Jay Rosen wrote me last week to say that the River of News concept had reached a tipping point. That led me to publish a brief email exchange with Brent Simmons about what a river is, from a design standpoint. But there's more to rivers than their form, there are a couple of other very important ways to look at them:
The Mac beat the IBM PC because there were user interface standards. If I learned how to use a couple of apps, I was actually learning how to use all of them. If your river and my river work and act differently, we have no advantage, and people are going to stay with Twitter, because there, the UI for all rivers is the same. True, it's limited to 140 characters, but the advantages of standardization make Twitter easy and familiar.
It should also be possible for users to combine rivers. I want Reuters and Wired rivers, for example, but I don't want to go to two places to view their news. Again with standards, we don't have to force readers to make a choice. This means growth for the alternate-Twitter, which is the potential of news moving to rivers.
Standardization is something the tech industry has a hard time with. But my experience with news and RSS is that it's not as much of a problem with publishing. Once we had the NYT on board, all the other pubs followed, compatibly, without the usual fighting that happens in tech.
However now that they have been hiring programmers, lots of them, they're becoming more like the tech industry, in not-positive ways.
I offer the format we're using for rivers. It's a simple jQuery template, and an equally simple JSON format. The template was designed by an open community in a Google Group a couple of years ago. I designed the JSON format to help define the problem for the group. It was a wonderfully successful open collaboration. I hope other people just use it as-is.
This part, I believe, will be difficult for news organizations. But, if you want to compete with Twitter, you have to include bloggers in your stream. I don't mean reporters who call themselves bloggers, rather people who have expertise or experience that makes them the kind of people reporters like to quote. People whose ideas you think are dangerous. More of that.
News needs reforming, literally, it needs to be formed again around the new reality -- we all have printing presses. News will never reform itself until it feels the pressure from the sources, where it matters most, on the screens of their readers.
We need to have one environment where professional reporters, sources and critics co-mingle their thoughts. We don't need a Public Editor as much as we need The Public. That's why Twitter has been so popular, but it's unfortunate that the news industry has been unwilling to meet them there.