On Ezra Klein, and rethinking the news story-encyclopedia schism

Why can’t we be friends? (KC Toh/Flickr and Todd Mecklem/Flickr)

When news breaks on a given subject, the corresponding Wikipedia page sees a sudden spike in visitors. Readers turn to Wikipedia for background information and to answer their questions that weren’t covered by the news articles they read. Whitney Houston’s Wikipedia page received a remarkable 425 views a second in the hour after her death.

Every time a reader picks Wikipedia to fill in the blanks, the news business is failing. Newsrooms are missing out on a chance to serve their audience and reap the profits of related ads.

Journalists should be embarrassed by this. Their mission is to inform audiences on the subjects they cover, yet stories often leave readers with unanswered questions. The Web offers endless space for story-telling, leaving no excuse for failing to inform readers.

From a business perspective, the more stories, videos and graphics a media organizations publishes the better. More content means more ads and more money to reinvest in journalism or return to shareholders.

If you’re not convinced of the shortcoming, look at it this way. The work of unpaid volunteers — Wikipedia articles — fills the gaps of the work of journalists, professionals who are paid to inform readers. If professional journalists took the task of contextual information seriously, they should be able to outperform unpaid volunteers.

Ezra Klein, who recently departed The Post’s Wonkblog, appears to have his eye on this untapped market. Sunday he announced plans to join Vox Media and create a publication that specializes in delivering contextual information alongside new articles.

A posting for job applicants noted, “We’ll need coders and designers who can build the world’s first hybrid news site/encyclopedia.”

Klein and Co. could be onto something big. A quote of his in the New York Times hinted at his ambition: “We are just at the beginning of how journalism should be done on the web.”

The divorce between news stories and encyclopedia articles made sense in the era of the printing press, when printing an updated version of an encyclopedia every day was too expensive and time consuming. Newspapers devoted their limited space to the very latest information, and encyclopedias updated themselves yearly.

In the digital age, why segregate these forms of information? The only good reason is because that’s the way we’ve always done things. But this is the information revolution, and new opportunities are arising to tell better inform audiences. For example, while reading about violence in the Middle East, it could helpful to get some background information on the countries involved.

Max Fisher’s “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask” exemplifies how a news story can be rethought to better serve readers. The piece opened with basic information such as the country’s population and location. The huge audience it drew — largely the products of readers spreading it on Facebook — is an endorsement of its merits. Readers have spoken: they want more context.

Klein’s team has a chance to redefine the fields of journalism and information. At Vox, they’ll benefit from freshly raised funding from venture capitalists, a much-ballyhooed publishing system and an organization with a history of launching successful digital publications such as SB Nation and The Verge. Can they pull it off? It’ll be fun to watch.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.



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Matt McFarland · January 24, 2014

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