save the industry’s ass. He’s actually doing the work of making it happen. He’s thinking out loud and demonstrating his thinking, right where everybody can see it and put it to use.

I was just wondering if the term “river” has even come up at the ONA (Online News Association) conference in Toronto this week. Let’s see…

A search for ona and toronto on Technorati brings up 29 results. When I add river or newsriver the results go to zero in each case. When I search for ona and toronto on Google Blogsearch, I find 3,215 results, which narrow down to 440 (all spam blogs, or splogs) when I add river, and zero when I substitute newsriver.

Let’s see what they say a year from now at the next ONA. I’m betting that will be one of the top topics at the show.

42 responses to “Future to Newspapers: Jump in the river”

  1. Thanks Doc!!

    It’s so weird to see rivers show up in Facebook, and Twitter is just a big river of all the people you’re following.

    The idea is actually a ripoff of the teletype terminals that used to be in the movies (and for all I know in actual newsrooms). THe news would be printed on scrolls of paper, and when a new story would come in it would push all the older stories onto the floor. You could catch up on the news by scrolling back through the news.

    Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Katherine Hepburn did it. We’ll all be doing it soon enough. And it really helps to get other people singing the song, esp from within the hallowed halls of Harvard.

  2. The Online News Association wouldn’t be discussing the display of stories from the print publications. They’re there to discuss digital ways to enhance print reporting, online-only news, blogging, stories best told digitally, mashups, nontraditional forms, nontraditional reporters….

    Projo uses a Movable Type blog to report news as it happens, its latest headlines automatically lead the top of the homepage. Some of these stories may appear (sometimes in longer form) in print the next day. (Getting a merged “river of all blog headlines” can’t happen till there’s an upgrade to MT 4.0.)

    Print publication software usually spins off copies of stories to the Web, assigning them to section indexes. Stories generally autopublish to these indexes, but — we asked a coupla years ago — these can’t be merged into one chronological stream with the Web publishing software we have now.

    The more compelling publishing issue is how to reverse the flow so that edited, uncut stories move to the Web first, then spin back to the paper to be laid out and cut to fit the shrinking news hole. It can currently only be done (with CCI) by spinning off a copy to a “user basket” for manual export, which is exactly what we do to publish longterm event listings and major, multi-part stories — there are two versions, with the print version now designated “not for online.”

  3. Welcome, Dave.

    And right about the wire service machines and Facebook and the river that is Twitter. Great points. (WINS/1010 in New York still has the sound of wire machines pounding in the background, even though it’s now just a looping recording.)

    (Hmm… maybe if you took the ‘e’ out of “river”…)

    As I said on Twitter, it was this line — “After all this is news, not olds.” — that got me going. I realized in an instant that the point went deep, and the time was right.

    Anyway, great work, as always.

  4. […] du med nyheter på nett, les Doc Searls betraktninger rundt dette: News is a river, not a lake. It is active, not static. It’s what’s happening, not what […]

  5. Sheila, thanks for an excellent view into How It’s Done, and highlighting a crucial point: the flow needs to start with the Web, and move to the paper, rather than the reverse.

    Also for pionting out what ONA is up to. Still, I like my bet: that newsrivers will be a big topic one year from now. And that the topic is starting from zero finds today. Publishing those numbers may prove as helpful as it did when I published this post in September 2004, about podcasting. That post points to a Google search for ‘podcasts’ that brought 24 results. I just checked and that number is now 125,000,000.

  6. […] Doc: “A year from now every newspaper will have a newsriver.” […]

  7. […] on this, Doc Searls says news organizations should “jump in the river”: News is a river, not a lake. It is active, not static. It’s what’s happening, not what […]

  8. Check “river of news,” “news river” and “chronological index” too, Doc. (Newsriver probably offends the grammar police, like choppedliver.) Legacy language persists, though, and rivers have no history in newsrooms. (:

    There’s no opposition to the river concept, it’s just one of the endless number of things that the proprietary European publishing software that IT departments love to recommend just doesn’t do.

