My dream job — other than this one, of course — is starring in a political version of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." For those of you uninitiated with the second-greatest show ever on television — "Friday Night Lights" is, obviously, No. 1 — the basic idea is that a human and two robots (stay with me here) watch really, really bad movies and comment on them. Some of the comments are snarky, some are informational. Most are funny. It's freaking awesome. (Watch an episode here.)
Over the past few months, I've been experimenting with Genius, a tool that allows you to annotate any text on the Web. And I am here to tell you that I think Genius — and, more broadly, annotation of both original texts (transcripts, speeches, etc.) and of news stories — is the future of journalism.
Before I go any further, let me make an important note: I don't think all journalism in the future will be annotation or footnoting. Obviously, we still need people out in the field (and in the office) reporting and writing on both breaking news and investigative stories. Journalism can't ever lose that.
But in a world in which people are looking for context and commentary with their news and where primary source documents are becoming more and more the coin of the realm, annotation seems to me to hold almost limitless potential as a new avenue by which journalists can add value (and keep their jobs!).
"Texts on Genius are living documents," according to the site's "about" feature. "Over time, they transform into definitive guides as people just like you from around the world add bits of knowledge to them." This is really important because it envisions a community approach to journalism that, I think, has tremendous power. Rather than thinking about reporters as the lone voice in the creation and execution of a story, footnoting or annotating forwards the idea of a reporter as a first-among-equals in leading an ongoing and evolving effort to understand a topic.
It's a sea change in the way journalists do their work — and the way people interact with it. It's been described as the difference between "broadcasting" and "connecting" or between journalist-as-gatekeeper and journalist-as-connector. Call it what you want, but all of these theories speak to the same reality: Journalism is moving away from a model of speaking down from the mountaintop and moving toward the idea of working together to build the mountain.
While annotation is nothing new — this great New Republic piece notes that "Alice in Wonderland" gave birth to the movement — the ease of use in sites like Genius, not to mention the instant-updating ability afforded by a connected world, provides it with more power and relevance today than ever before.
Bill Simmons, the founder of Grantland who is now with HBO, made footnoting a central part of his work. When he founded Grantland, an offshoot of ESPN, footnotes were put next to the text to which they referred rather than at the bottom of the page — where they were far more easily missed. "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," the critically acclaimed novel by Susanna Clarke, used extensive footnotes to help create a fully realized universe. (Worth noting: Clarke, too, is aided by technology; footnotes are more easily found and read on electronic readers like the Kindle than in the average paper copy of a book.)
Now to politics: Take a presidential primary debate — and how annotation can transform it. Watching a two-hour back and forth between 10 or 11 candidates is overwhelming. You miss things. "Facts" are thrown around willy-nilly. Candidates raise issues, and they are just as quickly dropped as the moderators push to get everyone involved. It's a virtually context-free environment.
Twitter can and does fill some of those gaps as campaigns tweet out talking points and journalists try to break down what the candidates are really saying. But it's only 140 characters and, if you've ever been on Twitter for a debate, you know that you miss tons of stuff simply because of the volume of
hilarious tweets being sent.
But, annotating the transcript of the debate — as it's happening and, more importantly, the next day — offers a real value-add for readers. (The Fix team annotated the second Republican primary debate in California if you want to see how it worked.) You can go deep on a particular subject, offering loads of context on what the candidates had said previous to the debate on, say, immigration. You can analyze a great or terrible moment — and explain how, why and where it happened. You can cross-reference tweets, pictures or GIFs that tell a reader more about a moment, a candidate or an issue.
And all the while, you're highlighting the most interesting moments of the debate, allowing readers to casually and quickly peruse an entire debate.
This is important, too: You can have fun. I'm a big believer that politics — and political journalism — doesn't have to be the vegetables you eat out of a sense of obligation. It can be — and should be — fun. Politics, when viewed up close, is a strange brew of the sublime and the ridiculous. Why not reflect that in our coverage of it?
The most common criticism of annotation is that the collective wisdom of crowds can be overrated, particularly in an online forum. In the same way that online commenting has become a cesspool because the loudest and most persistent people tend to dominate the conversation, annotating has that same potential pitfall. Genius tries to solve that problem by allowing users to upvote and downvote annotations, the same sort of system that Reddit has successfully used to rate its giant collection of content. (Slate's Katy Waldman makes a compelling case that the up vote/down vote system actually limits the democratization of annotation and, therefore, robs it of some of its native power.)
Admittedly, the world of online annotation is (relatively) new and, like all new-ish things on the Internet, is not without its downsides. But, having fiddled with Genius over the last few months, I am more convinced than ever that it, and other annotating/footnoting sites like it, represent a massive opportunity for journalists who continue to grapple with the huge changes that have rocked the industry over the last decade.
It gives us the chance to play a role as tour guide through a chosen field (politics, music, art, etc.) while simultaneously listening to the questions and insights from our tour group. It's journalism as a collective community effort where people other than the reporters feel invested in (a) getting it right and (b) making it as smart, thoughtful and approachable as possible.
That's a vision of the future of journalism that makes me smile.