Small inverted pyramids, loosely joined

Matthew Ingram picks up the great conversation sparked by Jeff Jarvis the other day, revisiting the idea that the article, as traditionally constructed in newspaper, magazines and, yep, blogs, has probably outlived its usefulness in that form.

Jarvis argues that the simplest solution is to start thinking about reporting as being composed of multiple objects:

A story can be made up of many assets. Once separated, the storyteller has the opportunity to present — and the reader to take — many paths through them. The expert in a story can go straight to what’s new and then leave, saving time having to look for the fresh nuggets among all all the space-filler that used to make up an article. The novice can start with the background, then read what’s new, then delve into the characters and timelines, then explore examples and arguments. The article becomes sets of assets and paths.

…So imagine that what used to be an article becomes a set of assets — all those I listed above: what’s new, background, timeline, players, etc. — and that the journalist can create distinct paths among them: one for the novice, one for the expert, another for the professsional, another for the policymaker.

Of course, those assets themselves can be constantly updated as needed. And, again, they need not all be created and maintained by a single source. So if Wikipedia has a great backgrounder, why recreate it? Link to it. (Remember: Do what you do best and link to the rest.)

This approach feels to me right, albeit one where writers and editors have to start thinking very differently about how reporting is done and how it is presented. In many ways, it’s curation at the micro-level, deciding which chunks exist, which need creating and how to assemble the assets best for the needs of users coming to the information with wildly varying needs, expectations, experience and devices on which they’ll interact with the information.

Ingram runs the ball even further down the field:

You can see the kind of news ecosystem Jarvis envisions developing already in a way, with Twitter and blogs or aggregators becoming the place where the news breaks, followed by more information on blogs or newspaper sites — along with photos and mashups and related ephemera on sites like BuzzFeed or Reddit (which has also taken on much of the Q&A function, and some of the fact-checking one as well). This is an illustration of what Jarvis and others have called “news as a process,” and also an example of author and Harvard researcher David Weinberger’s description of the web as “small pieces, loosely joined.”

Some of these connections are already created with plain old hyperlinks, of course, although not everyone uses them (or even likes them, if you listen to critics like Nick Carr). Is there a way to make those kinds of connections easier? Blogging pioneer and programmer Dave Winer thinks there is — in a recent post, he described a way to connect different types of documents such as comments together, a kind of peer-to-peer protocol for a document-based web.

It’s a fascinating conversation, perfectly apt for this very time and place, especially as we wrestle with how best to serve users who, increasingly, are experiencing news through phones and tablets.