Friday, February 13, 2009

Context Is King. Long Live the King! Part 2

To be clear, my passion is not newspapers. My mission, as I take on my new role in life as a Cranky Geezer, is to fix high school education. Since context and focus are the missing links in high school education, both fascinate me.

The purpose of a newspaper from the business point of view is to make money. An interesting ish problem. The purpose of journalism from civil society's point of view is to "inform, educate, and entertain." That's a very interesting problem because if you rephrase it " to educate and make it fun for the reader," that's exactly what has to be fixed in high school education.

This morning still one more interesting discussion started over at One theme of the discussion over there focuses on "contextualizing" the news. I said, (slightly edited here)
Consider Law and Order:

The first quarter is the event and introducing all the players.

The 2nd quarter is about getting a plausible theory to connect events and players.

The third quarter is about transforming the theory into a provable story.

The fourth quarter is where two contradictory stories go head to head and Truth is determined by the jury or the deal.

Truth is so satisfying. It's why people love baseball.

The point I'm trying to make is that to put ongoing events in context, a working theory has to exist first. We don't have the time of the historians. We have to contextualize what happened yesterday and often today. Here's how I think it can be done.

Start with a working theory. In fact a working theory and a common sense story always exists. The 2 common stories for "growth" is "bad rich people are screwing good poor people". or "rich smart people are selfishly worried about quality of life and ignoring poorer people's need for jobs." It's not very hard to fit the events of any place at almost any time into that story. It's an easy story to tell and guaranteed to get agreement, especially from the most active of your readers.

If it were me, the place I would start , not for publishing but for the journo, is the theory about growth and development in general. The theory comes from some really smart people who have looked at the problem for long time. IMHO, The smartest theory about growth and development is by Jane Jacobs, especially "Cities and the Wealth of Nations".

So, I would get everyone on the team to read the book. Have a couple of discussions to get her theory of the "crime" clear. Get a consensus on the working theory. It'sort of like the detectives in the first quarter of L&W; the white board, the sargeant sending them out to interview X.

Whoever has the job title or the most articulated vision acts as general editor/chief detective. Not to say that everyone has to agree. But everyone has to have an articulated view of how development works, in general. Then editorial meetings can be really neat arguments about does this event support or negate the working theory of the event.

Then use the wiki, not for community involvement, but as a place to collect evidence, discuss the evidence with the team, then publish a story when it's ready. Meanwhile, keep covering events until you have something useful to say.

When you have a story worth telling or when an event needs whatever your working theory produces at that moment, publish it in Print and on Web. When you're covering events, forget about context. Just the facts. Use those to fill the news hole, either on the web or if there is a regular print pub, use that to fill the news hole as necessary.

To be clear, you don't publish the theory. You only publish those parts of the story that is supported by evidence.

Anyway, the real context of the story is created by the interaction of your readers with your words and pictures. That's the really hard part, IMHO.

Just another question to get on someone's radar.
If the purpose of journalism is similar to what's missing in High School education, would it make sense to focus on fixing high school education, instead of merely reporting on it? I hear there are tons of money floating around for whoever can fix education. Plus textbooks are very expensive and everyone agrees they are broken.Consider focused newsprint product that supply context. That might help fix the business problem and the civil society problem with same investment.

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