Taking the “dead” out of the dead tree media

Last week we saw that Steve Jobs died. The week before, we learned that Barack Obama chose Chet Edwards to be his running mate.

Both were the results of slips by news organizations. Bloomberg prematurely put Jobs’ obituary across the wire, apparently after someone had just finished updating it. The Los Angeles Times released various versions of a story about Obama’s vice presidential pick featuring likely candidates and a couple of long shots. (I wonder if they had a version ready for McCain picking Palin.)

News organizations routinely prepare and update profiles on famous people to be ready to go when something big happens. In one odd case, the author of The Washington Post’s obituary of Gerald Ford died 11 months before Ford.

The big mistake isn’t that news organizations accidentally release the work like they have in the last few weeks; it’s that they don’t keep that work online to begin with. All of this time and effort goes into maintaing these stories and they only see the light of day when someone dies or otherwise makes news. The profiles of Chet Edwards, Kathleen Sebelius, Evan Bayh and others written by the Los Angeles Times are valuable, even though they weren’t selected to be Obama’s running mate.

Think about the people pages you could create with such profiles. They could be linked to from within news stories to provide users context or serve as a standalone reference. Think of the Google juice!

One thing that computers suck at and humans excel at is analyzing and synthesizing information. Compare the Post’s automatically generated page on DC mayor Adrian Fenty with the Adrian Fenty page on Wikipedia. For someone looking for a summary of Fenty, the Wikipedia page is the clear winner. The Post page requires the reader to read and synthesize many stories. (This page, incidentally, is the page that washingtonpost.com automatically links to on Fenty stories.)

The Post surely has an obit ready to go in its system with a profile similar to the Wikipedia page. But that more helpful page won’t be available until Fenty dies.

To be sure, that information isn’t updated as often as Wikipedia. But the edited profiles along with automatically generated recent stories would be a big improvement over what exists today. It would be even better if significant stories were highlighted versus run of the mill daily stories.

Even the list of people for the reporter to call for quotes at the top of the Jobs’ obituary is valuable to readers who are trying to understand a subject. The list includes Steve Wozniak, Heidi Roizen, Bob Iger, Al Gore and John Lassiter. Think of the page views!

The problem is old line thinking in newsrooms that revolves around traditional media. The assembly line mentality needs to go.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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