Future of Context: Getting the Bigger Picture Online (SXSW Recap)

Jay Rosen, NYU
Matt Thompson, NPR
Tristan Harris, Apture founder and CEO
Staci D. Kramer (Moderator), ContentNext Media /paidContent


This was one of the most intriguing, thoughtful panels I’ve ever been to. NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen wrote about how they prepared for and ran the panel, and their work really paid off in a terrific presenatation:

Putting the story puzzle pieces togetherDefinition of Context: Something that precedes or comes right after what you’re talking about.

Thompson asked “How do we encounter news?”

Chances are that what you’re hearing about healthcare reform is episodic. It’s hard to keep track of. Constant, torrential.
We sell you quantity and newness of headlines – every time you go to NY Times home page, you expect to see new headlines that were updated just minutes ago.

We believe that over time, all these headlines will cohere into real knowledge. But evidence indicates this is actually debilitating. So we start gravitating to things we don’t really need an attention span for. So….

We need a larger framework and system to organize all these episodic bits. Create an intellectual framework and systemic information.

This is good for readers, but also for news producers. CONTEXT SELLS!! This American Life’s financial crisis reporting – “The Giant Pool of Money” has been enormously popular.


Rosen asked “What is the future of the timeless web?” Rosen: I’m a pragmatist. We advance when we have a really good problem.

“In order for news to be informative, people need to be informable,” Rosen said. We can’t receive updates to software that was never installed.

After listening to This American Life’s financial crisis series, Rosen “found myself following financial news with ease.”


Harris: Think about 2 ways of walking around a museum:
1. You wander around on your own, staring at art and reading a little card next to each piece that lists the artist’s name and the title of the work.
2. An art historian guides you through a tour of select pieces, explaining the historical significance, the painter’s state of mind at the time, his personal background, etc.

Trained musicians here more complex patterns in music than someone who doesn’t play an instrument.

Context and familiarity deepen our understanding.

Journalism is structured around an article. How valuable is that?

Harris founded http://www.apture.com/publishers/ – super cool platform/plug-in that brings rich video, reference articles, images, maps, etc. on to your site so readers can get more context without leaving.


Thompson: NPR creates topic pages, but he worries that their approach to context on the web too closely mirrors other formats. What’s the effect when we just sell context as more info?

Context should be the foundation. The episodic stuff should be the “More info…”

Context is not just a collection of links that looks like a fancy google search. Are we creating a topic ghetto?

Harris: Use past content you’ve already created to help provide context.

It’s writing something today that still has value in the future. It doesn’t go out of date.

Object-oriented storytelling. Engineers never do work they can’t use a second time. That helps scale context.

The movie “Food Inc” helps people understand the food industry. You put someone through that movie, they come out the other side as someone who now understands.

The web REWARDS context – google searches! Wikipedia pages are often the top search result.

Thompson quickly hacked together an WordPress site: http://www.themoneymeltdown.com/ to gather and archive quality stories about financial crisis. 50,000 people looked at it 75,000 times in 1 month.

It’s ok to pull together links, but you start to lose context when it’s just automated.

Rosen: Freedom of the Press includes the right to avoid and ignore the press! There are people who don’t want to be informed. But let’s start with what people do care about and expand from there.

Get people to do something: make things easier for the reader; Incorporate game mechanics (What if a news site was more like Super Mario Bros?)

Rosen: How are we doing at turning mystified users into people who understand something?

Think of journalism as a source of continuing education for readers.

Reorganize an article as a quest for clarity, not just reporting on something.

The panel created www.futureofcontext.org to continue the conversation.

Also check out http://explainthis.org/ – Started by Rosen. A demand-driven assignment desk where people can ask to have something explained and journalists can respond. Not much traffic yet.

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