‘Curation,’ and journalists as curators

The Latin root of the noun curator means “to care.” We know the word primarily in connection with museum collections, which may make some folks think of dusty old boring things, or preserving history — and maybe that’s not your idea of what journalists should be doing.

But when Jeff Jarvis talks about “curation” — which he has been doing for quite a while now — he means the activities of sorting, choosing, and display, which museum curators perform based on their extensive knowledge of the subject area of an exhibit.

Think about any museum exhibition you have enjoyed, whether it presented ancient artifacts from Egypt or spacecraft from NASA. Then consider the job of the museum curator. If we talk about curation, we refer to more than a simple act of filtering. (Filtering calls to mind that old journalism standby, gatekeeping.) I visualize “filtering” as the process of straining chicken broth, in which one dumps all the junk from a giant soup pot into a strainer, and what comes out is nice clear stock. This is also something that journalists do, but it can be pretty useful to differentiate that from curation.

There are also times when we need and want organization. That could be curation … It could be summary (which Wikipedia amazingly provides even and especially in providing snapshots of knowledge in big news events — though without the curation of links). In the Mumbai story, GroundReport curated — or organized and facilitated — people, finding Twitterers in Mumbai … to report and write (Dec. 2, 2008).

Jeff has defined curation as “the need for editors to create order, to correct and vet” (Nov. 3, 2008), and while that nicely distinguishes curation from reporting, it sounds a lot like plain old editing.

So I’m going to list some aspects of journalistic curation that fit well, I think, with the museum version of curating:

  1. Selection of the best representatives: If a museum curator has access to 10,000 small clay tokens from ancient Iraq and Syria, how many — and which ones — should appear inside the glass case? If a journalist is going to provide links to reliable sources about planning for retirement (or breast cancer, or choosing a college), which are the best, clearest, and most up-to-date?
  2. Culling: How many links is enough, and not too much? If the museum curator puts 100 of those tokens in one case, my eyes will glaze over.
  3. Provide context: Will you include a bit of explanatory text to show me how each source differs from the others? Why am I looking at this one? Where is it from? How old is it? Why is this one significant?
  4. Arrangement of individual objects: Within one display case, or within a room, the museum curator is considering how different items work together or complement one another. In modern museum displays, all emphasis is on the audience, the people who visit the museum, and their experience. Journalists could stand to learn something from that idea. The audience is not coming from the same place as you are. When journalists are compiling a set of assets for one story, or a set of related stories, or a single story composed of multiple accounts, what arrangement or juxtaposition will be most effective in providing a good and satisfying experience to the audience?
  5. Organization of the whole: In larger exhibits, the museum visitor walks through a series of rooms to view the objects on display. This is another aspect of the experience, and it can be successful, or it can fail by confusing or overwhelming the visitor. In many successful exhibits, a large or striking artifact is placed in or near the first doorway. This lures the visitor inside. If the pathway through the exhibit is varied and easy to follow, the visitor is likely to emerge with a sense of satisfaction. It’s not important that each visitor stops at each display and reads each placard. Visitors can choose their own pace and their own level of intake.
  6. Expertise: The curator of a textiles exhibit is not someone who just encountered textiles for the first time last week. More likely, that person has been studying textiles — and their history, production and use — for many years. One of the strongest implications in the word curation is, I think, the idea of expertise. If the journalist-curator doesn’t have a background in South Asia and terrorism, then she’s a poor choice to curate a page about the Mumbai attacks. Her choices will likely be naive, possibly even detrimental. I’m not saying the journalist needs a Ph.D. in South Asia history — but if you work with young students, as I do, you’ll see that sometimes they throw together a bunch of links or resources that would actually embarrass your news organization (e.g. amateur Web sites, or Web sites compiled by high school classes, or commercially biased sites). Seat-of-the-pants reporting can be fast, and errors can be corrected as we go. Curation indicates a more careful process, with research and fact-checking and solid sourcing underneath it.
  7. Updating: In a standing exhibition, such as Egyptian art at the Met in New York, the curators will change it up every so often. In journalism, depending on the topic, we might change it up once a week, or once a day. But even longstanding “exhibits” could benefit from a face-lift now and again.

Feel free to add your own.

42 Comments on “‘Curation,’ and journalists as curators

  1. Pingback: Notes from a Teacher - Wednesday squibs

  2. it’s true, the curator-journalist connection has always been there: the best curated exhibits are presented as narratives and the best curators have always been storytellers in their own right.

  3. A good newspaper wire editor already performs a lot of your journalist-as-curator functions. They might be useful in curating online repositories of knowledge.

    Another great place to see this is The Week magazine (and its Web site, http://www.theweek.com ). I subscribe to the print product, using it as a supplement to my other news sources.

  4. I see great opportunity in your observation that a person with little expertise could “throw together a bunch of links or resources that would actually embarrass your news organization.”

