Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Single sourcing and technology

After reading Ann Rockley's piece "The Impact of Single Sourcing and Technology," I was struck by the idea that everyone is dealing with this sort of issue on some level, not just the media and technical writers.

As a print journalist, I have experienced the drastic increase in demands on media folks. It started so simply in the mid-1990s, when some of us in the newspaper business began posting additional context or photos on the Web. By the time I left my staff writing job in 2007, a single newspaper story could easily be transformed and remediated a half dozen times or more in a day. What in the past could have been a two or three hour job instead turned into a full day's work of shifting and updating. That is not necessarily a positive development in an industry that's radically cutting costs and staff. It takes a lot of time to do this sort of remediation and transforming and continual updating, sucking the energy out of the will to produce new stories. In many cases, it creates a paralysis based on the immediacy of the story, a loop of constant checks to see what has changed since the last call, five minutes before. The problem is, things change constantly on any piece, and there's only so much of this polishing that any sane person can do. Even on breaking stories, which generally deserve this sort of attentiveness, I sense that journalists often have become slaves to the story, rather than insightful messengers of what the narrative really means to the world.

Another issue that arose was the default of: Did you create a photo slideshow for that? Did you create a podcast? Did you create a video? Some stories, frankly, don't work well in those media. Some work wonderfully.

Karen Peterson, Executive Editor at The News Tribune in Tacoma, shared a mantra with me once, "pick the right tool for the right job," and maybe that's a nod to Roy Peter Clark's toolbox metaphor, but I think it rings true regardless of the field in which the remediation effort takes place.

If you are creating a piece about something inherently nonvisual, either find the visual angle on it, or don't try to force it into a video or photoslideshow. Same with a podcast. Don't drone on about something that people don't want to hear. My fallback is a dinner party metaphor, would you want to be stuck in a corner with this piece of media? If not, it's not in the right form, or maybe it shouldn't be created at all.

That last point is a critical one. Just because you or I might have an idea, doesn't mean it's a good one. Just because you can make a podcast on constructing a bicycle, doesn't mean you should. The right tool for the right job.

Before remediating any single source material into a dozen forms, it first might be a good idea to ask why? Does the world really need any more static, or noise? Instead of remediating into a dozen forms, would it be more effective to look closely at what you are creating, and choose the best form for it, and really emphasize quality on that form, playing to its strengths? Unless you are running a highly funded marketing or advertising campaign, I doubt that saturation really is the goal. It's probably to make connections with the people who matter in your business. And that isn't a haphazard task. It probably requires a scalpel, not a chainsaw.

I think all of us are getting better and better at tuning out the noise in our lives. Single sourcing, to me, seems like the foundation of propaganda, the spread of a message rather than information. While in some cases it is convenient to just upload the manual to the web, and it might be better than nothing. But in that same amount of time, could something greater have been created?


Neil Curtis said...

I read your piece in the UP magazine. I would like to comment on two things. First, I have had diabetes since I was quite young. I am gravely concerned with the treatment diabetics receive. Most diabetic pills have a black box warning by the FDA, and many doctors prescribe two types of insulin for diabetics. I don't listen to doctors because I want to live in perfect health. Instead, I inject insulin every 2 hours 24 - 7. This is not rocket science, but simply doing what the body would do naturally. You have to be quite careful when reviewing science articles about diabetes, especially, those promoting drugs. I have uncovered many false claims and contradictions from those promoting the drugs as those who research on the what if basis. What if we give a diabetic rat insulin -- will the kidneys, the immune, the brain, the bones and yes the sexual function improve.

As for Alzheimer's disease, I have discovered that massive exercise actually improves the brain function of those with this brain disease. That means exercise like you did in the daily doubles during football practice. I do extensive, challenging exercise about 10 hours per week, and even I, can tell the improvement in brain function and I do not have a brain disease. If this improves the brain function of those with a brain disease, then why don't doctors push it -- simply -- they are a profit run business, and that takes too much time.

Chris said...

Interesting post, Brett. I've been thinking about single-sourcing and the web lately (hadn't quite worked in remediation yet, but it's bound to happen at some point, I'm sure!) I'm mostly still new to the TC end of our TC&R program, and so single-sourcing is something I'd not really thought about much before, much less the implications of divorcing content and style. (As a writing teacher, I'm so often working with students who are learning how to put them together...)

Anyway... you've got an interesting question about noise and single-sourcing (I'm reading White Noise for the first time this spring as well... how applicable). (Enough tangents... on with it.)

What do you think is the difference between "a message" and "information" (in your last paragraph). Does style, quality, and craft turn information into message, or can they, too, just get in the way of that information sometimes? I think that maybe the notion of single sourcing (at least as I'm dealing with it in CSS matters) is more helpful than not. I can build the content of my page one time (that one time may take a long time, but at some point it'll be done). Then, if I want to redesign my entire site, all I have to do is go in and switch around some items and change some values in a single file (if I've designed the content correctly in the first place) and it's a completely different document. Does that change the message all that much? I mean, there's the obvious ethos of a hot pink background versus a dark brown background, but beyond that? Does markup stripped of style not count as message? Or is it simply information?

Or am I making any sense at all...?

Chris said...

See what you went and made me do?

I'm not saying it's neat or polished or finished anything, but it's at least by gum started.


Rebecca.Widder said...

Interesting points. I definitely agree that it is getting more likely that people will tune out the noise - it's everywhere, and it's very hard to get away from, so we just learn to ignore it. On the other hand, there's so much noise that it's really hard to successfully ignore it all the time, and it becomes a stressor. There is a risk that, with so much media (and so much of it that is bad, or shouldn't have been created at all) that we'll learn to ignore it so well, or become so stressed out by it, that the media conveying useful and important messages will be caught by the filter we use for junk and noise, because we'll start to consider it ALL junk and noise.

Michael said...

Interesting thoughts, Brett. I definitely agree with your central argument that form should match content more than it does.

I think existing journalism institutions (like your former employer) have sometimes been lured into inappropriate form/content pairings for practical reasons: without a new, formal routine ("every big story should have a slideshow!") it's simply difficult to get people to change their habits.

Every big story shouldn't have a photo gallery, as you note. But if that's the only way to get a large group of people to think about slideshows, then maybe it's a rational decision.

The alternative to this kind of cultural change, of course, would be to burn down the old institutions and the outdated culture inside them.

Which in some cases is what's happening.