Deeper News

The Tessereact, a structure that allows travel in time through a deep library, from the movie “Interstellar.”

Let’s say you’re a public official. Or an engineer. Or a journalist researching a matter of importance, such as a new reservoir or a zoning change. What do you need?

In a word, facts. This should go without saying, but it bears saying because lots of facts are hard to find. They get lost. They decay. Worse, in their absence you get hearsay. Conjecture. Gossip. Mis and Dis information. Facts can also get distorted or excluded when they don’t fit a story. This is both a feature and a bug of storytelling. I reviewed this problem in Stories vs. Facts.

So how do we keep facts from decaying? How do we make them useful and accurate when future decisions require them?

Two ways.

One is by treating news as history. You do this by flowing news into well0-curated archives that remain accessible for the duration.

The other is to gather and produce facts that don’t make news but might someday—and flow those into curated archives as well.

In both cases, we are talking about facts that decision-makers may need to do their work, whether or not their work produces news.

So let’s start with history.

Timothy Snyder defines history as “what’s possible.” In his Yale lectures on The Making of Modern Ukraine, he also says history is discontinuity. By that, he means we give the most significance to moments of change, to times of transition. Elections. Wars. Disasters. Championships. And we tend to ignore what’s not making news in the meantime. We also tend to ignore the kind of news that just burbles along, not sounding especially historical, but is interesting to readers, watchers, and listeners—and might be relevant again. This is most of what gets reported by the obsessives who still produce local news. But how much of that stuff gets saved? And where?

Here in Bloomington, Indiana, the big industries for more than a century were limestone, furniture, and radio and television manufacture. Specifically,

  1. The limestone industry is still large and likely to stay that way until demand for premium limestone goes away (my guess is a few centuries from now).
  2. The furniture industry came and went in about seven decades, but at its peak Showers Brothers Furniture produced a lion’s share of the affordable furniture sold in the U.S.
  3. In the Forties and Fifties, so many radios and TVs were made here that Bloominngton for a time called itself “the color TV capitol of the world.”

If you haven’t seen Breaking Away yet, please do. Besides being one of the greatest coming-of-age stories ever told, it’s an excellent look at Bloomington’s small-town/big university charms, plus its limestone industry and the people who worked in it, back when the quarries and the cutting plants were still right in town. (They’re still around, but out amidst the farmlands.)

In Showers Brothers Furniture Company: The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City and a University (Quarry Books, 2012), Carol Krause gives a sense of how huge a business Showers Brothers was at the time:

Shipments averaged seventy rail carloads per month. The sawmill daily cut 25,000 feet of lumber at that time and secured its lumber by purchasing large tracts of land and then logging them. This is undoubtedly part of the reason that so much of the land around Monroe and surrounding counties had been completely clear-cut early by the  twentieth century.” (p. 121)

Her source for that was the April 26, 1904 issue of Bloomington Courier, then one of two papers competing to serve a town of about seven thousand people. But countless other bits of history are forever gone. In her notes about sources, Krause writes,

The business records of the Showets company have unfortunately been lost, and only a handful of the annual furniture catalogs survive, despite decades of publication. We no longer have the training materials that the company distributed to its salesme, and we have virtually no remaining business correspondence. As for family papers, we possess only the handwritten memoir of James Showers, the spiritual daybook of his mother, Elizabeth, and a small handful of family photographs. There is also no comprehensive Bomington history that sums up the major events or characters in the company’s history. Owing to the lack of records, this work relies largely upon accounts published in newspapers of the period. this record is fragmentary during the early years and we cannot consider any of it fully accurate or complete, because of the political partiality of the newspaper publishers. Nevertheless, newppaper records are the single largest remaining source of information available about the Showers family and its company, so this book reflects countless hours spent at the microfilm machines at the public library, perusing the headlines of bygone times. (p. xv)

Bloomington is fortunate to have an unusually thick collection of factual resources in the Monroe County library system and history center. Without those, Carol Krause probably wouldn’t have written her book at all. (Alas, she passed in 2014. Here is a Herald-Times obituary.)

The best sources I’ve found for Bloomington’s history as a broadcasting town are Bloomingpedia and Wikipedia. From the former:

In 1940 RCA moved a major manufacturing plant from Camden, NJ to Bloomington. The 1.5 million square foot RCA plant, although originally planned to build radios, was converted to televisions when that technology became viable, and when the first television came off the line on September 61949, “TV Day” was declared in Bloomington. The plant was located on south Rogers Street, and produced more than 65 million televisions over the next 50 years. The factory employed over 8,000 workers at its peak, roughly 2% of the entire Bloomington workforce, and also provided many jobs for industries servicing the plant. Sarkes Tarzian, Inc. was among these. For a while, Bloomington called itself the “Color Television Capital of the World”.

Labor unrest began to swirl in the 1960’s. In 1964 5000 workers walked off the job over the protest of both management and union leaders. After a week, a new contract was approved and the workers returned to the assembly lines; but in October of 1966 the workers stuck again, claiming the company was in violation of the union contract, and several violent scuffles were reported. In 1967 a third, rather disorganized strike also took place.

In 1968, over 2000 people were laid off; mostly the young female workers that were considered to be most skilled at the delicate work of assembling televisions on the line.

RCA was bought by General Electric in 1986, then immediately sold to the French company Thomson SA, and rumors of the plant closing immediately began. On April 11998, the last television rolled off the line and Thomson moved the plant to Juarez, Mexico, where RCA had had a small plant as early as 1968.

And from Wikipedia:

The Sarkes Tarzian company was an important manufacturer of radio and television equipment, television tuners, and components. Its FM radio receivers helped to popularize the broadcast medium. Sarkes Tarzian manufactured studio color TV cameras in the mid-1960s.[16] The manufacturing operations were spun off in the 1970s and today the company still exists as a broadcaster, owning several television and radio stations. Gray Television has owned a partial stake in Sarkes Tarzian, Inc., since the early 2000s.