    The success of The Drudge Report (and other “aggregators”) comes from Matt Drudge’s expertise in the topic he curates — and what his audiences wants to read.

    Editors and reporters with that level of expertise about their hyperlocal(?) beats and “audience” have the potential to become curators with the same kind of success as Drudge, albeit at a much smaller, local scale.

    By the way, Techmeme just added a human editor to their curating process. The site become a success using algorithms that gathered and ranked tech news. With the addition of the human editor, Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera says “human+algorithm combo can curate news far more effectively tha[n] the individual human or algorithmic parts.”

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  6. @Kevin Sablan – I agree, any successful link blog is an example of good curation. Even if I don’t like the site, if it has built up a big audience, then it is doing curation well.

    It’s most helpful, I think, to look at curation WITHOUT saying “That’s what editors already do.” Sure, some editors do this stuff some of the time. But the idea becomes useful if you look at how it can bring NEW thinking into your work and your news organization.

  7. Thank you for the reply. I agree that we should think of what kind of NEW thinking this can bring to our work.

    Editors should master what I consider to be some essential tools of online curation: Social bookmarking sites like Delicious, Twitter as a research tool, Yahoo Pipes for aggregation.

    At the risk of being a bit promotional, I use some of those tools to create and edit a daily list of items related to journalism and “the almighty link.”

    The daily “selection” is made by members of my Delicious network, including a user named macloo. Yahoo Pipes mixes together items that contain a handful of tags.

    I “cull” the list down, and use my limited “expertise” to “provide context” with some explanatory text.

    I need to work on the “arrangement” and “organization” aspects.

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  9. Pingback: links for 2008-12-05 « Common User

  10. Yes It is a natural result of the shift from information scarcity to information overload. When information was scarce, journalism was mostly hunting and gathering. Now that information is plentiful, journalism has to shift to processing. Mindy’s list enumerates many of the ways to add value through processing.

  11. Thanks, Phil. I feel quite honored to receive a comment from you, and I think you’re quite right to say the catalyst for a change in roles is the increased availability of, and access to, information.

  12. Pingback: links for 2008-12-06 « Jeff’s random thoughts

  13. This post is the perfect translation the actual moment the journalism in the web. I a journalist with 20 years at classical media and today my focus is curation. The best example this new job for me is the portal M de Mulher (W the woman) where my company has curation for the Abril, the bigest magazine company in south america. I am very happy why i believe that function the jounalist will be curator the informations and news.

  14. Fascinating post. Thanks. One thing that I think is really important to the curatorial model is that there’s an obligation – as far as it’s possible – to provide access to the curated item *right there* in the page – embedded or ‘inline’ as we used to say in the old days. This won’t always be possible (if you’re curating something physical or something protected by DRM) but should be compulsory if you’re curating video or music, for instance. Referencing or linking to a TV show just isn’t enough. You have to wrap your commentary around the item itself…

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  16. I’ve spent a good deal of time searching for a word other than “Curation” in part because of the connection to museums (which I feared sounded elitist and historic).

    But the fact is that it is the right word, with the right results.

    The biggest shift from mainstream media publishing to curation is that the expert curator has no obligation to rely on ‘expert’ or ‘professional’ sources. In fact, very much the opposite.

    Because speed and authenticity are increasingly
    essential – a good curator can publish, and then edit and update as the conversation or the story requires.

    What is missing – but arriving -are curation tools… that give publishers the ability to find, and sort, and publish.

    But there are good pieces of this already in place.. and more on the way.

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  25. A wonderful and important post Wendy. I say this less from the perspective of a journalist (which I am not), but from the perspective of a manager of a media site responsible for monetizing content. The reality, as I see it, is pretty simple for media sites – and the reality is almost entirely shaped by Google. Media sites need to adapt their strategies to the Google-imposed new order or suffer the consequences of a continuously fragmenting media landscape.

    Our best sites were getting 40% of their unique visits from Google – and with great search optimization observed during the curation process – the net number of unique visits had gone through the roof. Unfortunately, and this is where Google becomes your worst enemy if you aren’t curating properly: the depth of visit dropped from around 7 pages per visit, to just over 2 pages. Not good. In our case, we knew about good story curation but were limited by our publishing tools. Our users were clearly leaving Google open in another browser window and going back to their search results to explore the topic after they had read our poorly enriched story.

    Tools permitting – and I’m not convinced the tools are out there yet – I think good curation is about the only way that digital publishers can successfully address the threat posed by Google and the like. To me, its about converting searchers to explorers. Curators of good stories can create the opportunity for exploration – taking the user by the hand and leading them through a topic, rather than sending them back to Google. This is something we began to measure and I can safely say that our stories that showed the user avenues to explore a topic dramatically outperformed our poorly curated efforts.

    From the perspective of a site manager responsible for overall site profitability I can safely say that a focus on curation is the best way to convert a searcher to an explorer, which is critical to monetizing content.

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