Some thoughts are starting to coalesce around the ideas contained in David Weinberger’s memorable book title Small Pieces Loosely Joined (you can read the book, or better still buy it, here), and how that concept applies to journalism.

My “media” — what I devour in attempts to stay informed — is small pieces loosely joined. It’s blog posts and news reports delivered to my Bloglines account, the eight or 10 dozen web sites I visit at least once a day, the Google searches, the links I follow, the podcasts I listen to, the online video that is increasingly taking up my time, reactions to posts I make here and to the posts of others, snatches of sound from the radio playing in the background, a scan of a discarded newspaper in the corner coffee shop…

There’s no single medium that I am tied to and, within the full range of mediums, there’s so single “title” that’s my favoured source. Instead, there are all these small pieces and the loose “glue” that binds them is me — my interests, my time, my attention.

Not much new there. I’ve always been a deep grazer in the fields of information, the difference being that in the past it was magazines, newspapers, books, videos, radio documentaries, bar conversations…. Only the technologies have changed, it’s become easier to graze (overgraze, too; at times I’ve felt the deep-seated need to put myself on a data diet), and there are many, many, many more small pieces to discover. The biggest change is that in the pre-Web 2.0 days, before this massive information explosion, I did have favoured titles. Now, I go where I need to.

(AN ASIDE: I used to buy into the argument that one of the things newspapers can provide that the Web can’t is serependity, the happy discovery of things you didn’t know you were looking for. I disprove that argument about 30 times a day.)

My mediascape of small pieces loosely joined is one part of the “equation” I’ve been working on. There are huge implications for media when my loyalty is to the information, and not any particular delivery system. Media that has what I want will get my attention (and, occasionally, my subscription fee) whether it’s a “trusted brand” or not. Increasingly, to the detriment of the printed/broadcast product, it comes from the internet because, with my laptop, wireless connection and iPod, my mediascape travels with me. And, unlike the olden days, I don’t have to lock myself into the local Post-Dispatch-Intelligencer instead of the Post-Times-Record: I can have it all, and much more besides.

The second part of the equation deals with issues of control. Media is built around a series of control centres that shape how it operates and what it presents. (Unlike those who detest the media, I’m going to use control as a word neutral of any political leaning here, not as a way of shaping public perception — sorry to those who worship at the altar of St. Chomsky — but as a structural mechanism seen as necessary for the production of the product.)

The structure of the newsroom is built around a series of control centres: editors, managing editors, departmental editors, assistant editors, assignment editors… There are controls, implicit and explicit, in the long-term decisions over coverage and beats, and there are implicit and explicit codes embedded in everything from codes of the ethics to the newspaper’s style guide. All of these are necessary to direct the journalistic effort, to point the ship in a direction and get everyone more or less rowing the same way.

There are also controls at the level of the individual reporter. Two examples: We teach our students that, while they are dealing with subjects of stories, the story is the “property” of the reporter and it is up to the reporter to decide how it should be told. We teach our students to control their interviews — to have a clear view of the information they “need” to get for “their story” and to be firm in getting it. We don’t do this because we are evil people. It’s because this is the way journalism works and we are charged with preparing our students for the real world of journalism.

The two parts of the equation — the way media is shaped by these control centres and my existence as “glue” joining together small pieces — conflict. The media is built on control, but now I’m taking control over information. When it comes to something that vitally interests me, the well-researched and well-told story of the individual journalist isn’t enough. I want other views. I want source material. I want the unstructured story, so that from all of this, I can understand.

I suspect a lot of the turmoil that exists in media comes from this conflict, because the only way an individual medium can react is to start giving up some of those controls, by pushing out more information with less filtering (again, I’m using that in a politically neutral sense) or at least giving me the links I need to pursue the information I want, to the depth that I want. And, to reference Neil Sedaka a little, giving up is hard to do, which is why we’re seeing such strong pushback from many in the media as it now is.

But what if the media itself adopted the idea that quality, indepth, relevant and important journalism can come from the concept of small pieces loosely joined? We’re starting to see hints of that when a site like The Guardian starts linking out to other media on related stories. Or when San Francisco’s KRON starts aggregating and augmenting Bay area blogs. (There are lots of other bits and pieces coming together. You can find more examples in some of the posts in the Rethinking Media category of this blog, linked from the menu at left.)

Linking out, to use one example, is an implicit recognition that the news site’s story is not complete, is not the only story, but that it is a piece of the story (in the writer’s mind, an important piece of the story) waiting to be “loosely joined.” Other ideas are out there and being tried and many more are possible — direct links to more source material, reader input through wikis and blogs at the research phase of stories, putting databases on line, tagging (and letting readers tag) content…

At each step a little more control changes hands, from media outlet to “reader,” because when you recognize each part of the product, and the product itself, is a small piece to be loosely joined, you no longer need the rigid control structures and centres. Freed from the restraints of telling a single “complete” narrative, the reporter can tell the story that seems important, while linking to all of the other small pieces of the story (I do not mean small as in insignificant nor small pieces as in bits and pieces of fact). That acknowledges there are alternate narratives and other angles and deeper information for those who want it. I may be alone in this, but it seems to me there’s as great sense of freedom for a reporter giving up total control as there is for me as I gain increased ability to join all those pieces.

There’s a great messiness to all this, a messiness that the control centres of the newsroom seek to short circuit by narrowly boxing in columns of content, hierarchies of stories, limits of coverage, and so on. The control exists to tame the messiness.

But the new mediascape is a gloriously messy place, which is a feature, not a bug. Every step toward “taming” the web has instead been a step toward teasing multiple meanings out of the messiness. Yahoo organized the web into silos of content; Google broke down the silos in favour of links between information; Technorati and taxonomies point to a socially-organized and theoretical endless ability to interlink everything.

Simon Waldman, in a post today, looked at messiness in the terms of Yahoo! and its business-school unfriendly business model. He wrote:

Is this just a phase they’re going through? An explosion whose aftermath will leave a perfectly formed, cohesively structured range of products and corporate strategy? Well maybe…and maybe not. And the latter may be no bad thing.

I’ve been taken by the phrase ‘messy media’, as used in Kevin Kelly’s recent essay, We are the web. He describes of the media landscape in 2015 ‘The Web continues to evolve from a world ruled by mass media and mass audiences to one ruled by messy media and messy participation.’
Well, maybe the only way to survive in a messy media age is to have a messy strategy – to be, literally, all over the place.

Of course strategy is never meant to be messy – it’s all focussed around trying to keep everything powerpoint-simple: neat bullets, single sentence message statements. Which is why, the Economist as a bastion of all that is traditionally deemed right, would find it bewildering, and why Yahoo would fall in a business school exercise where you know that only the tidiest will survive.

But, in such a free and interconnected media landscape, you either have to be incredibly tightly defined, or the exact opposite. Yahoo! has obviously chosen the latter. You might not be able to neatly define what Yahoo! is any more (’portal’ is a cop-out), and it might not be particularly tidy, but wherever you look on the web, it’s hard to avoid it.

It’s the messiness of media, a spinoff of the web itself in that suddenly it’s all there to be found, that makes it possible for me to loosely join the small pieces of everything that interests me. In Simon’s “free and interconnected media landscape,” mass media struggles because, by definition, its members cannot be incredibly tightly defined.

Recognizing both the messiness and the power of an idea like small pieces being loosely joined may open far more doors for media than it closes. The messiness isn’t going away, and neither are the number of people who are rolling their own in ways that make established media only part of the mix.

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