Content that works: Lessons found in reporters’ notebooks and librarians’ index cards

I’m working on a post about what Matt Thompson calls “context-centric news” and how it differs from what he calls “episodic news.” (They are similar to what I called in an earlier post in this series, chronological content and research content.)

Considering the difference between episodic and contextual news (or chronological and research content) got me thinking about the difference in journalists and librarians, two groups of people I’ve spent time with over the past 15 or so years of trying to understand the way people interact with information in general, and specifically, how they interact with it differently when it is presented via different forms of media.

Journalists and librarians are each, in their own ways, devoted to the recording and dissemination of information (or, more precisely, those things we all hope result from such activities: wisdom, insight, knowledge, understanding, truth). However, at the same time, journalists and librarians are quite different in the ways they approach the craft and science of organizing information so the rest of us can access it. Indeed, thinking of what they do as a craft or as a science is one of the ways in which they differ.

Think about the images above: the reporter’s notebook and the library card catalog. Both still exist and are used widely, but reporters and librarians are more likely to work today with the digital descendants of those near-relics of an earlier era.

Think about the way notes are taken by reporters and how every journalist has his or her own personal style and technique — and varying degrees of legibility or lucidity. Think about the ways in which that uniquely penned (or keyed-in) information captured in such notebooks (both those that are bound by a wire or those that are powered with a wire) are then used by reporters to craft a story that is supposed to provide the reader/listener/viewer with all the who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s and why’s sprinkled with quotes and color and imagery — all while being styled with prose colorful enough to win the reporter writing awards and a book deal. And, oh yes, it’s supposed to be presented to readers sooner than anyone else’s story and it’s supposed to include facts no one else has.

Then, think about the way information is recorded meticulously on a library catalog index card by men and women who spent four years in college, and likely a couple more in graduate school, mastering the science of how information is organized, categorized, interacted with, researched, accessed – and even enjoyed. Think about the way in which those 3×5 cards are all compiled with (if in the U.S.) one of two highly evolved classification systems created in the latter half of the 19th century by men named Herbert and Melville.

Now, consider the name by which those cards have been called (in the U.S.) since the 19th century: “index cards.”

Now consider the way in which Google (created by men named Larry and Sergey) describes how its search engine works: “Googlebot discovers new and updated pages to be added to the Google index…Googlebot processes each of the pages it crawls in order to compile a massive index of all the words it sees and their location on each page.” (I added the bold emphasis to make sure you got my point that the word index is a foundational concept shared by those who studied library science and computer science in college.

As I’ll discuss more in a post tomorrow, I believe it’s time for journalists (and marketers and bloggers and twitterists) who create content for the web — especially news and information — to better understand, appreciate and embrace the science of index cards, not just the craft of reporter’s notebooks.

(Credits: Photo of reporter’s notebook via: flickr.com/photos/doctorow/ / CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo of index card via: WikiMedia Commons.)

[A reminder from the sales and marketing directors: I work with an exceptional team of content creators, analysts and strategists at Hammock, a firm that for 20 years has helped companies create content that works. Email me for more information.]