Reading over Jonathan Stray’s latest post, it’s easy to see that some of the issues I discussed earlier this month (specifically here, here and here) already have a place in the discussion over the future of journalism.  Stray also assigns a name to an issue I talked about in the second of those articles: the “context” problem.  Stray describes it this way:

Standard news coverage is written as a series of incremental updates, which are useless if you’re not already following the story closely. When I returned to coverage of the oil spill after not checking on it for a couple of weeks, Wikipedia was far, far better at bringing me up to date on the story. If I’d gone to CNN I would have been forced to wade through a series of daily updates to learn what I wanted to know.

That might seem to contradict what I wrote in “Betting on Absorption.”  After all, if people are avoiding online news outlets because the context they provide is too scant to make the information useful, then the solution is more in-depth and explanatory journalism, right?

In essence, we’re talking about two different types of reading, both of which can be described in terms of contrasting directional metaphors.  The Paris Review, under Lorin Stein’s editorial direction, is betting that reading in depth will continue to draw readers to print media.  That’s because people tend to read laterally on the Web.  In fact, the Web is built to be read laterally, picking up some information on this page, then clicking a link to jump to another page, following your interests as you go.  When Stray writes that people “spend hours roaming Wikipedia,” that’s mostly because Wikipedia is heavily linked, allowing a person to traverse it laterally rather than reading it they way they would a more linear book.

In the spirit of reading laterally, let’s skip over to NPR wiz Matt Thompson‘s article over at Nieman Reports.  Thompson talks about a few experiments for overcoming the context problem, and I don’t see why traditional media outlets that have made the jump to online content shouldn’t be capitalizing on some of what he’s learned.  Specifically, the suggestion that I want to make is that, by introducing a not-so-new organizational and editorial unit to their current structure, outlets like the New York Times could achieve two things.  First of all, they can make their online editions more useful, and therefore more attractive to potential viewers.  And second, they can help distinguish their online component from their print editions, thereby giving more focus to each.

The function of the unit I have in mind would simply be to connect all of those incremental updates that Stray identifies as the modus operandi of standard news coverage, and to situate them into a comprehensible context.  Consider this NYT article.  Consistent with inverted pyramid style, context for the event is given in a paragraph near the end of the article:

In wake of the massive condemnation that followed May’s deadly flotilla raid, Israel partly eased its land blockade on Gaza, which it imposed three years ago after the militant Hamas seized power of the sandy coastal strip. Its naval blockade, however, remains in place, Israeli officials say, in an attempt to prevent the smuggling of weapons.

Really, this is not that bad.  It even includes two links that you can follow to track down the significance of the terms.  But given the structural possibilities of the Web, the NYT could be using the hyperlink format to much greater advantage.

First of all, scratch that paragraph.  It makes sense within the confines of print media, where it’s meant to gesture the reader to the broader context of current and historical events.  On the Web, it’s easier to simply link the reader to the information, and the reader who has to wade through redundant context can be expected to wander off to a more concise source of information.  The reason that the paragraph appears at all is that the Times‘ internet strategy has been by and large restricted to replicating their print edition online.

See the “Related” heading in the side bar to the article?  Under it are links to two articles that have been deemed relevant, probably by some sort of automated system.  That’s a good start, but it stops far short of what the NYT could be doing in that same space.  The links it provides are, in fact, a bit redundant, and I’d be interested to see what sort of traffic actually cycles through them.  Replace that heading with a single link, under a heading like “Context.”

Now, here’s the important (and given the current economic climate, perhaps tricky) part of the equation.  Hire some online editors.  I would think that an outlet like the Times would need at least one for each major section of the paper — World, U.S., N.Y., Business, etc. — but as an experiment they could start with a single editor working in a single section.  That editor’s job would be to generate and maintain topic-oriented pages, much like a wiki, though most wikis are editable by any registered user.  Each time an article appears, as with “Israel Stops Jewish Activists From Entering Gaza,” it would be the job of the World Context Editor to incorporate that coverage into the Context page.

Now wait a minute, I hear someone say.  The Times already provides links to pages that provide context — for example, this one on the Free Gaza Movement.  True, but for such pages to serve the purposes I have in mind, they need some serious recalibration.

The point, remember, is to facilitate lateral reading.  To that end, the first problem with the Times‘ F.G.M. page is that its links are mostly segregated from its content.  That, no doubt, is a matter of convenience: an algorithm is determining what links show up on the page, so it just crams them all into a section after the text. The in-text, off-site link to Insani Yardim Vakfi is commendable, for reasons I discussed in “See Also: The World Is Everything That Is the Case,” but why are there four paragraphs between that and the next in-text link?

Compare that to the density of in-text links and citations on the F.G.M. wikipedia page.  For the lateral reader — and remember, part of the point here is that people go to the internet to read laterally — the advantage is clear.  Within the first sentence, I have five opportunities to jump to more information, five opportunities to expand my understanding of that sentence before I move onto the next — assuming I haven’t already found out what I went to that page to learn in the first place.  With a resource like the NYT, there’s no reason every sentence on the F.G.M. page shouldn’t link to either a NYT article or an off-site resource.

And then there’s this:

Updated: July 13, 2010

But I got to that page by following a link from a story posted today.  Is the story I just read not important?  If it is, then why hasn’t the F.G.M. page been updated to include it?  In as much as it would be the World Context Editor’s job to make sure that Context pages are update to include the latest news, the job would also serve to assure readers that they’ve not wasted their time by reading an article that does nothing to change its own context.  As such stories get overshadowed by large events, their place on the Context page can be pared back, but if they really do fit into that context then the goal is to show how.

Finally, I called this an editorial unit, but also an organizational unit, and that should not be overlooked.  Right now, the most obvious design for a news site remains front-heavy: an ostensible “front page” links to most of the new content, or to sections that organize new content in terms of broad categories.  Beyond that front page and its categorical subsidiaries stands a veritable ocean of undifferentiated articles and opinion pieces.  And on the back-end are pages, like the F.G.M. page I linked to, that provide some background.  While those back-end pages connect the articles that make up the bulk of the site, they do so incidentally at best, with no real focus and very little intent. The front page is still the primary entry point to any given article.

I’m not suggesting that sites like the Times do away with their front pages, but a really useful set of Context pages ought, by their very nature, shift the way that readers use the site.  Rather than the pyramidal structure of the current front-heavy design, online journalism may be better served by something more radial, where the front page is just the first step in a two-step process that leads to the real locus of activity, a page that will serve as the reader’s base of operations until they feel they’ve gotten a grasp on the issue that brought them there in the first place.  Ultimately, that structural shift should be reflected in the front page itself.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.