Pond Skaters And Plumb Lines

Benjamin Wallace profiles Ezra Klein and describes his vision:

Klein’s theory of the news grew out of his frustration with the industry’s relentless presentism, with 719px-Wasserläufer_bei_der_Paarung_cropthe fact that, because media organizations prioritize what’s new (that’s why it’s called news), an article about the latest development in Syria’s civil war would likely not mention the single most important fact necessary to understand what is happening: the historical enmity between Alawites and Sunnis …

The answer, as Klein sees it, lies in the handling of what he calls “persistent content,” the more static information that makes the new stuff make sense. And here, he believes, the Internet has untapped potential. Traditional media organizations have taken advantage of the Internet’s speed but not its longevity. “People set newspapers on fire, they use them for wrapping fish,” Yglesias says. “The Internet does not have that property. What I don’t think we’ve gotten is that you can make things last longer than in print.” People who think about digital journalism distinguish between what they call unchanging “stock content” and ephemeral “flow content.” Klein believes that distinction is unhelpfully stark. “We’re interested in ending the ‘versus’ there,” he says. “We believe there are rivers and lakes of content that work together.”

Working on the web has two essential qualities: the pond-skater and the plumb line.

The pond-skater can flit with astonishing speed on the surface of everything, on “news”, and on the very latest twists and turns of various discussions. The plumb line allows the pond-skater at any point to stop and drop anchor, plumbing essentially infinite depths of detail, context, information and history. Combining the two remains digital journalism’s great and unique possibility.

We do it every day, of course, on the Dish with every continuing thread and with every contextualizing hyper-link. We combine seventeenth century poetry, revisionist history, classic tomes and novels, scholarly studies, authors long since forgotten, and video from the past to create a constantly changing but, we hope, open-ended and deep inquiry into any number of subjects. The point is to make the new more comprehensible by understanding the old, and to make the old instantly new again by adding context and wisdom and perspective to the new.

There must be many ways to unlock this potential. Here’s hoping Ezra innovates another one.

(Photo: pond skaters using water surface tension when mating. By Markus Gayda via Wiki.)