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Creative Journalism

Over at his Reuters blog Felix Salmon points to today’s New York Times story on a waiver AIG signed giving up its right to sue the banks it paid off. While the story is interesting in and of itself, for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on the source materials (the actual waiver), which the Times posted in a special browsing interface.

New York Times AIG document viewer

Funny enough just two weeks earlier Salmon had written a piece calling the paper out for not posting this sort of stuff, so it’s a nice about face. But it also is a really interesting way to tell a story differently. As I see it most of what journalists are doing these days is not a lot different that what they were doing when we weren’t all staring at screens for eight hours a day. Of course there are exceptions, whether it’s liveblogging Wimbledon or, well, I can’t really think of another example right this minute but I’m sure there are more. Journalism, for better or worse, is still mostly the same journalism it always was and we still engage with publications in the same sort of ways (albeit with more lists and slideshows now that they’re on the web).

Source materials seems like an incredibly interesting and untapped area of innovation for news organizations. While I understand that posting this sort of stuff is often out of the question, it can’t always be and I have to believe there’s much fun to be had in telling stories through the documents collected instead of just the paragraphs that boil them all down. I guess some might see this as diminishing the role of the journalist, who has traditionally been tasked with finding the story, I’m not sure I agree. I dont think that there’s any less of a need to find the story in a sea of documents, I just think this is a different (and hopefully more compelling) way to tell it.

In a lot of ways it feels like I’m talking about media invention, which Robin Sloan was kind enough to define last week:

Fun­da­men­tally, I think, a media inven­tor is some­one who isn’t sat­is­fied with the suite of for­mats that have been handed down to him by his cul­ture (and econ­omy). Novel, novella, short story; album, EP, sin­gle; RPG, RTS, FPS–a media inven­tor doesn’t like those choices. It turns out a media inven­tor feels com­pelled to make the con­tent and the container.

I think maybe we’ve all become a little too comfortable with our CMSes (whether they be some big enterprise job or WordPress or even Tumblr and Twitter). While these do an amazing job getting content out into the world, they also dictate how we present that content. Most CMSes want words, in paragraphs, in stories. Even Tumblr, for it’s different approach, now just spawns content that can be scooped up and turned into a 150-page book with pictures.

So as not to end on a down note, though, the whole point of writing this is that I’m pretty excited with the stuff the New York Times is trying in this realm. They’re playing with ways to tell stories and lots of others are as well (though most of them are outside the big news organizations). Even MSNBC’s new page design seems like a step in a new direction. So please don’t take this as some sort of whine about the state of things, but rather as excitement for what’s coming.

Update (6/30/10): I should have mentioned the Guardian is doing some really cool stuff as well.

June 30, 2010

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