A year or so ago I was talking with my multi-talented friend Wen Stephenson, who now produces the esteemed radio news program On Point but then was the editor of the Boston Globe’s Ideas section. I was complimenting some recent stories he had run, and he happened to ask me how and in what format I read the stories. I replied that I subscribed to the Ideas RSS feed and read everything in my RSS reader, NetNewsWire. Wen was not surprised to learn that I never saw the actual newspaper — but he was a bit taken aback to learn that I never even saw the front page of the section on the web, that is, the page I just linked to. No, I just read summaries on NetNewsWire, and, if what I saw interested me, I hit the Return key and went straight to the individual stories.
A lot of work goes into designing front pages, whether on paper or on the web: they are the portals to the stories; they tell us what the editors think especially important, and how they understand stories to be linked to one another. Browsing via RSS, you can’t even tell what’s supposed to be the lead story. This is somewhat distressing for editors and designers, I suppose, but that’s the way I read periodicals these days, and I’ve come to like it.
I was thinking about that conversation with Wen last night as I was watching ESPN. They were going on and on and on about Barry Bonds’s indictment and Alex Rodriguez’z new contract with the Yankees and I was thinking, Good grief, is anybody interested in this crap? I mean, in such detail? I was relatively interested in the mere facts of Bonds’s indictment and A-Rod’s return to the Yankees, but that was all I wanted to know. I found myself longing for an RSS reader for my TV, so I could read the headlines and then go on to something else.
I had similar thoughts on the day the Red Sox won the World Series and coverage of the game and subsequent celebration was disrupted by the announcement that A-Rod had opted out of his contract. The esteemed baseball writer and ESPN reporter Peter Gammons was clearly annoyed at having to answer questions about A-Rod when, in his view, the World Series was much more important, and for a few days the sports media vigorously debated the proprieties and priorities involved: Was this a sign of A-Rod’s arrogance, his belief that he’s bigger than the game? Or should we blame Scott Boras, A-Rod’s agent? But every single journalist I heard heatedly insisted that they couldn’t be blamed, that they had no choice but to cover the story — as though press releases come, like emails, with pre-set priority levels, and as though journalists are slaves to those priority levels. (“But I have to answer that email first! It has three exclamation points!!!”)
My own suspicion is that any sports-news outlet that ignored the A-Rod story until the next day would have suffered no loss of audience, even if this year’s World series did lack glamor and drama. But maybe that suspicion is wrong. Maybe there really would have been horrific consequences for any reporters/producers/editors who put off the story or dispatched it to page two. But more to the point: Why should I be at the mercy of their judgment? Just give me the stories and let me decide their importance. That’s what my RSS reader does.
Now, I’m not naïve: I am not asking for the end of editorial judgment. But it’s possible, and I think desirable, for some of the responsibility for editorial judgment to be shifted from the editors to the audience. An interesting experiment in this kind of thing, for the geeky among us, is Slashdot’s Firehose: running parallel, as it were, to the main Slashdot site is this one where almost everything that arrives on the Slashdot editors’ virtual doorstep is tossed along to the readers, so that evaluation gets done socially and collaboratively. But of course something like that has historically been the nature of Slashdot anyway, with its famous moderation system. The Firehose just extends that principle from the comments to the stories. But even in so doing, the only means of organization on Slashdot, as on almost all blogs as well, remains novelty — something I have loudly complained about. You can filter your Firehose results in several ways, but within those filters you always get newest stories first.
I’ll have more to say later about my ideas for alternative ways of organizing the data the web presents to us, and how that might be individually tailored (as opposed to socially voted-upon), but for now I just want to point out that people who get most of their information from the web are going to be more and more frustrated by their inability, when using other media, to control priorities. And those other media simply cannot adapt to this situation — it’s not within their technological scope. The question is whether the people who control those media can — or will — shift their data into environments where the audience has greater control over what’s important, what’s trivial, and what’s of no interest whatsoever. Obviously some moves have been made in that direction, but not many; and I wonder how much the slow pace of change is a function of getting used to new technology, and how much is a function of people not wanting to give up control over the order of events.