    The software determines what’s possible. We’re using Movable Type as a workaround to do what trad publishing software can’t do. My little MT headline includes are powering much of projo’s realtime publication — it doesn’t matter whether the link goes to the blog or to the main site. When MT goes open source by the end of the year, much more should be possible.

  9. Doc,
    Totally agree with about live news. When it comes to the physical paper product, the one thing newspaper should be focused on are stories that offer perspective and context. Forget about telling the reader what happened because they already know that. Instead, tell the reader what it why it happened and what it means – and do it user-friendly way with charts, pictures, graphs, etc.

  10. […] periodically reminds newspapers that the first part of that compound word is news not olds, and he’s done so again today: “News is a river, not a lake. It is active, not static. It’s what’s happening, not what […]

  11. […] Searls calls this work a great demonstration of open source development out here in the everyday world. The dude isn’t […]

  12. News flows like a river. But what is most important to most readers isn’t always the most recent thing.

    Take today. Arguably the most important story is the suicide bombing in Pakistan. But if you’re on the West coast of the US, and you’re consuming news as a river, it’s long, long gone.

  13. I agree, Ian, and I’m not arguing for newsrivers as substitutes for the usual. I’m talking AND logic, not OR.

    In fact, I think newsrivers can help bring readers back to the paper produict, and to subscriptions, if it’s done in a useful and creative way.

  14. […] Future to Newspapers: Jump in the river. Some of the most interesting thinking about newspaper — ike the idea of the newsriver — is happening outside the walls of the tent. Publishers and editors might want to peek out the door every once in a while to take a reading. Dave Winer has more. […]

  15. One might well ask why those old teletypes are extinct.

  16. Actually I try to keep approx 24 hours worth of news in the NY Times river, so there’s no place in the world that would miss that story.

  17. […] Journalism is changing and much of the establishment doesn’t seem to have realised. […]

  18. […] Searls over Winers idee: Here’s the problem with most news: it isn’t. It’s olds. It happened hours ago, […]

  19. They say the Styx does. Flows in circles.

    Plato, Phaedo 112e ff (trans. Fowler) (Greek philosopher C4th B.C.) :
    “[The] streams are many and great and of all sorts, but among the many are four streams, the greatest and outermost of which is that called Okeanos, which flows round in a circle, and opposite this, flowing in the opposite direction, is Akheron, which flows through various desert places and, passing under the earth, comes to the Akherousian lake . . . The third river [the Pyriphlegethon] flows out between these two, and near the place whence it issues it falls into a vast region burning with a great fire and makes a lake larger than our Mediterranean sea, boiling with water and mud. Thence it flows in a circle, turbid and muddy, and comes in its winding course, among other places, to the edge of the Akherousian lake, but does not mingle with its water. Then, after winding about many times underground, it flows into Tartaros at a lower level. This is the river which is called Pyriphlegethon, and the streams of lava which spout up at various places on earth are offshoots from it. Opposite this the fourth river issues [the Styx] . . . it passes under the earth and, circling round in the direction opposed to that of Pyriphlegethon, it meets it coming from the other way in the Akherousian lake. And the water of this river also mingles with no other water, but this also passes round in a circle and falls into Tartaros opposite Pyriphlegethon. And the name of this river, as the Poets say, is Kokytos. Such is the nature of these things.”

  20. nail on the head. could not agree more. to the point of dave’s ‘and/or’; think about the big stories as causing meanders in the river–no river styx (?) here, but a way to extend the river analogy. The famous american naturalist Luna Leopold (who assembled his father’s writings into ‘a sand country almanac’) discovered some mathematical laws that predict the meander patterns of rivers–might be interesting to map this math to keyword analytics and predict where the newsriver will run.

    unless our raft flips we should release some version of this thinking (newsriver, that is) in 2008. thanks for this, doc and dave.

  21. Eventually, all things flow together as one, and a river runs through it. (Norman Maclean, from memory.)

  22. Corrected:

    “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

    Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It” (1976)

  23. The quote is from the closing passage in Norman MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It,” which was a great book before Robert Redford made it a pretty good movie. It goes,

    Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

    I am haunted by waters.

