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With all the fervour of tribesmen waving a talisman to ward off evil spirits, the authors repeatedly praise the outstanding quality of the NYT’s journalism. A touch smug, an outsider might think, but hardly controversial. But nowhere do the authors ask what journalism now is. The gulf between the information-poor world when the NYT was founded in 1851 and the information-saturated world of the 21st century is vast. If the NYT intends to go on reporting the world, which might seem a plausible guess, how do they know what kind of reporting is going to be found valuable by their readers in 5, 10 or 25 years’ time? There’s no question that the journalists of the NYT find what they produce valuable and they are joined by a large number of readers. But they must know – although this is barely mentioned in the report – that they are staring at falling print advertising income and weak digital income. There’s a reason why the NYT, currently worth around $2bn, is now valued at a quarter the sum it was a decade ago. And that reason isn’t the global financial crisis. The lack of any curiosity about what journalism might be runs parallel to a huge misunderstanding about what digital technology does for journalism.

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Today, the NYT’s Nick Bilton writes:

I recently “liked” a story about five people dying in an explosion in Connecticut.

I didn’t actually “like” the fact that five people had died in a terrible accident. Technically, I didn’t even “like” the story — I found the reporting and writing informative and the narrative engrossing, but not the contents of the piece. On Facebook, however, the only option I had to tell people I had read the article was to either add a comment or press the little “like” button that appears at the bottom of everyone’s status update.

When we were designing the Hub, we ran into this exact dilemma – which I described in a comment to Nick’s post, reproduced below (and here it is in situ):

I run a human rights video-sharing website – the Hub, http://hub.witness.org – and when we were working with our developers we ran through a range of options for this exact function. We eliminated “like”, “favourite”, thumbs-up or -down symbols, and so on as being inappropriate for a human rights story. Because we were designing a site that was serving human rights activists, but that had a public audience too, we felt that we needed to reflect the idea of solidarity for both sets of participants, and to offer more appropriate ways to show your support for or interest in human rights struggles, campaigns, crises.

The first commenter above (Hern, East Rockaway) puts it in a nutshell – seeing stories and images of this kind doesn’t necessarily mean you feel the need or expertise to comment, they’re inherently difficult, often problematic images – so we tried to find other ways in which you could contribute – by watching, forwarding, taking action on the video, for example – that required you to take a small action, without needing to write a response. I don’t think the system we came up with for “liking” – a rating system with three slide bars asking how informative, how relevant and how action-provoking the video was – is by any means perfect, but hopefully it makes a contribution to the debate.

I think Nick’s point is worth talking through further, and not just from a human rights perspective. As the web gets more semantic, as we get more and more literate and intuitive online, and are able to express ever more granular preferences and nuances through our behaviour online, it’s only right that the basic metaphors we began this all with get redesigned periodically, as they’re maybe not quite nuanced enough any more. Social media spaces are increasingly one of the primary ways in which we share news – whether that’s from media organisations, NGOs, activists, governments or our networks of “friends” – and news includes a lot of bad/sad news. These spaces need to change and adapt their ways a little as the types of information in them changes and augments in the same ways that other spaces, institutions and media have done before them…

Keep asking the questions, Nick!