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July 6, 2009

News, process, webs and networks

Terry Heaton has yet another excellent entry in his continuing series on the media r/evolution. This one is on the news as a process — never done, never entirely right.

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about the news as a network. I’ve been finding that the network view of institutions is helpful because it lets you think about the ways in which the odd properties of The Network, and especially the Web, may be getting applied to those institutions — how those properties fit and don’t fit, and what that means for how those institutions can and should interact with the Net. In fact, at the moment I’m thinking about that as the organizing principle of a talk I’m giving at the Open Gov Innovations conference in a couple of weeks.

Terry’s process view of the news is helpful because it reminds us that a news story is messily spread over time, with many hands touching, and thus contradicts the ol’ writing-boom-published timeline of yore. Nah, the news is always in process. Dave Winer’s river of news is another useful metaphor, capturing the flow of news that we care about.

Metaphors are not exclusionary, so I also like the network idea. The river of news as it flows past us is part of a continuing process, which has shape and some persistence because it is a network. And I think the news is a network pretty much fractally: A hyperlinked news story is embedded in a network of links. Stories are slices through complex webs of ideas, with connections through the river of time and the semantic space of causality and influence. A collection of stories (what we used to call a “newspaper” or a “nightly news show”) is a web of related pieces — related by chronology but also by cross-commentary and references. Reporters rely on networks of people. Readers read within networks of people and ideas. The events themselves that the news “covers” are so deeply enmeshed in networks of history and culture that the very notion of a “story” is now suspect.

There are at least three problems with networks of news. 1. Networks can be lazy; they are so sprawling and full of goodies that there’s some type of focused work they may not get around to. 2. Networks lower the barriers to social gravity, so that we can be irresistibly attracted to people who are like us. (Ok, so opposite magnetic poles attract, and thus my metaphor has failed. Damn!) 3. We know how to turn hard objects into money, whereas it’s way harder to figure out how to make networks of news economically sustainable.

But the networking of news feels to many of us like the news assuming a more natural, authentic shape, freed from the rectangle of paper into which it has been force fitted for so long.

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