The next paradigm shift: From 'article' to topical 'Wave'
Twenty years ago this month a major earthquake shook the ground under my feet, and I didn't even notice.
OK, that's a lie. It was a sultry, October afternoon and I had just moved to San Francisco two weeks earlier to work as a reporter at KRON-TV. Standing in a parking lot outside Candlestick Park next to my TV live truck, I was almost knocked over by a 7.1 temblor. It set off car alarms, kicked up a giant cloud of dust on a nearby hill, and prompted the sellout World Series crowd in the stadium ahead of me to let out a whooping roar that seemed to say, "Mother Earth -- Bring it on!"
What I didn't notice is this: That moment would be the high water mark of my reporting career. A more significant earthquake was starting to shake in Silicon Valley, as the revolutionary tools that will change journalism forever were just being conceived. While I reported my story to a passive audience, these engineers were building products and platforms that have made the 'story' almost irrelevant to the journalism of the future.
Jeff Jarvis and others have already documented the fact that the 'story' is no longer the endpoint in the journalistic process, as it used to be. Stories are just points in a continuum that now includes instant feedback, commentary, mashing up of new information, updates, rebuttals and the like. It's outdated almost as fast as it's published. That's why traffic to it lives and dies on the Web in a matter of hours.
Now we're seeing the rise of the topical page as the atomic unit of content. Journalists will no longer write stories, persay. They're going to write topics, which will have story-like elements, but won't look anything like the articles they focus on today.
Consider these data points:
- Smart news organizations are building topics pages. These are first-iteration attempts and are crude. They just aggregate outdated articles. But that will change as the tools and presentation mature.
- When you search for news, how often does Wikipedia come up at or near the top of your search? I thought so. That's because it's not fixed in time, like an article is. It chages with the story. It's more evergreen, updated, structured differently and therefore much more relevant.
- Smarter news outlets are starting to 'write' topics, instead of articles. Take Salon. Click on the latest headline about the bank bailouts, for instance, and you get this. Richard Gingras, the new CEO of Salon, said at the UC Berkeley/Google Media Tech summit earlier this month: "You have to rethink the architecture of your content. The core of the matrix used to be the publication. Now the core is the story, and it should be the topic page."
- The deep-pockets founder of the soon-to-launch Texas Tribune echoed Gingras at that same conference. Speaking from a business perspective, John Thornton said, "The article as the unit means the article must be profitable. The unbundling of content means every article must be profitable. Content accretes over time, whereas articles are fly-by-nite. Topics pages are the key."
- Google launched 'Wave.' Much has been written about the tool, so I won't plow tilled ground, but at its core, it allows a group to collaboratively write, edit, assemble, update and publish a document in real time. It's a wiki on steroids. That document (or 'Wave') is persistent, discoverable, embeddable, sharable and updateable. It turns a story into a topic. It is the tool journalists will use in the near future to write. Shut down that blank Word doc and open up a Wave!
This isn't really all that new a thought. I was dismayed to realize I'd noted the phenomenon a year ago on this blog, after reading one of Jarvis' incisive posts. But one year since then and we're seeing the practical effects of this earthquake.
This time Mother Earth, I promise, I feel the shaking underfoot.