Jay Rosen has observed that when stories appear on the web, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be accompanied by a detailed backgrounder that allows a new reader to catch up. That this isn’t a tradition in web journalism is a vestige of print journalism. It’s not possible to repeat all the background every time in print as it is in electronic media.
This is especially important for complex stories. Jay cites the Giant Pool of Money podcast by by This American Life that explains the financial crisis of 2008. It’s a wonderful example, and it should be linked into every news story on the subject.
Of course Jay is right, but I realized that it’s not just the big complex stories that effect everyone that need this treatment. The small personal stories need backgrounders too.
Over the weekend I took a train trip from San Francisco to Denver. I documented it many ways — on Twitter, with a set of pictures on Flickr, and blog posts on a variety of sites. With each tweet I’d get a flurry of questions asking why I was in Utah or Colorado. Or suggesting that I visit a place that I passed a day before. After the train trip, a good friend didn’t know that I had taken it.
All this suggests that “Dave Winer” is a story that needs a backgrounder. There ought to be one place where you can catch up on me. It should be very easy to locate from any individual bit of news I post.
Similarly, each thread in my life should stand as a separate object, and also be easy to find. So my train trip page would gather all information about the trip.
The news system needs to not only reboot for the stories we’ve always covered, but needs to work equally well for the stories we cover now that we didn’t in the past.
Update: I’ve written on this topic many times over many years, but I’m not going to try to assemble a backgrounder of those pieces, yet it could be interesting to read what they say.
Update: This is an example of a new form for Rebooting The News which we discussed in the last few minutes of #33. I’m going to write essays, and I hope from time to time Jay does as well, and the invitation extends to our readers. Please listen to the podcast to get an idea of what’s going on.