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The Value of a Good Guide

Last week I shared links to columns about George Steinbrenner’s life and legacy that had struck home with me – a Mets fan who’d spent his life trying to ignore the Boss as a distraction from the daily doings of baseball as played by the National League in general and the Metropolitans specifically.

What I left out, in an effort to let the columns speak for themselves, was the trouble I’d had finding them. I stuck with my local papers (the Times, Post, Daily News), checked in with a national publication (Sports Illustrated) and tried two writers I admired and figured would be great fits for taking Steinbrenner’s measure (Alex Belth and Joe Posnanski).

But in doing so, I knew I was just scratching the surface. I knew there were columnists in Ohio and Florida and all across the U.S. who had some unique take on Steinbrenner that I was missing. I knew there were lots of writers considering him on blogs I hadn’t had the good fortune to find yet. While I really liked the columns I found, it was frustrating knowing there were other writers out there whose work would remain unfamiliar to me.

There’s a Web lesson in that – and an opportunity for publishers. While Web search has changed our lives, it has built-in limitations we sometimes forget. People can overcome those limitations, provided they have skills that come with the territory for journalists. We can be the guides our readers need, even to subjects we don’t normally cover.

First, the Web lesson.

I now search for anything and everything, from who won’t start for my fantasy baseball team to the weather to curing miscellaneous household annoyances to finding a hotel to getting a PDF of a long-discarded owner’s manual to what people are saying about me to satisfying my random curiosity about a million different things. (What’s that fish my kid caught earlier this month in Maine? Did they ever fill that terrifying sinkhole in Guatemala City?) I’m sure you do many of the same things.

The ability to search has changed our lives: We can find answers to sophisticated questions, solve problems and learn things without ever leaving the house. And we can also dive amazingly deep, going from the absolute latest news about, say, the BP oil spill or Rod Barajas’s oblique injury to technical or historical or conspiratorial discussions about same. (We can also waste an astonishing amount of time in idle curiosity and shoptalk, of course. So it is with any tool.)   

But while search is very good at answering specific questions or giving you a survey of general information, it’s not good at other things. It can’t parse “give me the best columns on George Steinbrenner,” let alone “show me George Steinbrenner columns that will make me laugh, cry or think differently about the man.” Part of the problem is that news still takes a while to be assessed by readers, discussed, linked and then indexed and ranked by Google and other search engines – by the time that process is complete, we’re on to the next thing.

Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social search can help with that, and real-time results from them are reshaping and informing search engines. And they do a lot to address what’s missing from search, zeroing in on the qualitative and the ineffable. My Twitter feed is a very high-quality news feed personalized for me because I follow people who are interested in what I’m interested in and whose judgment I trust. Google can’t find me great sportswriting that will make me think differently, but Twitter can.

Or at least it can within the bounds of the personalization I’ve set. Which is what happened to me after Steinbrenner’s death: I wanted to know more about him, but I didn’t have a starting point, daily rounds or good filters to bring me that information. I couldn’t extract it from Google because what I wanted defied indexing. It wasn’t waiting for me in Twitter because it’s not what I normally concern myself with.

What I needed was a good guide. And that’s where the opportunity lies.

I may not have cared much about Steinbrenner, but it wasn’t a big stretch to anticipate that I might: Besides the fact that I’m a baseball fan from the same city as his team, Steinbrenner’s death was a subject of national and even international interest. After word of his death got out, lots of people – Yankees fans, Mets fans, baseball fans, New Yorkers, and those interested in big, messy, iconic American lives – suddenly had a relatively brief but intense interest in him. They wanted summations, commentaries, biographies and everything else involved in trying to sum him up.

Your publication may not have a Yankees beat, or even a baseball beat. But it’s a part of people’s daily habits – the place they go when they wake up and are rubbing the sleep from their eyes, or when they kill off those morning emails and have a few minutes to settle into the day, or while eating lunch at their desks, or when they need a few minutes to stave off the 3 p.m. lull. It’s where they go to find out what’s new.

Sometimes, what’s new will be something that everybody’s talking about. If so, be your readers’ starting point – even if that something isn’t what you ordinarily cover. Find me six to eight stories about Steinbrenner, or about why Don Mattingly ran afoul of the umpires, or about whatever else will have everybody talking. Write them up as a quick narrative full of links. No matter what beat we cover, journalism makes us experts at filtering information, assessing its quality, summarizing it and explaining what it means. Search engines, for all their wonders, can’t do that nearly as quickly or as well as we can. And thanks to hyperlinks, we can send our readers to most any publication in the world, allowing us to leverage other people’s work and insights for our own audience.

Why would you want to send readers elsewhere? Because by doing so, you’re making them a promise: We may not cover what you want to know ourselves, but we’ll find out who does and point the way. That’s a bargain that will work in your favor the next time – and all the times after that.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
 
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