Those are all great sources, but the holes are bigger than the hills.

We also have a new situation on our hands, now that we are completing what Jeff Jarvis calls The Gutenberg Parenthesis: the age of print. How do we best accumulate and curate useful facts in our still-new digital age?

Back in 2001, my son Allen astutely noted that the World Wide Web was splitting between what he called the Static Web and the Live Web. Here is what I wrote about the former in the October 2005 edition of Linux Journal:

There’s a split in the Web. It’s been there from the beginning, like an elm grown from a seed that carried the promise of a trunk that forks twenty feet up toward the sky.

The main trunk is the static Web. We understand and describe the static Web in terms of real estate. It has “sites” with “addresses” and “locations” in “domains” we “develop” with the help of “architects”, “designers” and “builders”. Like homes and office buildings, our sites have “visitors” unless, of course, they are “under construction”.

One layer down, we describe the Net in terms of shipping. “Transport” protocols govern the “routing” of “packets” between end points where unpacked data resides in “storage”. Back when we still spoke of the Net as an “information highway”, we used “information” to label the goods we stored on our hard drives and Web sites. Today “information” has become passé. Instead we call it “content”.

Publishers, broadcasters and educators are now all in the business of “delivering content”. Many Web sites are now organized by “content management systems”.

The word content connotes substance. It’s a material that can be made, shaped, bought, sold, shipped, stored and combined with other material. “Content” is less human than “information” and less technical than “data”, and more handy than either. Like “solution” or the blank tiles in Scrabble, you can use it anywhere, though it adds no other value.

I’ve often written about the problems that arise when we reduce human expression to cargo, but that’s not where I’m going this time. Instead I’m making the simple point that large portions of the Web are either static or conveniently understood in static terms that reduce everything within it to a form that is easily managed, easily searched, easily understood: sitestransportcontent.

At the time I thought—we all thought—that the Live Web was blogs. But then social media came along, mostly in the forms of Twitter and Facebook. After Technorati (which I had a hand in creating) began to index the Live Web of RSS feeds, Google also began to index the whole Web in real time, and soon began to supply the world with live information such as traffic densities on maps in apps running on hand-held phones connected to the Internet full time.

As I shared in Deep News., Dave Askins of the B Square Bulletin would like us to create a “digital file repository”—” a place where anyone—journalists, public officials, and residents of all stripes—can upload digital files, so that others can have access to those files now and until the end of time. It can also serve as a backup for files that the city has made public on its website, but could remove at any time.”

Dave has also added Monroe County (including Bloomington) to LocalWiki, which is Wikipedia’s place for places to have their own wikis, including digital file repositories. I’ve contributed a local media section.

To put all this in perspective, read CNET Deletes Thousands of Old Articles to Game Google Search, subtitled, “Google says deleting old pages to bamboozle Search is ‘not a thing!’ as CNET erases its history.” Here’s the money graf:

“Removing content from our site is not a decision we take lightly. Our teams analyze many data points to determine whether there are pages on CNET that are not currently serving a meaningful audience. This is an industry-wide best practice for large sites like ours that are primarily driven by SEO traffic,” said Taylor Canada, CNET’s senior director of marketing and communications. “In an ideal world, we would leave all of our content on our site in perpetuity. Unfortunately, we are penalized by the modern internet for leaving all previously published content live on our site.”

This is the exact opposite of deep news. It’s about as shallow as can be.

Not that Google is much deeper. I have a number of pages here that contain a unique word—kind of an Easter egg—that Google used to find if I searched for it. Now Google doesn’t. Why? whatever the reason, it is clear that Google is optimized for now rather than then.

So we need to start creating deep and archival ways that serve meaning across time.

I have a lot more to say about this, but want to get what I have so far up on the blog, where others can help improve the post. Meanwhile a bonus link:

The Incredible Story Of Marion Stokes, Who Single-Handedly Taped 35 Years Of TV News


6 responses to “Deeper News”

  1. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned about history is that what ends up being really useful to researchers isn’t the epic, official publications of government, industry and powerful people, but the boring daily correspondence of individuals. personal journals, letters home from soldiers, accounting ledgers, church group cookbooks, self-published family histories, dates and names written in family bibles.

    Digital makes those things even more ephemeral. I wouldn’t be half surprised if in 100 years the amount of historical footprint of FTX won’t be similar to Showers Furniture. A smattering of articles in digital archives that survive that long, some government documents about bankruptcy discharge and criminal trials.

    1. Good points. My wife takes an even more pessimistic view of the future than you do. She thinks the early digital age will be one big blank. In fact, it was she who inspired Will our digital age leave a fossil record?

    2. Indeed. I wondered out loud on that in Will our digital lives leave a fossil record? I hate to say that the way to bet is no. An excerpt: I see something analogous to Glacierball Earth happening right now, right here, across our new worldwide digital sphere. A snowstorm of bits is falling on the virtual surface of our virtual sphere, which itself is made of bits even more provisional and temporary than the glaciers that once covered the physical Earth. Nearly all of this digital storm, vivid and present at every moment, is doomed to vanish because it lacks even a glacier’s talent for accumulation.

  2. Maybe a decade ago Indiana University undertook to create archives of some notable online content, but if memory serves me the project envisioned freezing the content in un-weblike ways. I wonder if that’s where the project came to rest?

    1. Thanks, Ken. If you have any clues about that, please send them along. I’d love to dig into it.

  3. […] larger idea: one that satisfies the requirements I’ve been outlining in posts about deep (and deeper), wide, and whole news, plus a community’s (and journalism’s) need for facts and not […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *