Dear reader: A new generation of news consumption

Sunday, November 26, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:42 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dear Readers,

One of the great things about Thanksgiving gatherings is the mixing of multiple generations.

While I sat amid three generations outside under the sun Thursday, enjoying the warm afternoon and waiting to go inside for our holiday meal, two grandparents started asking me about the newspaper.

They couldn’t imagine a day starting without some time being devoted to reading the news — news they can hold in their hands. Why, they wanted to know, would anyone prefer to read a newspaper online?

Understanding the full range of online news possibilities can be difficult for seasoned editors, let alone individual readers — many of whom, like the grandparents, got hooked on printed news before television.

Most of us think of news as what it always has been: an individual reporter figuring out what is going on and then conveying that information to readers. The purists expect that information to arrive in columns of text.

The Internet shakes up that model entirely. Not only does it open the door for sound, video and animation components to be added onto traditionally written stories, it also offers us opportunities to gather and deliver news in entirely new ways.

For one thing, it opens the door for automated systems that empower readers to analyze important civic data themselves. Smart news organizations of the future will still employ journalists, but they’ll also take full advantage of this strength of the Internet.

For example, rather than simply running a weekly list of all crimes that occurred in Columbia, which we still do every Sunday, an online crime report presented in database form could enable you to sort and view weekly crime data by geographic zone or by type of crime. Ideally, you could also type in your address and see a map showing any crimes that occurred near your house, even color-coded by type of crime. An example of this is already functioning for Chicago,

More intelligent processing of this type of information could also enable us to give you more intelligent reporting of crime and other community trends. Nowadays, our staff still goes to the police station, manually transcribes crime details and types them into a file each week. We print that list and then move on to do the same for the next week’s list, just as we have for years.

This traditional print setup provides no good mechanism for us — or you — to make comparisons over time. But through automating the collection of such information and restructuring the presentation for the Internet, readers could gauge for themselves how our community is doing.

Through this type of automated collection, journalists could spend less time transcribing the details and more time asking the tough questions about why things in the community are going the way they are.

The Missourian is just one of many newspapers already working to broaden the definition of news and deliver community information in these ways. The city guide at our recently redesigned, including a searchable restaurant guide and calendar of events, gives a window into where we’re headed.

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