Monday, August 08, 2011

#MozNewsLab Proposal: The Infinite Story

The Infinite Story is a tool for opening up reporters’ notebooks and encouraging others to re-mix, mash-up, and extend news stories. Kind of like GitHub, but for storytelling.

MoJo Pitch: The Infinite Story from Jordan Wirfs-Brock on Vimeo.


The Problem
The news-cycle is dominated by an antiquated artifact: the article. Stories are imprisoned within this format. A story is a living, breathing entity that exists within a thriving idea-rich community. An article is a bounded, disposable snapshot of an unbounded story.

The Solution
The Infinite Story frees stories from the constraints of the article by hosting news on in a collaborative storytelling and engagement platform. It’s unique because it doesn’t treat writing and reading as two separate acts, but as elements of a single, iterative storytelling process.

Why would newsrooms use it?
To move forward in the digital age, newsrooms must collaborate - with fellow journalists, other newsrooms, and engaged readers. The Infinite Story helps journalists do their jobs while simultaneously fostering sticky engagement with a community of readers.

Who will benefit?
The Infinite Story is a tool for both readers and writers of the news. The storytelling process isn’t “report, write, publish, repeat” - it’s information gathering, synthesizing and sharing in a continuous loop. By opening up this process, The Infinite Story benefits news-makers and news-readers.

Competitors + existing tools/platforms
Tools for storytelling and information sharing exist, such as wikis, Wordpress, SharePoint, Dropbox, Buzzdata, DocumentCloud, Floss Manuals, Booki and Storify. Content management systems are designed to facilitate collaborative storytelling. There are opportunities for leveraging these tools, instead of competing with them, through feeds and APIs.

What will distinguish The Infinite Story, and be the key to its success, will be its ability to engage a community of open and collaborative storytellers.


How does it work?
The Infinite Story has three components:

1. An open digital reporter’s notebook
Professional and citizen journalists can upload reporting materials - notes, audio interviews, video, photos, data files, links, documents, contact information. It helps reporters visually organize and tag information during the reporting and writing process, helps co-authors share materials on collaborative projects, and helps readers see how a story was created by getting a deep, behind the scenes view.

2. A visual story builder
Reporters can drag and drop elements from their notebook to construct a narrative and write around it, the same way Storify lets you write around tweets. Many writers use some kind of visual structure - for example, notecards with quotes/themes/scenes they can move around. This is a digital version of that process.

3. A community for social reading mirroring the functionality of GitHub
Readers can share a story or contribute primary sources of information. Highly engaged readers can “fork” the story by cloning the raw materials into a new projects they can extend by adding their own reporting and writing. The original author can track the life of the story - who’s sharing, adding, or forking.

Explore a prototype of The Infinite Story created around a real article + raw materials. [Caveat: I’m neither programmer nor designer. This is a *very rough* mock-up.]

When you are viewing a story, you can see a story view or a notebook view. This is the story view.
This is the notebook view.
Once you've forked a story, you see a "dashboard" view that includes a notebook and a story builder.

How could this leverage newsroom infrastructure?
Articles published in traditional online formats could link to The Infinite Story. The traditional article doesn’t need to disappear: It’s the window through which readers access the back-channels. The Infinite Story will create modular, exportable content. Writers composing articles can feed that content back into a newsroom’s CMS.

How would it be integrated into newsroom operations?
Many journalists I’ve spoken with expressed the need for a tool to organize their materials, both for their own personal writing process and for collaborative projects where they need to share materials. Because The Infinite Story integrates the writing and reading processes, reporters can use it at all stages storytelling. If they are using it to organize their reporting notes and raw materials, no additional effort is needed to share those with readers.

How would this be built collaboratively?
In the prototyping process, I incorporated story notes and media from a working journalist to guide the project design. This should be done on a broad scale with reporters, editors, newsroom developers, and news readers. The Infinite Story will be developed using an iterative process centered on user experience. The design process should recognize that writers become readers and readers become writers.

The biggest challenges surrounding The Infinite Story are behavioral, not technological. Although reporters’ notes are designed to be open and transparent, there are reasons newsrooms might object to sharing them:

1. Sharing notes and interview recordings might compromise a story.
It could violate the trust or safety of a source. Or make it harder to continue reporting on the story by clamping up other sources. In some cases, competition might be a legitimate concern for limiting transparency.

2. Reporters’ notes are often cryptic and hard for anyone other than the author to read.
Reporters need to write things quickly, and don’t always have time to type up notes or transcribe interviews.

Issues related to (1) can be addressed with fully controllable permissions and access controls. Notes could be shared internally during newsgathering and writing, then publicly after the story goes live.

Issues related to (2) can be addressed by integrating tools journalists already use to do their work. The Infinite Story should free up time, not consume it. For example, if journalists are already using Flickr or Dropbox, pictures and files from those accounts should be fed directly into The Infinite Story.

How is this different from a wiki or CMS?
An essential part of journalism is taking complex information and turning it into a clear, coherent narrative. The Infinite Story values the integrity of narratives by allowing stories to be cloned/forked. A single story can give rise to many narratives. Each one should be respected.

Do people really want to mash-up stories?
There’s only one way to find out: Give people the tools to do it and see what happens. Story mash-ups present new opportunities for user engagement.


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