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A note on following the news

The lifetime of a news story (US politics bias):

  1. Inception: Coverage here should focus on background, on giving the reader the information that they need to initial position themselves on the issue, and any implications that are clear from the outset. There is room here for several lengthy articles framing the issue from different perspectives, providing context (at least some of it hopefully stripped of biases), identifying the players and the interested parties.
  2. Development: Here we have the bulk of the current coverage. Almost anything labeled ‘breaking news’ is going to fall into this category. Reversals, defections, politicking, compromises, & etc.. I don’t think that this was the case twenty years ago. Clearly, a lot of the bloat has been added to fit the requirements of the so-called 24 hour news cycle, and also post requirements for professional bloggers. In some ways, it’s good, since you’re able, if say following an expert blogger like Ezra Klein, to follow an issue in minute detail, more or less as it happens (give or take a day). The downside is that the time-scales at which American politics works are mostly too long for this sort of as-it-happens coverage. It’s numbing and exhausting, both for the reader and, I imagine, the writer. I imagine that it needs to be done and that for most large issues, this sort of from-the-ground documentation will be invaluable for historians.
  3. Resolution: Once the dust has settled, there’s a need for articles to summarize the history of the issue, explain the dynamics of the battle and who the key players turned out to be. Again, several in-depth articles are good thing here, as we need the perspectives of both the winners and the losers. For those who’re activist inclined, there will always exist places to take more action, and these should be detailed. For wonks, there will be weaknesses, and these will need some analysis so that people can think about how best to shore them up.

Mostly I’m writing this because I find it rough to keep up with current events. I do an OK job, and like to think that I’m better informed than most on the issues of the day. That said, the constant need for content is slowly wearing me down, because I need to at least glance at it to dismiss it. So I end up looking at something like 60 news items a day, at least 20 of them fairly substantive. I’m forever behind, and not having internet on the weekends is really giving me trouble on Mondays. Although that will eventually be remedied, I still have better things to do with my weekends than keeping up with the internet. It’s clear, of course, that blogs and RSS aren’t the answer, in the long run, but I am struggling to come up with something, as a software person, that makes the making-news process both easy to follow and easy to understand.

The app that I am thinking of works something like this (capitalized words define software objects that have a visible expression in the system): At any one time, there are some number of Issues open. Each issue has one or more Moderators, who may or may not be assigned a Perspective. An Issue is a monolithic collection of text and links (text is quotes and prose from the Moderator). A User has a personal feed, and subscribes to Issues individually on the site (kind of like following someone on twitter). Also included in their feed are announcements about new Issues being opened and their Moderators, and also Issues that they don’t follow which have had major changes in the last week. When an issue is updated, people who follow it get an update, which contains the sections that were updated and some context (may need to be some clever software here). Simple edits like typo corrections wouldn’t update peoples feeds, but there would be a strict size limit to this sort of thing, erring on the side of annoying the user in the pursuit of transparency. All Issues would have a full history available at any time. You could choose daily or weekly summaries, but my thoughts here are admittedly unclear. There would have to be a way for the Moderator to set the urgency of the change (horse-race vs. substantive development? How do you draw the line there?).

Of course, there’s only so much one can do with software in the pursuit of clarity and concision of accurate coverage. Eventually, some coverage norms would need to be developed that make the form easier to follow and understand. I am not sure what these would be. Nor do I understand the role that comments would play in a system like this (I’m generally unhappy with comments as they stand now, but that’s another post). Something to think about in the future.

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