I am going to make one point in this post and get out. Have you ever said to someone: “keep me informed?”
Of course you have. And what did you mean when you said that? You probably meant: let me know when something important happens.
Boss: Okay, keep me informed.
Employee: Will do. You’ll have three updates a day.
Boss: That’s not what I asked for…
Employee: Sorry, I could put it all into one report at the end of the day. Does that work?
Boss: No. When something big happens I may need ten updates that day. At other times: none. Can you do that?
Employee: I think so. Let me make sure I understand…
These are two different perspectives on information provision, which is the business that journalists claim to be in. These views are in tension. The writer of the reports finds it easier to send updates on some regular schedule because that organizes the act of production. The employee can predict when the boss wants the product (“…one report at the end of the day?”) and create a work routine for gathering and packaging information around that.
The boss defines “product” in a different way. It’s not a stream of reports arriving at regular intervals but the steady state of being kept well informed. Reasonable from the user’s point of view, this demand plays havoc with the producer’s schedule and quest for efficiency. Efficiency for the user is: don’t bother me with an update when there’s nothing new for me to know. That’s not only irregular — and disruptive — for the employee but riskier, too. Everything depends on good judgment. The “product” is essentially that.
Reader: I’m feeling overwhelmed. Help me understand this story!
Reporter: Here’s the link to my archive. It’s all in there.
Reader: That’s not really what I need…
Reporter: We have a topic page for this story. Does that work?
Nobody has that conversation, of course. And it’s true that the need for timelines and explainers (“context!”) has finally penetrated into quality newsrooms. Good journalists know they should be doing that. Meanwhile, start-ups like Circa (tag line: Save Time. Stay Informed.) try to deliver “push” updates only when there’s something important for me to know, which is smart. And I will concede the point that some of you are silently making in your head: that for some users sometimes a package of updates at regular intervals is exactly what they want.
And yet… What I don’t think we appreciate is the extent to which the news system we have is still organized around definitions of “product” and “efficiency” that assume supply side supremacy, meaning: a media universe in which we took what companies offered at the regular intervals they offered it, and a news-o-sphere in which the updates keep coming, whether or not they improve our understanding.
We don’t have a news system that keeps us informed and helps us grasp the stories we care deeply about. We have one that floods us with reports on a schedule that makes sense for the manufacturers of news. Individual journalists are aware of this problem, but they are working within a system that is not set up to address it. There’s been a power shift in media. We don’t watch TV anymore when the networks decide to put their shows on. The users are more like the boss in my “keep me informed” parable. But in news this shift has been incompletely carried through.
So why am I telling you now? Because it helps if you want to understand why Ezra Klein left the Washington Post for his new partner, Vox Media. Look at these phrases from his announcement tour. They are all signaling the same thing: a shift from supply side logic in the production of news to demand-side: Keep me informed. Help me understand this. Don’t give me updates when you have them, but when I need them to stay on top of things. Missing background often prevents me from understanding the news; solve that problem for me and I will rely on you for my information. Here’s Klein:
New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic.
We are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.
The news business, however, is just a subset of the informing-our-audience business — and that’s the business we aim to be in.
The product is not “news” but understanding and that steady state of feeling well informed. The news system that today’s journalists inherited is simply not organized that way. And so it’s no surprise to me that Ezra Klein had to leave the Washington Post to find backers who understood what he wanted to do.