Media: Reducing Story Production Waste

In trying to change news to match the new realities of the Interwebs, media professionals are still somewhat stuck in old ways of doing things. One is to fail to address the massive waste in news production–or at least parts of it.

So what potential waste is there? Well, these are the obvious ones:

  • Gathering: Reporters/trips/stories per trip/matching other outlets
  • Editing: The number of people who look at a story before it is published/time a story takes to work through the system

I’m more interested, however, in the amount of waste from material generated. Think of it like this:

Inputs:

  • Story idea
  • Logistics (travel/communications/reporting tools)
  • Interviews, multimedia and other material generated

Outputs:

  • Story
  • Photo
  • ?Video

Wastage:

  • All content not used in story (some may be reused, eg photos, sidebars but rarely)
  • All content used that’s not reused/repurposed.

This seems to me to be extremely wasteful in an industry in so much pain. Any other industry wouldn’t just look to pare back on factors of production but to also minimize the waste generated.

Any journalist will know just how much we’re talking about. Say you interview five people for a story. Even a stock market report is going to involve five interviews of at least five minutes. At about 150 words a minute that’s nearly 4,000 words. The stock market report itself is going to be about 500 words, maybe 600. That’s a 3,600 words–say 2,500, allowing for the reporter’s questions, and some backchat–gone to waste. For 500 words produced we had to throw out 2,000.

Yes, I know it’s not a very scientific way of doing things, but you get my point. Most journalists only write down the quotes they need for the story, and many will delete the notes they’ve taken if they’re typing them on the screen in the same document they’re writing the story on. So all that material is wasted.

A good reporter will keep the good stuff, even if it’s not used in the story, and will be able to find it again. But I don’t know of any editorial system that helps them do that–say, by tagging or indexing the material–let alone to make that available to other reporters on the same beat.

This is where I think media needs to change most. It needs to assume that all material gathered by journalists, through interviews, research, even browsing, is potentially content. It needs to help journalists organise this material for research, but, more importantly to generate new content from.

Take this little nugget, for example, in a New York Times, story, Nokia Unveils a New Smartphone, but Not a Product of Its Microsoft Deal – NYTimes.com: The reporter writes of the interviewee, Nokia’s new chief executive Stephen Elop: ”During the interview, he used the words “innovate” or “innovation” 24 times.”

I really like that. It really captures something that quotes alone don’t. We would call it “interview metadata”–information about the interview that is not actual quotes or color but significant, nonetheless.

Whether the journalist decided to count them early on during the interview, or took such good notes a keyword search or manual count after was enough, or whether he transcribed the whole thing in his hotel room later, I don’t know. (A quibble: I would have put the length of the interview in that sentence, rather than an earlier one, because it lends the data some context. Or one could include the total number of words in the interview, or compare it with another word, such as “tradition” or something. Even better create a word cloud out of the whole interview.)(Update: here’s another good NYT use of metadata, this time the frequency of words in graduation speeches: Words Used in 40 Commencement Speeches – Class of 2011 – Interactive Feature – NYTimes.com)

The point? Elop is an executive, and he has a message. He wants to convey the message, and so he is using carefully chosen words to not only ensure they’re in any quote that’s used, but also to subliminally convey to the journalist the angle he hopes the journalist will adopt. By taking the interview metadata and presenting it separately, that objective, and strategy, will be well illustrated to the reader.

And, of course, you’ve reduced the story production wastage, or SPW, significantly.

Media can help this process by developing tools and offering services to maximise the usefulness of material gathered during research and interviews, and to reduce the time a journalist spends on marshalling this material.

Suggestions?

  • Transcription services, where journalists can send a recording and get the material back within the hour (or even as the interview is conducted, if the technology is available).
  • Push some of the content production to the journalist: let them experiment with wordclouds and other data visualization tools, not only to create end product but to explore the metadata of what they’ve produced.
  • Explore and provided content research and gathering tools (such as Evernote) to journalists so they don’t have to mess around too much to create stuff drawing on existing material they’ve gathered, for the story they’re working on, from previous research and interviews, and, hopefully, from that of colleagues.

A lot of my time training journalists these days is in these kinds of tools, and I’m always surprised at how little they are made use of. That needs to change if media is to find a way to make more use of the data it gathers in the process of creating stories.

22. June 2011 by jeremy
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