Content curation an essential part of journalism

How to curate content

<a href="" target="_new">Slide by David Brewer</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0</a>.
Slide by David Brewer released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Journalists have been curating content for years. It’s always been an integral part of our newsgathering. We may not have called it curation, but we were doing it all the same.

Technological advances have merely simplified the task of finding, storing, enhancing, publishing, and sharing valuable news assets.

I started curating content in 1976 as a junior newspaper reporter. The rules are the same now as they were in the days before computers. Journalists still needs to dig in order to find the material they want to curate.

Curation before computers

When I started as a newspaper journalist, in the days before the internet, I was always looking for information.

I had folders of news clippings, stored in boxes in my flat, filled with articles which I had come across while reading other newspapers and magazines.

I also kept notes scribbled down while I’d been listening to radio and watching TV bulletins. There were a few recordings of radio and TV bulletins.

Each item was a reminder of something I had found interesting, and which I felt might come in useful in the future.

I had my stack of notebooks with every interview and observation safely stored. There were carbon copies of every story I had written, bound in elastic bands and dated. Keeping copies and records was a newspaper house rule, put in place for legal and follow-up reasons.

And I had stacks of newspapers containing my own work. That was my version of the modern-day online archive; my related stories, if you like.

My newspaper had its own ‘diary and file’ cabinet. An office junior would spend all day cutting up articles and filing them away for future use. Each would be labelled, indexed and filed.

If an article covered more than one issue, another newspaper would have to be cut up so that the content could be filed in more than one category. If there were important articles printed back-to-back, two more newspapers had to be clipped, and so on.

Curating with scissors and glue was time consuming but important

Who to curate for?

It’s important to know who is going to benefit from your curation efforts. This will help you decide what to curate, what to invest time and effort in developing, and how to present the resulting material.

A journalist covering a specialism or working a beat will probably find it easier to decide what material to curate. A general reporter may find it more difficult.

However, all journalists should have areas they are interested in and all should understand the needs of their audience.

So gathering material based on your interests and the needs of your audience is a good starting point.

You should think through who from your contacts list might benefit from the information you are about to share and how likely they are to find it useful. It’s not a great idea to send a message out with nobody in mind. If you have nobody in mind it’s probably best not to forward material

Why curate content?

We curate content because it’s part of our job to inform the public debate. To do that we need to add context to the information we produce with sourced, verified and attributed material.

In a breaking news situation we will probably be dealing with only the latest facts. But as the story develops, or if we are carrying out an in-depth investigation, we will need to dig deep in order to reference material that will enrich our coverage and enhance the understanding of those consuming it. That is why we need content curation.

The content we curate must have the potential to add value to our work or to help those we are working with better understand an issue.

Ideally we will know something about the topic. We will add information and then share. By doing so, those who had not seen the original item, and who may have not thought about the line you have developed or expanded upon, might benefit.

There may be a sentence buried deep in an article that is particularly relevant to something you are working on. You can then point to that element and share just that point.

Curation helps you unearth gems, polish them and display them for all to see

Where to curate?

When I started in journalism, the answer was everywhere. I was always ripping pages out of newspapers and putting them aside to store later in the box in my flat.

I would also contribute to the joint curation effort of my newsroom colleagues by suggesting material to be stored in the filing cabinet in the office.

Now, there are many great tools, most free to use, that offer different curation benefits.

Some are designed for storing and sharing and some are designed for content enrichment. These tools help the journalist add assets from the web and social media in order to illustrate their story-telling. Just search the web with the term “best content curation tools” and you’ll find many options.

When to curate content?

When I worked in newspapers, curation was a part of everyday life. However, apart from the material we shared in the office filing system, our own curation was very much a personal thing, it stood alone. Now, with digital curation, it’s fed by the efforts of others too. It’s a never-ending flow.

With daily newspaper deadlines, the challenge was to find new material, give it context by referencing previous material, submit to the news editor for revision.

Now it’s two or three clicks and the job is done. Well, not quite. That’s lazy curation.

To do it properly you need to read the piece you have found, develop the angle that has most relevance to the topic you are covering, research and refine to that point, and store or present that material in a way that will make sense to you in the future, and to your audience in an instant.

You may need to set time aside each day to check your preferred social media tools. Each day I use such tools to check out what others have curated for me. I read the items that catch my attention, consider whether they have any value for me, or whether they might mean something for those who are following me, and, if they do, I respond.

I am monitoring, curating and sharing whenever I am not on a plane, in the pub or asleep. Set yourself a curation routine to reduce the chance of missing important information.

What to curate?

You need editorial focus, audience awareness and time. Curation can be automated, but quality curation needs research, editorial input and hard work.

When I worked on my first newspaper I wouldn’t clip every article. A clipping had to have value. It had to be about an issue I was investigating, a developing story in which I would invest more time researching, and, more importantly, information that would help me produce better journalism for those who read my newspaper.

So my early content curation had a clear editorial and audience focus. I needed to know who my readers were and what issues kept them awake at night worrying. Working on a small town newspaper in the north of England made that fairly easy; we rubbed shoulders with the people who read our journalism every day and so we understood the issues that concerned them most.

Draw up a list of the the topics that interest you. Set these categories in whatever online curation tools you are using. Don’t take on too much. Start off by curating only that content you think you are likely to return to, or which you think may be of use to those in your social network.

If you find something of interest, consider sharing it and inviting others to contribute. Many of the online curation sites will enable others to make suggestions about what you have curated. If others join in, you could end up curating a rich repository of the most valuable information on a topic.

How to curate?

With care; you don’t want to get swamped. Tag carefully so that you can retrieve any information when you need it.

Also, make sure you don’t start curating a topic you thought you would find interesting only to drop it later – especially if you have built up a following. I have done that and it’s not good.

So, what’s different between curation today and before the internet?

Today, we have the luxury of tools that enable us to grab anything we see online, store it, tag it, add notes to it and file it. It’s the same end result – it’s just faster and neater.

What we didn’t have in my old newspaper office was the ability to share that stuff in an instant, and, in doing so, invite others to add their perspectives and share it with their friends.

We would have to work on the material, make phone calls, knock on doors, sit on doorsteps and follow people round to get the quotes and angles needed to be able to create a professional piece of journalism.

That could take days. Then the piece would be submitted to the news editor, the sub-editor, and the editor, printed, distributed, and then read.

And, presumably, once our newspaper was out on the street, someone was probably starting the whole cycle again with our material, cutting it up, referring to the pieces, reusing the material, expanding on it, etc – an early form of viral news dissemination.

Of course some wrapped chips in the newspapers and then threw them away.