You know those monks who used to produce illuminated manuscripts? Imagine how they would have felt as the printing press began to get a grip. The historian Mitchell Stephens has written about how in the early days, there were attempts to “do” illuminated manuscripts using the printing press.

How quaint, we think these days. Obviously they hadn’t figured out what the printing press was for.

I have been thinking for some time that our current newspaper websites may well be the equivalent of the attempts to do illuminated manuscripts on printing presses. That is, we are trying to keep on doing what we have always done, rather than working out what the new technology is good for.

For example, we still think in terms of the inverted pyramid structure for news writing, when the web lends itself more readily to – well, a web. 

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So the announcement by Google of its “living story” project is, to say the least, interesting. Google has announced on its official blog that amid all the debate about what Google is doing to news and its business models, the company has been talking to the New York Times and the Washington Post about new formats and methods of telling stories online.

The Living Stories experiment is the result. Google says:

 A typical newspaper article leads with the most important and interesting news, and follows with additional information of decreasing importance. Information from prior coverage is often repeated with each new online article, and the same article is presented to everyone regardless of whether they already read it. Living Stories try a different approach that plays to certain unique advantages of online publishing. They unify coverage on a single, dynamic page with a consistent URL. They organize information by developments in the story. They call your attention to changes in the story since you last viewed it so you can easily find the new material. Through a succinct summary of the whole story and regular updates, they offer a different online approach to balancing the overview with depth and context.

You can follow links to some of the results of this experiment here.

Now, to be frank, I don’t think we’re there yet. Not nearly. The template seems clunky to me, difficult to navigate and, well, kind of ugly. It’s very difficult to find your way around on the first visit to a story, though doubtless that gets easier the more often you visit.

Yet if you persist, there is a great deal of information. The format also allows the sort of contextualising and explanation that the inverted pyramid structure has always done badly. (Inverted pyramid sructures are great for conveying information, but rotten for explanation).

Something else occurs to me. A few weeks ago I ran this post about another Google product,Wave, which is presently in beta form.

Google Wave is a collaboration tool allowing groups to work on a project together in real time. As my correspondent David Wright put it there are clear potential applications for collaborations between news gatherers, both professional journalists and others.

Collaboration is the heart of Google Wave. So what could it mean for news? Let’s imagine The Age decided to set itself up with a Wave account and all its stories were posted as Waves. They would be editable by the staff to allow real time updating. The audience could become involved in the Wave. A story could break as a Wave and all the staff could edit, add, drop in pictures, add maps to the Wave. Late to the story and need to be brought up to speed? Replay the Wave. Media outlets could post all their stories as Waves. This would engage the audience by not only allowing comments but also nested conversations.

So, put the ideas behind Wave and the ideas behind The Living Story together, and you get a glimpse of where we might be going. News as a continous rolling event, incorporating many aspects and points of view, serving as a site for a moderated collaboration with sources and audiences.

We’re not there yet. Wave is clunky. So is the Living Story. But perhaps we are beginning to see the contours of something new.


UPDATE: David Wright has revisited Google Wave with a more jaundiced eye. This a bit geeky for we arty-farty content makers, but if you are interested in these things, worth a read.