> Online Journalism > Thinking Outside the Linear Box

By Rusty Foster (rusty [at] kuro5hin [dot] org)
posted: 2003-01-11 modified: 2003-01-17
Online Journalism Review

The previous segment of this article: 2. Defining Information Architecture

Jesse James Garrett thinks that IA is the art (and/or science) of organizing information in a nonlinear medium. He's a journalism school graduate who ended up ("like too many others") in marketing. He wrote for the Web, then moved to an editorial role, managing content for a large corporate Web site. As the site grew, he found himself spending more time addressing structural questions of "what goes where" than actually working with writers. His bosses solved the problem by giving him the title of Information Architect and hiring someone else to copyedit.

Having gone from editor to IA in one step, Garrett agrees that journalism and information architecture are similar. "I had a discussion with Matt Jones recently, and we agreed that of all the definitions of IA, what we all have in common is that we're in the meaning business. That is [also] the central mission of journalism." He thinks the reason IA has emerged as a distinct field now is the nonlinear character of the Internet. "In print or broadcast journalism you're dealing with linear structures ... The Web is the first medium we have that makes non-linear information structures viable."

Communications Breakdown

The point of most news stories is to collect a bunch of facts and present them in a clear narrative that people can understand. The craft of journalism has had long practice discovering which formats accomplish this and which don't. Or, as veteran Register hack Andrew Orlowski puts it, "News is pretty formulaic: every reporter chooses the context and once you've done that, structure follows."

Garrett points out that "there are assumptions underlying everything we learned in j-school about the needs of readers and their behavior patterns. These assumptions inform a set of received wisdom about effective structural approaches and the flow of information." The assumptions of the news business come from experience in print and broadcast media, and the majority of news online is still set in the mold of these media: standalone print news, video clips and audio clips.

Reporters, editors, and news organizations have stuck to these proven linear forms because they work. But outside the journalism community, IA is grappling with the question of how to present information in a way native to the online medium. According to Garrett, the two sides aren't really talking to each other. He says he has been working to raise awareness in the IA community about journalism's large existing body of knowledge about how to effectively communicate large amounts of complicated information.

The Extroverted Pyramid?

Sharing knowledge works both ways, however. Garrett thinks that, from an IA perspective, news organizations online are "not doing a good job yet of tying together stories with previous stories on that topic. They're not effectively providing access to source materials that a reader could follow up on." He uses as an example the standard "new government study ... ," which typically includes a couple of lines from the report and three quotes from talking heads. "Why not link to the whole report?" he asks. "They hardly ever do. Why not post entire interviews with the analysts, instead of one line of reaction?"

To information architects, this is basic stuff. They don't have column inches tattooed on their brains, and generally assume that any and all information should be available somewhere, for anyone interested enough to follow a link to it.

The next segment of this article: 4. Merging Media

This text is reprinted here in exercise of my right to "fair use" under U.S. copyright law.

The original text can be cited as:

Foster, Rusty (2003, January 11). Understanding Information Architecture. Retrieved January 12, 2003, from Online Journalism Review,

Posted 19 March 2006