I have to be honest: I was pretty disappointed by most of the journalism-specific panels I attended at SXSWi. It’s not that the info wasn’t good or vital, it’s that I expected a lot more forward-looking or cutting-edge stuff. I blogged about a particularly disappointing one (not so much the panel’s fault, I think, as much as it was the tone set by the questions), but that was fairly typical. The best sessions that I could use were in non-journalism arenas such as gaming and marketing.

One panel I have been looking forward to actually exceeded my high expectations. “Future of Context: Getting the Bigger Picture Online” with Jay RosenMatt Thompson, and Tristan Harris was everything I was looking for here at SXSWi: important questions, big ideas, and a focus on discussion and solutions. No teeth-gnashing over stale questions like “Will bloggers replace journalists?” and other such important chatter from 2005.

I’m not going to reinvent the wheel and recap this thing. Elise Hu at the Texas Tribune did an excellent liveblog summary of the panel and discussion, and if you want to hack the raw tweetstream check out what the audience was doing with the #futureofcontext hashtag. What I want to do here is briefly sketch out the argument and where my mind has been going with this since the panel spoke.

Rosen had the best visual description of the context problem facing our journalism today. Imagine, he said, downloading a software update to your computer for a program that isn’t installed on your machine. The absurdity of such a situation should be self-evident. The update does the user no good because it’s an add-on to a program that doesn’t exist on the machine. It’s a waste of the user’s time, it’s a waste of resources, and it doesn’t accomplish the mission set out for the software patch.

News, Thompson argued, is like that nowadays and he used the health care debate as an example. Thompson threw out a bunch of phrases that were highly charged and drove a lot of the news coverage of the health-reform effort in the past year: “Excise tax,” “reconciliation,” “bending the cost curve” and so forth (he neglected my favorite, “death panels”). News coverage coalesces around these episodic controversies, strategies, tactics, and jargon and assumes too much of our audience, namely that they have been following the story from the very beginning and can place the latest day’s news in the framework of what already has happened.

It’s easy to see what happens. People get confused. Or afraid. Or they think the news doesn’t have any value to them. They might not pin any of the blame for this on a lack of context, but our audience is smart. They know something is missing even if they don’t have a name for it.

Journalism then privileges episodic frames that assume systemic understanding rather than systemic frames that offer some episodic details. Which makes no sense given a couple of realities. First, the Web is ideal for systemic frames that give the news context. Second, the Web rewards systemic information flow. When the news goes away but I want to search for it later, am I getting news results in my Google hits or am I getting Wikipedia?

OK, so that’s the recap in short terms. If you want more, read the links above. They offer a ton of detail.

What I want to talk about is gaming and news context, because it was the big takeaway I got from this discussion. My mind was already starting to turn as I came to SXSW thanks to my use of Foursquare, but after sitting in on a great panel about transmedia storytelling I was over the edge. Harris mentioned game mechanics in the presentation of news, and Thompson riffed on that a bit by talking about ways we can let users “level up” (like Super Mario Bros …. appealing to my generation!) as they go through the news and context process.

Thompson later talked about the idea of a journalist on a “hero’s quest,” where they take a big idea topic and set about trying to solve it. My mind was already teeming at that point. He might have been thinking Lord of the Rings, but I was already going Legend of Zelda.

I’ve covered some of this before on my blog as it relates to Foursquare, and some of the ideas come from my colleague Bob Britten. But the essence is this: My generation, in particular, is conditioned toward gaming that is centered on collecting things. It’s a reason why Foursquare is genius. Badges and mayorships are trivial status symbols in the larger user network, but they mean something to the users. And it keeps us coming back. Farmville is kind of an idiotic game in terms of sheer gameplay, but there’s a reason why they passed 80 million users last month. It isn’t the desire to plant sugar beets. Imagine if newspapers in the U.S. had an audience of that size that was this loyal.

This is why I don’t buy the “I don’t have time for the news” excuse people give in surveys. If news execs take that at face value then they deserve their fate. The audience is telling them they’d rather plow their fake farm than read the news. And I don’t blame the audience for this, really. A contextless news environment is partially to blame.

So, gaming. I sat in on a few video gaming sessions at SXSWi and was struck by how attuned programmers are toward what it takes to keep the user’s attention. The session I attended on transmedia stories (“The 10-Minute Transmedia Experience“) was the one that broke down the walls in my mind. Transmedia, in a nutshell, incorporates a multiplatform searching game into an overall narrative that helps tell the story. They walked us through a neat example that started with a “trip down the rabbit hole” at a Web site the speakers had designed. From there we had clues to call a number, which took us to another Web site, then YouTube video, then had us search Google and email the answer to a problem to an email address set up by the storyteller. It was interesting trying to figure out the clues and solve the problems.

This is the kind of stuff they do in marketing, and the speakers cited promotions such as the campaign for The Dark Knight as an example. About 15 minutes in, Sanden Tottenof Minnesota Public Radio asked the question I’d been queueing to ask: Has this been done in journalism? The speakers’ answer was no, but they thought it would work well. The hashtag discussion on Twitter blew up from there, and the journalism folks in the room caught fire (we exchanged cards afterward as well). Clearly the pot had been stirred.

Which brings me back to the excellent panel and discussion that happened today with Thompson, Harris, and Rosen. I’m not proposing that we make transmedia the centerpiece of any work toward context, but I think it could be a piece of this and certainly is a worthy area for experimentation.

The way I envision it is to create some sort of social gaming experience that fills in the gaps. Want to fill the audience in on why health care costs so much? Why not an audience scavenger hunt that takes them through insurance companies, doctors, service providers, employers who pay premiums, and such? Or why not a Farmville type of game run in a hospital where users have to try and actually bend the cost curve themselves lest they go bankrupt, a situation that allows them to experiment with different health care systems so they can see the cause and effect of the choices we make as a society (in terms of patient coverage, costs, profits, etc? If Mafia Wars on Facebook can take off, surely this could.

And how do they make these choices along the way? With blasts of information, ideally pulled from well reported news stories, that the user can actually apply to the situation in a way that increases both recall and understanding.

So that’s where I am, and I realize that was a long post with some halfway-developed ideas. This is really the first time I’ve put down some synthesized thoughts about what I’ve been pondering here in Austin. But the gist of what I’m trying to say here is that I’m getting the sense that journalism is thinking about the idea of “story” way too narrowly. The missing link here is context. Transmedia is made for this type of storytelling mode.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you again to read the links I posted above to the presentation and discussion, and I encourage you to add your thoughts at the site set up by our speakers. I want this conversation to evolve. Our industry is dying to have it.

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Transmedia stories and the future of context in news at SXSW
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