    It’s a haunting close to a memorable story.

  24. I’ve been saying for years that on the web there is no such thing breaking news.

    “Breaking” implies a publication or broadcast cycle and that some story is worthy of breaking out of that cycle and telling the audience about it now.

    But on the web, life is real time, and so is news. Audiences want to know what is happening now.

    In GateHouse Media, we call it “web-first publishing,” telling the audience what we know when we know it.

    Great examples of this practice can be found at some of our weekly papers in the Mass. area, particular Cambridge and Somerville. Also Rockford, Utica and Norwich are well advanced in this area.

    Sites that I used to be associated with in Ventura (now a two-time ONA GE winner) and Bakersfield are also pursuing strong web-first strategies.

    There are several other newspaper web sites that make frequent, nearly real-time news posts to their home page, most notably the Gannett sites. This fact is somewhat lost because of their damnable, newspaper-centric site designs, but the newsriver is there.

    So your implication that this hasn’t happened yet isn’t, in my view, entirely accurate. I would not say the “newsriver” has not been elevated yet to its ideal implementation, but many news sites are well on the way to getting there.

    That said, I wouldn’t count on achieving newsrivers at all newspapers a year from now.

    The degree of resistance to web-first publishing among many traditional newspaper journalists is stunning. There are numerous cultural challenges to the idea. Just about any time I write on this topic on my blog, I get blasted by newsroom turtles who accuse me of promoting rumor mongering and speculation (“just like blogs”) and undercutting traditional news values.

    There are also logistical challenges and staffing challenges. Many newspaper CMS’s make it hard, as noted above. Often front-end newsroom systems and web CMS’s are not well connected, and because print still represents 85 to 98 percent of the revenue, it’s hard for many editors, even clued-in editors, to not make print a priority, so rather than write first in the web CMS and copy-and-paste to the newsroom system, stories are worked on in the newsroom system where they might languish.

    While every news site that has adopted web-first publishing has benefited in dramatic audience growth, this practice is still a big idea for a lot of journalists to wrap their heads around.

  25. News has been running like rivers into financial market terminals for many years, courtesy of the newswires and integration firms like Tibco, that have brought them together into one feed. This did indeed follow on from the teletype terminals that noisily sat next to my desk when I started as a journalist.

    It’s worth looking more closely at the dynamics of attention within financial markets, because these are real-time transactional environments, where news at least appears to lead to real decisions. But your flow metaphor has a lot of relevance, especially if you reflect on the way Benoit Mandelbrot, who has studied fluid dynamics, analyses and questions the links between news stories and their alleged market impact.

    By the way, financial markets have been “twittering” for a lot longer than the Web 2.0 community, and their latest production has been the global credit crunch.

    The faster a river flows, the greater the risk of drowning.

  26. Folks in the newsroom get it more than one might think. Once past the culture challenge — and that barrier is falling fast — the biggest single headache is inadequate technology, training and geek support to do the dream, so to speak. Some days I feel like I’m back in DOS days… 🙂

  27. Similar to the River Styx: the Dead Sea, with no outlet, and the Sea of Galilee, with the Jordan River running through it. Borrowed from today’s sermon at a church in Charlotte. Pardon the insertion of religion, but the coincidence of analogies was one I couldn’t pass up. Text later at http://www.stjohnsbaptistchurch.org/sermons.php … Rev. Searls, meet Dr. Kremer.

    Also, exciting ideas from Sheila in Providence about rivers and CCI. I hope to read more.

  28. Recently, I have begun an online news publication in my home town, San Marcos, Texas. The name of the publication is newstreamz. We are in the process of loading the web site before a complete launch but the philosophies you write about in your blog is exactly how I envision our publication to work. A dialogue within our community, about our community and among ourselves, not the traditional monologue of a daily newspaper.

    Our particular location puts us at the drip line between Austin and San Antonio news sources so this results in our news coverage being diluted. We have a local newspaper that is not locally owned, but part of a large national syndicate of community newspapers. Their interests lie in making a profit from our community and shuttling their dollars back to the holding company.

