On the need for editors

Published 2010-08-06

I'll never be as eloquent as some when it comes to espousing the need for filters, editors and context in today's news media -- Jay Rosen has THE definitive post on the subject -- but having been a grinder at small papers for much of my professional career, I've explained to my fair share of writers that any story that doesn't have a nut graf by the fourth paragraph is doing a disservice to the reader. 

I've also read my fair share of stories that lacked any context that would allow me to make an informed decision on the topic. So that gives me the confidence to bang this post out.

The past month has brought three very interesting content-delivery platforms to Apple's iPad, and while the quality of their user-end functionality can't be denied, neither can the fact that now -- more than ever -- there is a need for editors in this world to help make sense of the information.

Let's start with the platforms: Flipboard, ApolloNews and YourVersion.

All three vary the riff on a feed reader that scrapes content or grabs RSS feeds from various websites, blogs and social networks, but juices things up with the ability to offer the user a choice in the types of content you wish to see and then remember those topics for later.

But something is missing. It's the same thing that I find is missing from traditional RSS readers like Reeder or Mobile RSS on the iPad: An Authoritative voice to pull varying threads, ideas and opinions around the same topic into one cohesive thread.

Let's use Techmeme as an example of this.

Techmeme is the "River of News" for those who want the "River of News" for technology subjects. And while they cater to an authority on all issues and topics tech, something is lacking. Something that these newer iPad platforms have shone a light on.

I can't find an authoritative thread.

Go back a couple weeks when the majors -- Tech Crunch, Gizmodo, Endgadget, Read Write Web and others -- were busy dissecting Steve Jobs' thoughts on iPhone 4 attenuation.

My feed reader was packed with story after story from the above mentioned sites, and Techmeme picked up each one and sent it down the river. And each one said basically the same thing. And a check of Twitter found the same narrative again and again, retweeted from those sites.

While that's a boon for folks interesting in the topic -- or any tidbit of information -- the majority of us already suffer from information overload and the lack of an internal filter to not only weed out fact from opinion, or vice-versa, but would probably rather sit in front of a gadget that try to get to the bottom of a topic.

Put another way: Tech Crunch, Gizmodo, Endgadget, Read Write Web have built themselves as an authoritative source on the subject of tech, yet all offer their homegrown take on the topic. What I find lacking is a place that easily summarizes  those takes, fills in holes and brings a big picture view to an issue that often has thousands of moving parts.

In his memo this month to Gawker employees, Nick Denton said explanatory writing led to the "breakout story" of July for his company: Kevin Purdy's story about the effects of caffeine on the brain on Lifehacker.

Writes Denton:

And the reader interest in the piece highlights -- do we really need a reminder? -- the draw of the explanation. There's too much news on the web; and way too little explanation.

Enter the editor.

Traditional J-School would tell you that an editor is a filter. That filter not only operates to give an audience the information that want, but to deem something as credible or not credible, finished or unfinished or fact and opinion.

That definition works well for an 150,000 circulation newspaper or a TV station in a Top 100 market. It doesn't work as well when considered in the context of the Social Web, the Internet of Things -- or whatever other moniker is out there -- in this day of trickle-down or trickle-up journalism.

What I advocate for is a layer between scrape and publish, a layer that takes into account what the memes and issues of the day are, hunts down the credible sources and compiles a report that not only summarizes the issue but highlights key takes handed down by blogs, news sites, mainstream media and the social web.

Think of it as wikipedia meets Google's Living Stories.

Back in early July, Fark's founder Drew Curtis put it like this:

"The real power in social media happens when that one person in a million comes up with an awesome idea, and those who can do so kick it to the front of the line. Speeding up this process is the next great advance in social media. Some will probably call this Web 3.0.

I call it editing."

What seems to be the logical progression of things when it comes to content is there will be a run on individuals who can spot trends and threads that connect topics and then weave together an authoritative narrative that offers several perspectives.

Imagine a twitter/rss/blog aggregator who determines what is credible and adds context. I think the appropriate job title would be editor.

We've been through the bloggers. We've been through the aggregators. We've been through blog networks. We're in the middle of exciting platform creation. I don't think the idea of an edited, authoritative stream is the end result, but it seems like a next step.

There is so much information out there, and while it can be filtered through all kinds of digital means, a subjective or objective human-approach could yield some pretty interesting results.

That is until a computer is taught to do it.

Oh wait. We have Calais. Never mind.