Towards a Better Definition of Curation in Journalism

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The role of the curator in journalism has become intertwined with the notion of aggregation: collecting information from various sources and piecing it together into a (hopefully, more or less) coherent whole.

The better curators of news often take this a step further and help to situate the resulting information object in a broader context, but just as often the “curation” (more correctly: aggregation) of information is, itself, the end result.

And this form of aggregation is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing. Far from it. The collection and arrangement of information has been a concern of journalism for…oh, about as long as there has been journalism.

Editors tell us to look at this, not that. They decide what goes in the paper (on what page), on the radio or TV (at what time) or on the homepage of our websites.

And now social media editors collect and arrange the scattered tidbits of stories from across the social web into coherent collections to accompany stories (or sometimes as the stories themselves).

All useful functions. Not going away anytime soon.

But the traditional role of a curator is much larger than simply that of collector and organizer.

The role of a curator in museums, libraries and archives (where such is a position is much more common) is traditionally one of trustee, custodian or caretaker. As Webster points out, the word comes from Latin “curare,” literally: to take care.

What if, instead of collecting and arranging tweets, blog posts, YouTube videos, news stories (…animated GIFs, cat photos…) we, as curators of the news, really “took care” of stories or beats or communities. Or perhaps even “took care” of the massive collections of information that news organizations have amassed over time.

What might this look like?

Well, it almost certainly involves broader responsibility than just tracking a big story and putting together a Storify of how it unfolded. It’s more than blogging a daily roundup of the stories our audience cares about but our publication is not going to do original reporting on. It’s more than becoming the Twitter account that people look to because we’re not afraid to retweet our competitors if they have a story that matters to our followers before we can report it ourselves.

Naturally we should continue to do all of those things as well, but I would argue that it is important that would-be curators of news go at least one step further.

Part guide and collector, part interpreter, part researcher, part archivist, the curator of news does all of the above: collects and organizes information, places it in a broader context, mines the archives to surface bits of historical information, advances our understanding of the story and the driving forces behind it and, perhaps most importantly, takes care to ensure that a story is properly maintained and told in the best possible way for our audience to take it in.

As a curator in a museum collects and organizes objects in a gallery to enhance our understanding and appreciation of their broader history and context, so should curators of news organize collections of information in a way that enhances our understanding of the story that lies within. And then they should take care of each story as a proper curator takes care of their collection: for as long as they’re on the job.

Curation is not really about reducing costs and operating more efficiently (although aggregation certainly is). Curation is about taking care to ensure that our audience has the best possible information, context and presentation for that information.

News organizations who are really good at curation (vs. aggregation) will be those who create such thoughtful collections of information and then take care to ensure that they are updated and maintained. This is the new definition of “owning a story” – not necessarily being the first to report it, but rather the best, most thoughtful and longest-lasting curator of information that helps people to really understand it.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and let me know what you think: Is curation just a silly buzzword? or is it an opportunity for news organizations to dig a bit deeper and become caretakers for information about important stories and topics?

  • WM

    I like the discussion, but am somewhat concerned by the image evoked by the word “curator,” at least to someone of my generation. “Curator” has the implication of “gatekeeper,” often in a dusty, glass-cased world. And in the current environment, rhizomic and amoeba-like, boundaries tend to blur. So I like the notion of context, meaning, and engagement that “curation” brings with it, but somehow I want to break down the walls that separate “curator,” “information,” and listener/patron/consumer/person.

  • Rachel

    Some really interesting points raised in this article and I appreciate how you’ve suggested meaningful ways in which ‘curator’ can be redefined to fit within journalistic paradigms.

    Coming from an art history background, the frequent misappropriation of ‘curator/curation’ in the digital world is one of my biggest pet peeves. There may be people who can accurately claim the term for the work they do, but I think that’s a small number compared to those who use it without knowing or caring about what it really means.

  • heuristocrat

    Unfortunately the word and the practice have become overused and too often seem to mean just selective aggregation. There’s some value in that but it starts to look more like an echo chamber than a place for improved understanding.

    I like some of the ideas here but they are actually quite old and I expect they exist under different terms in many industries. For example the client sales and support role often consists of a great deal of selecting content, services, people, meetings, etc. to fit the needs, interests and tastes of a client. Imagine how a good Gartner or IBM rep sifts through myriad options to surface what would be especially useful to their client. 

    Institutional sales people on Wall Street to the same thing. They review masses of information for not just content but also quality, veracity of the source, true newness and share only what they know will be meaningful and valuable to them. 

    It does mean taking an active role and doing more than simple selection and aggregation.

    Good post!

  • http://www.spot.us digidave

    Holy crap Adam. I was literally having this exact conversation yesterday with a cohort at Circa. Aggregation and curation are often used interchangeably but I think conflating the two is a mistake. Curation means something different – with more care. The aim is to create an experience. 

    I find the comment from @VM:disqus to be interesting. I agree – that curation has some connotations with ‘gatekeeper’ but I think that might be misplaced and we should find a way to re-invigorate the word ‘curator’ so that it is distinct from aggregation and doesn’t have an overly ‘gatekeeped’ ethos. 

  • http://www.dotcomma.me/ Liz Wilson

    Hi Adam, Great post. Imho, curation is definitely not “just a silly buzzword” but a way of explaining how we can filter and manage the Internet. It doesn’t just apply to news – it applies to any “information worker”. So if you’re a teacher you might be curating the most relevant stuff on your class topic. As news curators can “own a story”, other curators can “own a niche”. If I am a gemologist, I might curate on gemology technology. And so on. At the moment there’s still massive confusion between “aggregation” (automated collecting of information” and “curation” (automated or semi-automated collection but human filtering and labelling). But that will change (ever the optimist).