Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a slew of opportunities to muse about the future of digital publishing. A piece on explainer journalism from Adam Tinworth kicked things off. And though Tinworth’s conclusions were meant as a prediction for journalism, I think they’re equally applicable to the think tank world. Here’s Tinworth, revised ever so slightly:
At the moment, we’re still stuck at the stage TV was in the early 60s—its shows were often staged like theatrical productions that were being filmed, rather than truly talking in their own language. That new vocabulary of TV drama would grow over the next few decades.
Our [think tank research] is still the digital equivalent of pointing TV cameras at a stage. We need to rethink our content models to make our [research products] relevant for a digital age.
Tinworth’s comments especially resonated as I read them on the train heading down to a Brookings Institution event on the future of longform publishing. David Nassar, Brookings’ head of communications, participated on a panel with the leading digital innovators at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ESPN. The conversation was fascinating, and I came away with a real appreciation for the way in which digital media is changing how newsrooms have to operate.
But what struck me about the conversation was the insistence from all four panelists that they’re all really doing the same thing that journalists have always done—namely, telling good stories. They’re just a bit ahead of the pack at using new digital tools to tell better stories than they can do with text alone.
Indeed, no less an authority than Hannah Fairfield Wallander, the NYT staffer who did much of the amazing digital work on Snow Fall, says that the piece boiled down to the addition of some (really impressive) multimedia elements to help tell an otherwise pretty traditional feature story.
As think tanks begin experimenting with reshaping traditional reports into multimedia products, it’s worth asking whether we’re chasing the right thing. I say this as someone who is out near the front of this particular wonkcomms trend. (Brookings is definitely leading the way on this front, with its Brookings Essay series, and the team at the Urban Institute is not far behind. Still I feel reasonably confident in suggesting that The Century Foundation is one of the smaller institutions to be experimenting with this approach.)
But I’m not completely convinced that this is the long-term solution.
There’s Text and Then There’s Hypertext
My hunch is that the digital world is going to fundamentally change the shape of storytelling itself. Our conventions of modern storytelling have been driven by the limitations of the media in which they originated—first as part of an oral tradition, and later as part of a print tradition.
What both formats have in common is that they require us to consume stories sequentially.
That basic truth has held up across an entire spectrum of storytelling, from traditional narrative to data-driven policy analysis. Sure, the narrative structure of a piece of writing might be non-linear. Things like Memento with scenes that play out backward, Cloud Atlas with the beginning of each story embedded in the previous story, or a Quentin Tarantino film with its seemingly-random presentation of scenes—all are very explicitly built around non-linear narratives. We even played around with the technique a bit in Finding Home. But in even the most postmodern of stories, text is presented and consumed in a particular author-directed sequence.
In the digital world, authors don’t determine the order in which text is presented.
Oh, sure, we can still control the order of text in our post. But as soon as we add that first hyperlink, all bets on authorial control of sequencing are off.
One needn’t delve all that deeply into hypertext theory to realize that the web lets us jump around in a bewildering variety of ways. I might read three paragraphs of a Wikipedia article before wandering down a rabbit hole of links, never to return to the original article. Or I might read part of a text, then jump over to a play a video, then come back to the text. Or I could read 200 words, then decide to jump down to the comments or hop over to Twitter to see what people are saying about the piece.
In short, the web gives the lie to the conceit that the Author is laying down The One True Way to consume a text.
We recognize this pretty intuitively when it comes to the web writ large. Indeed, we put a lot of thought into trying to convince our readers to follow the paths that we want them to follow, knowing fully well that most of them won’t. We optimize buttons for size, color, and placement. We replace “read more” and “click here” links with meatier terms that “emit the right scent.” We lay down careful trails so that readers looking for more detail can move from tweets to infographics to blog posts to research reports to datasets.
We then turn around and produce long research products that adhere to the old linear model in which the author controls the presentation while the reader passively consumes it.
Rushing Toward a Cloudy Future
I wish that I had something profound to add here about What It All Means for think tank publishing.
Sadly, I don’t.
My team at Century is still wrestling with what it will really mean to produce a piece of wonkcomms that truly embraces the post-sequentialism of hypertext. (And, no, “post-sequentialism” is not a real term. But it should be.) There are some intriguing possibilities out there, though.
- Vox’s card stacks break up what might once have been a single article into discrete, reusable, and constantly updated chunks.
- Urban’s ongoing report on the demographics of Washington, D.C. similarly breaks a long report into distinct chunks. The report is being released a chapter at a time. And while navigation between the pieces is currently linear, it wouldn’t have to be.
- The digital version of the budget options report from U.S. Congressional Budget Office offers readers a variety of paths for accessing the various options presented.
- The transmedia movement, currently happening mainly in film and television, breaks stories across different media and devices. (Think TV shows with online-only spinoffs for minor characters.)
Perhaps one of these approaches is the answer. More likely is that the answer will combine some of the elements of these sorts of experiments with some of the principles of good old fashioned linear storytelling and…something that no one has thought of quite yet.
I’ve certainly not figured it out yet. The good news—and possibly also the bad news—is that I’m not sure anyone else has, either. We’re kind of all making it up as we go along, and seeing what works.
That’s what makes it all so much fun.