    My vision for this publication is to have it be a living, breathing flowing source of information within our community that documents what our community is all about to the people who live here. I have provided each city leader from political to the faith-based and academic to seniors a site to post their comments as often as they wish.

    Thanks for your comments.

  29. […] Doc: “A year from now every newspaper will have a newsriver.” […]

  30. […] Here’s the problem with most news: it isn’t. It’s olds. It happened hours ago, or last night, or yesterday, or last month, or before whenever the deadline was in the news organization’s current “news cycle”. … […]

  31. […] Future to Newspapers: Jump in the river Here’s the problem with most news: it isn’t. It’s olds. It happened hours ago, or last night, or yesterday, or last month, or before whenever the deadline was in the news organization’s current “news cycle”. It’s not now. (tags: web news newspaper journalism work idea future) […]

  32. Well, the New York Times does flow some stories into the feeds and website well before the deadline for print journalism, so it’s not entirely radical (the main problem is that management makes the front page look too much like a print newspaper so this flow is lost…). But I still feel there will always be an inherent daily cycle to the newspapers and not a continuous flow (just like there is a daily cycle to my life…). Still, it is interesting. I get most of my news from the nytimes twitter feed for instance as opposed to the print or website.

    But I think there are a few things worth exploring in this direction. For starters, I wonder why it’s so important to have a single paper for your 24-hour newsriver when you have an entire planet of newspapers you could pick for continuous world coverage. Makes the name “planet” for an aggregator of feeds especially apt, although I wish you could use the name The Daily Planet for it.

    The other problem with the river of news is information overload. Newspapers have often prided ourselves on being the deciders on all the news that’s fit to print (admittedly, this is often arrogant and incorrect), but it is very easy to inundate the readers with too much information as well. Even the nytimes twitter feed (not to be confused with Dave Winer’s nyt feed) clobbers my views in twitterific with too much stuff. Finding that balance between keeping me informed without overwhelming me or letting me live in a tiny narrow uninformed slice of the world is a real challenge, and I’d love to see how that gets worked out.

    Ah well, I’m rambling on here before my coffee and probably said some things that were stupid. And I should note that such opinions and questions here are my own and not that of my employer, lest anybody think we speak monolithically…

  33. […] Think of every story, structurally, as an individual blog or, as Doc Searls might say, as a river. […]

  34. […] Here’s the problem with most news: it isn’t. It’s olds. It happened hours ago, or last night, or yesterday, or last month, or before whenever the deadline was in the news organization’s current “news cycle”. … […]

  35. I certainly agree that this industry is historically molasses-footed and largely reactive to emerging technologies. The prospect of the newsriver bringing up a lot of “sediment” — it could really enliven the mouth(s) into which the river flows.

    Additionally, I’d like to point out Timeliness is only one of the criteria for a newsworthy story — the internet is a dynamic platform could and has the potential to augment all aspects of newsworthiness. Live, living — it is the key.

  36. […] most voters aren’t even paying attention. They just cannot afford to stand still as the river of news*** rushes by […]

  37. […] Searls knocks one out of the part with his latest piece on newspapers, the web, and the future. Having working in the newspaper business — and specifically in the “online” […]

  38. […] Nachrichtenseiten sind nicht mehr Endpunkte, sondern Zwischenstationen. Nachrichtenportale sind keine walled gardens mehr. Die dort publizierten Meldungen können syndiziert, kommentiert, geokodiert, auf Facebook gepostet, gediggt oder geyiggt werden. Sie werden zu einem unter vielen Rohstoffen in digitalen Mashups. Anders ausgedrückt: news is a river. […]

  39. […] Feeds. Rivers of news. Because browsing and search are less efficient. News is what’s happening, not what […]

  40. […] News is a River, not a Lake. -Doc Searls Wie im Blog des beliebten deutschen Spiegels der Online-Medienlandschaft zu lesen ist, wird Rivva eingemottet. […]

  41. […] though most voters aren’t even paying attention. They just cannot afford to stand still as the river of news*** rushes by […]

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