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Squeezing information down to size

Commentary: Blogs, newspapers, wikis -- the real question is how we're actually supposed to digest this ever-expanding universe of information.

A good chunk of last weekend's Harvard conference about journalism and blogging revolved around whether blogs or journalism will be the dominant way to share information with the world. I said before, and I still believe, that journalism vs. blogs is a false dichotomy, like beef vs. burgers: One can be made from the other, though it's not mandatory.

I want to know how we're actually supposed to digest this ever-expanding universe of information.

Curiously, I keep thinking about the first time I touched an Associated Press feed. Standing in a cramped radio newsroom, watching our rickety dot-matrix printer churn out line after line of news copy, I had an epiphany: The world was being spewed out before me onto a perforated paper roll, more than I could ever possibly want to know.

There was a catch: The AP printer could only give me news in a linear, chronological fashion. Hockey scores might have been staring me in the face, while a Mideast suicide bombing was buried somewhere in endless reams of paper that littered the floor. My job was to scroll back through it all, find the important bits, cut them out, tape them together and then go to air -- to arrange the world in relative order of importance, as I saw it.

Beyond gathering the news, that's an important part of what news organizations do. When I produced the cover page of, my job was essentially still the same as when I sat on the newsroom floor with scissors and tape: to subjectively choose what was essential and interesting and newsworthy, and pass it along.

Don't get me wrong. How that information is gathered matters. Finding out what's going on is never easy, often risky and sometimes deadly. But for a moment, let's assume that information from blogs, wikis and traditional news sources can be legitimate and trusted. Let's not argue about relative credibility.

So you've got all these billions of words of information, of ... stuff. Most blogs still organize the world by chronology, much like that AP printer. Even daring experiments like Wikinews are largely bound by chronology.

But most recent often isn't most important. One crucial role of the news media has been to sort out what's most important, what people need to and ought to know.

That can breed arrogance or get lost in such trite phrases as "news you can use." But there remains essential value in sorting out information's relative importance. Sometimes that will be information that impacts you directly, as when your local highway needs repairs. Sometimes it won't, as when people in a far-off land face danger and devastation.

Ultimately, a front page is nothing more than a hierarchy of news. A TV or radio broadcast is a linear arrangement of that same news hierarchy.

Beyond linearThere are ways to move beyond linear. Consider my old AP printer and its single stream of information. Years ago, the AP began to offer software that allowed newsrooms to separate their many different newsfeeds into topical queues. The Internet sped that process.

As the AP's Jim Kennedy put it at last weekend's conference: "We're moving an old telegraph model to a database model."

That's essentially what Google and others have done for the Web, allowing us all to dig up the information we want, arranged by popularity (sort of). But even great algorithms have their limits. While such tools assign value based on information's relative popularity, it takes time for new information to filter through the Internet -- no breaking news, in other words. And they remain very much on-topic, unable to provide unexpected, but interesting, tidbits.

Plus, we have to tell them exactly what we want -- pulling the information, not having it pushed to us.

The limits of push
There are push methods, though. When it comes to distributing blogs, tools like RSS quickly bring us what we've asked for. But they are limited by blogs' linearity, and by our own choices of what we think we want to know.

None of this is that different from walking into a library and opening a card catalog: You have a world of knowledge at your fingertips, but you have to know what you want to know.  Plus, it's always imperfect. Last week, author and Harvard fellow David Weinberger described the shortcomings of the Dewey decimal system -- and reasons for its continued use.  Why hasn't a better system replaced it?  Because, he notes, "there isn't a single, universal way" of organizing the world, so why try creating another one that will fall short?

All these tools help inform us. But they can only give us the information we request.

Consider the Dutch tulip craze of the mid-17th century. Imagine if Dutch tulip speculators in 1637 had access to a Web full of tulip info: encyclopedic knowledge of tulip quality, blogs on tulip trading, instant access to tulip price quotes and market news.

All of which would be good. None of which would necessarily have told people that banking your earthly possessions on plant bulbs might not be sound financial strategy.

Collaborative filtering can help a bit. Technologies like Technorati and Blogdex get us one step closer to sorting information's relative importance. They show us what others consider important, based on a big, engaged user base.

The right mixBut none of these achieve all the elements of what was once described to me as the mix for a perfect news front page: what you need to know, what you want to know and what you don't know that you need or want to know. (Proper percentages for each are debatable.)

Finding the right mix of those elements is a subjective process, and one with which news organizations have long been charged. I think that process is more important than ever. 

We live in a world that simultaneously values information, yet to absorb and process it, or even take a walk around the block. A 2002 Pew report noted that over half of Americans wish they had more time for news.

At the same time, the report found that nearly two-thirds of people come across news when they go online for some other reason -- so news apparently remains pervasive, at least in the online world.

The blog world certainly has the potential to transcend its form. I really like what New York University's Jay Rosen and others have done with The Revealer, though I think it's an open question whether that's still a blog or a news resource that incorporates a blog.

In the end, I go back to my original notion: journalism is a function, blogging is a form. You can blog about the news or your kid's soccer team, just as you can mail out a printed paper or upload a Web site about either. Blogs have the virtue of improving the feedback loop, of turning a one-way screed into something closer to a conversation.

But many of us still believe in the need to order information, to create a digestible view of the world -- and to do so in a regular, reliable manner -- that both the Web addict and the casual reader find useful. Savvy news organizations will figure out how to do this. The really smart ones will figure out how to pay their bills by doing it.

Blogging doesn't merely add more voices to the dialogue. It is an essential tool in helping to translate the world. But at the end of the day, the challenge remains to squeeze a world of information into our very finite lives.

Jon Bonné writes about the food industry for and about food and wine at . He has been publishing his own Web sites since 1995 and blogging since 2000..