I hesitate a little to dive into attempting an answer to the question from Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins, “How should a news curation team work?” As the comments on many of Steve’s posts the past couple of years make clear, use of terms such as “curation” invites debates that often boil down to semantics and people talking past each other, even agreeing at times on general practices but disagreeing at the edges like alien cultures trying for but not quite achieving mutual understanding. But I’ll wade in anyway.
The idea of news curation has always seemed to me just the continuing evolution of what has long been standard operating procedure. In the 1990s at the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal during the summer, when a hurricane approached we usually had staff at the coast, and unless the storm was hitting point-blank where our staff was, the state editor (me) would blend staff reports with elements of several other wire stories, adding attribution where needed. As technology advanced and we all had access via the Internet to more news sources, we could blend in elements from more places. For instance, during the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, in addition to editing stories from Media General’s Washington reporters I supplied a one-column at-a-glance collection of highlights, a mix of my own reporting (whatever eye-catching protests were going on around the convention site), a detail or two lifted from advance copies of the night’s big speeches, and elements from wire services and the National Journal.
Technology now, though, opens a vastly wider world, including live conversations. Limiting your news gathering to a few wire services or mainstream news sources may be easier, but it leaves out a huge amount of perspective. All of this information of course is available for people to find on their own, but isn’t it a logical extension of the role of a journalist to help people sort through it? It’s the role of a journalist to say, “I can help you make sense of all this and point you to the best places for more.” Automatic tools can only do so much – Tweetdeck, Twitter search, Google alerts and the like can bring you a river of information, but it can be a torrent, or a swirling jumble. Human intervention to sort it, done right, is valuable.
That said, when I get to the specific questions Steve and Mandy ask – “How should we …?” – I find myself reminded of and answering instead a different question, one I saw recently on Twitter (I thought it was raised by Stijn Debrouwere, but at the moment I can’t find it – if someone out there has curated it already, please point me to it), which essentially was this: Why after years of people talking about all these ideas for remaking news is it taking so long for anyone to do much with them? As much as anything, I think it’s just the daily crush – you run around like crazy trying to keep up with everything that you already have to do, and you want to try these new things people are talking about … but you look up and suddenly you have already been at your desk nine hours or more. “Maybe this weekend,” you think. Of all the newsrooms I have visited over the past 11 years, there were only a few where suggestions for new things to try online met with resistance to the idea itself; usually it was more a matter of “where will the time come from?” There are exceptions – where the boss makes it a priority to try new things, which means being willing to drop some of the old, new things get done.
Most of the time, you learn things that are truly new by doing them, and something else then occurs to you, so you try it, and on and on, not because someone showed or told you what you should do – if there were a great mass of people out there who knew all about doing this thing, it wouldn’t be new, would it? So assuming you are among the vast majority of journalists or soon-to-be-journalists who have no actual experience curating the news on the fly, and you have no concrete answers to the “How” questions, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I believe that at some point, good curation will be a key ingredient of any successful news organization. So go ahead, answer them.