The future of news is not an article

What might news look like if we start to rethink the way we conceive of articles?

1. Enhanced tools for journalists

First, once we begin to have a substrate of structured news elements, we can give the traditional article new superpowers. At the moment, if a journalist or editor wants to refer back to previous reporting on a topic in order to give context to an article, she has to do quite a bit of manual work to find the article that contained the information and then link to it. That hyperlink isn’t an ideal affordance, either, as it requires the reader to leave the article and read a second one in order to get the background information.

2. Summarization and synthesis

But Particles become much more powerful when we think of possibilities across articles, how a corpus of structured information is far more powerful than an archive of articles. One of the impacts of treating articles as singular monoliths is that it’s very hard to combine knowledge or information from more than one article after it’s been published. Doing any kind of synthesis, getting answers to questions that cut across time, getting a sense of aggregate knowledge around a topic — all of these acts still depend on a human being reading through multiple articles and doing that work manually.

3. Adaptive content

Finally, the recent proliferation of new devices and platforms for media consumption creates new pressures for news organizations to programmatically identify the pieces of information within an article. Consider every new platform and product to which news organizations currently publish their content, and how each of those outputs requires a different format and presentation. For example, a New York Times food article may be published as a medium-to-long-form piece on the website, as a headline with bullet points on the NYT Now app, as a one-sentence story on the Apple Watch, and as a standalone recipe on Cooking, not to mention the various formats required for platforms like Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter. Identifying and tagging Particles within a piece as it is being created may allow for a more streamlined workflow and a lighter editorial load, where the information within that piece can be stored in one place, but manifested in many different ways for different endpoints.

Ephemeral and evergreen

The biggest underlying shift in conceiving of the future of news as something more than than a stream of articles is in the implied distinction between ephemeral content and evergreen content. There has always been a mixture of the two types in news reporting: An article will contain a narrative about the event that is currently occurring but also will contain more evergreen information such as background context, key players, etc. But the reliance on the form of the article as the atomic unit of news means that all of that information has essentially been treated as ephemeral. A news organization publishes hundreds of articles a day, then starts all over the next day, recreating any redundant content each time. This approach is deeply shaped by the constraints of print media and seems unnecessary and strange when looked at from a natively digital perspective. Can you imagine if, every time something new happened in Syria, Wikipedia published a new Syria page, and in order to understand the bigger picture, you had to manually sift through hundreds of pages with overlapping information? The idea seems absurd in that context and yet, it is essentially what news publishers do every day. The Particles approach suggests that we need to identify the evergreen, reusable pieces of information at the time of creation, so that they can be reused in new contexts. It means that news organizations are not just creating the “first draft of history”, but are synthesizing the second draft at the same time, becoming a resource for knowledge and civic understanding in new and powerful ways.

Ethical design and weird machines. VP Product Design at Medium & co-founder Ethical Futures Lab. Previously @automattic , @axios , @nytimes R&D. She/her.