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Beacon blog: Too much of a good thing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2010 - Last week, I noticed several blogs report snickeringly that NYTimes.com has 's "Idea of the Day" blog  had been discontinued. "The New York Times declares it's run out of ideas," the blogs said.

I didn't habitually read the blog, but I had heard of it. It was a place for editors to point out interesting writing elsewhere on the Web, and offered this explanation of the variety of topics: "We're generalists, so consider this a thinking person's grazing buffet."

After getting past the surface humor, the story made me think of three things:

1. The New York Times didn't run out of ideas, it had more than it could feasibly bring to life. Part of the very short farewell post says: "The blog's end is a result of limited resources in a medium where any number of worthy projects are possible, and where new priorities continually emerge."

Something that's interesting when working with information, and something I've only begun to grasp (and which I briefly touched on in my previous "distilling the data" post), is there's always more to do.

Looking at it from a story point of view, you can almost always track down some more related data, add more links or information, write a sidebar about a point and so on.

Taking a wider view - and probably something more akin to what the NYTimes faced - how great could we make upcoming election coverage? How could we more usably chronicle all the theater events going on around town? We had a talked-about graphic inventory of parking and parking meters in Grand Center a while ago - what if we did the same thing in other areas?

It's largely as the Times put it, "a result of limited resources." Most of the time, we don't end a project because we've run out of ideas about how to further that project. Rather, we end it because there are "any number of worthy projects" we'd like to give our time and attention to at any moment, and we've decided to focus on something different.

2. There are other places to get news. Some of them are at least as good as we are. It's inconceivable that some media organizations still seem to refuse to acknowledge that other news sources exist. Other journalists are working for other organizations - and bloggers are writing for blogs. They are doing work worth pointing out. It doesn't diminish our work to notice something done well somewhere else and pass that to our readers along with our own work.

There's little sense in trying to sweep others' work under the rug. If anything, given the limited resources mentioned above, it makes more sense to point out when something is important or well done originally, and then go on to do great original work ourselves. We try to do that in the Editors' Picks box at the top right of most pages.

Duplicating a story - unless we can add value to it ourselves - is like buying a well-built motorcycle, disassembling it, reassembling it and passing it off as new. Beyond the wasted work, it probably won't even run very well (at least if you have mechanic skills comparable to mine). The Web is a big place. "There IS room enough here for the two of us."

3. From a reader's point of view, a varied buffet of news is a valuable thing. Blogs such as the Idea of the Day blog, our Editors' Picks section, givemesomethingtoread.com, longform.org and other thoughtful aggregators (distinct from "firehose" aggregators that throw everything against the wall and see what sticks) are all places to go to get thoughtful recommendations of things that are important or interesting to read. News that matters.

Getting information from a variety of places exposes me to new voices, new concepts and new points of view. I get to constantly evaluate those things and figure out where they fit into my world, how I can carve out some space for them or, on rare occasions, if I should reject them completely. With only familiar sources, subjects and authors it is all too easy to go on autopilot and mindlessly scan. With fresh voices and new points of view, I focus on the concepts and make new connections in my world.

The "Idea of the Day" blog is dead, not because the New York Times ran out of ideas or because there aren't as many ideas to be found. There is an abundance of ideas. Only now, journalists have the power to choose which ones to bring to life. As journalists we must use that power to birth and nurture those ideas responsibly, with readers front-of-mind. As readers, this abundance provides the freedom as well as the responsibility to thoughtfully engage with a variety of concepts.

Go read something good.

Brent is the senior data visual specialist at St. Louis Public Radio.