Last week I participated in a one-day conference at Stanford called the Moby Dick Project. It originated with this blog post by Ben Huh: Why Are We Still Consuming News Like It’s 1989? The conference was an attempt to think through why the user experience for news still sucks, and to get started on solutions.

The 75 or so people who were there were a mix of technologists, designers, start-up people and journalists. In the group I was placed in, we had an a geek who worked at the Center for American Progress, a journalism professor, the founder of a small online education firm, someone from Crosscut, a news site in Seattle, and the principal of a start-up that provides analytics to publishers.

The event was held at the Design school at Stanford. There were no speakers, no panels. A working session, it was called. Facilitators from the school forced us to move at a rapid pace from a statement of the problem to brainstorming solutions to sketching something that could be built and trying it out on other groups. At the end of the day all the groups presented their solutions. There were no breakthroughs, but it was better than a future-of-journalism conference where participants sit around saying, “Interesting… how would you monetize that?”

One of the problems that arose again and again (and the reason for this short post) is something I have spent a good deal of time on since I wrote National Explainer three years ago. The news flows to us without the context we need to understand it, or even to understand why we’re getting it. In fact, this problem came up so often (“we need to know the context!”) that Ben Huh, the organizer and master of ceremonies, banned use of the term unless the speaker could specify what was meant.

As it happens, myself and a few colleagues (Matt Thompson of NPR, Tristan Harris of Apture, Staci Kramer of organized a South by Southwest event on the future of context in 2010. (See my post for additional background.) In the preparation for the SXSW event and the discussion after, I was forced to think through the different meanings we attach to “context” when we complain about it being missing in the news system as it stands. I think there are three big ones:

1. Background knowledge. The knowledge needed to understand the news that is being reported now. This is analogous to pre-requisites in a college course: the stuff you need to know to “get” why an item of news is news. If you don’t understand what a Collateralized Debt Obligation is, you are not going to understand the new report issued on the role that CDO’s played in the financial crisis. A typical solution to this problem is an explainer article, an FAQ, or Wikipedia.

2. The story so far. This is vaguely similar to 1.) but not the same. The story so far is what’s happened since before you started paying attention to the story. Or: where we are in the narrative. Analogous to joining a college course in week 5: you need to know what happened in weeks 1-4. That’s different from pre-requisites. If there has been a committee investigating the financial crisis for a year and it finally fell into fighting over how to prevent another crisis, there is a “story so far” there. For many big stories, a majority of the users are coming in the middle of the movie. A typical solution to this problem is a timeline. You can see a “story so far” button here.

3.) Related material. Not the most evocative name, I know, but the best I could think of. This is context in the sense of the phrase, “the larger context.” Not the news, the longer narrative into which it fits, or the background knowledge needed to get it (categories 1 and 2) but the different points of view that develop off the news, the deep historial context (financial bubbles in the history of the U.S., for example) the discussion of implications and consequences, the arguments emerging as the battle of interpretations gets underway. Analogous to “for further reading” in a college course. A typical solution to this problem is quality curation and a linkfest.

It helps to keep these straight, otherwise the cry for more context gets confusing because people are talking about different things using the same term. How to provide these different kinds of context is obviously an unsolved in the news system as it stands. 

There was one other meaning of “context” that came up during the Moby Dick discussion, but it is relatively technical. When parts of an article (headlines, key quotes, summary paragraphs) are lifted out of the original frame they are in and float around the system, frame-free, we sometimes talk about their “original context.”

To conclude this, a little quote from my National Explainer 2008 post

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior reports.

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and make note it. (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.