Media Perspective: Improve your story by going straight to the punchline

There are some fascinating conversations going on in the newspaper world about the inadequacy of "the article" as the basic unit of journalism.

The financial crisis has illustrated the limitations of that bounded bit of print better than anything. The word count is limited, the facts have to be repeated daily, there has to be "news" even if nothing has happened and complex relationships between facts, organisations and people are hard to explain, especially if they change over time. The web has great tools for dealing with these.

Issues: wikis, pages that change over time, links, multimedia. Yet it's still hard for online newspapers to abandon the article as the currency of journalism: the Lego brick of news. When you've been trained to think in articles, it's tremendously hard to start thinking in diagrams or flowcharts.

The journalist Matt Thompson has written a tremendous series of posts about this, the best of which is called "The article is not the story". You can find it at icanhaz.com/thompson. And the Canadian engagement planner Dino Demopoulos has written a fantastic piece teasing out the implications for brand and communications planning at icanhaz.com/dino.

But this thought about "the basic unit" of something struck another chord with me, from another industry that's been overturned by the web: music. Because the most obvious manifestation of that reinvention has been another change in the basic unit of production and consumption.

What iTunes and Napster did, really effectively, was crack open the album and release the more desirable, more fundamental unit - the song. This undid all the clever bundling the record business had managed before, selling you stuff you didn't really want along with the stuff you did, and changed the dynamics of the industry forever (arguably back to a previous, more natural, state).

You might even see the world of remixing and mash-ups as an attempt to smash the atom even further and to plunge beyond the level of the song: seeing basslines, hooks, riffs and licks as the basic units of musical production, ready to be pilfered and repurposed. We're even starting to see the same thing happen with certain sorts of film and TV, as YouTube allows you to just watch the good bits. It's not atomising Lawrence of Arabia yet, but why watch all of the latest Adam Sandler movie if someone will stick the five funny minutes on the web?

And I bet that's a good question to ask about media and marketing communications. What are our basic units of production? Could they usefully be atomised? Is there a smaller, more helpful building brick we could be using? And if we find it, could we learn to weave less repetitious, more nuanced, more dynamic stories?