The ages pass, time moves quickly, information changes, but the way to transmit it always remains the same. That’s what Ben Smith and Justin Smith, US journalists and founders of the new online newspaper Semafor, realized.

This insight is not meant to be limited to an outworn and superficial encouragement to rethink the medium used. Even in the parallel transition and spread of online journalism, the article has maintained its usual and well-established structure, made up of: title, subtitle, column/e of text, author’s name at the head or tail and any photographs. Several changes have been made – the indication of the reading time or the synoptic presentation of the content given in sectionsbut none of these changes focused on the body text.

In a nutshell: the content changes, the circumstances are different, but the form remains the same.

“The article is a venerable format,” journalist Gina Chua underlines, “developed for more than a century of printed newspapers, but it is beginning to show its age”.

Far from being translated into a mere aesthetic purpose, Semafor’s aim is to ensure greater news clarity, proposing a renewed method for exposing the article.

According to the editorial staff, the reason why more and more people take their distance from journalistic reading is the increasing scepticism towards what they find written. The problem with articles is that “they are told from a single perspective”, Chua adds. This makes it difficult for readers to trust – or even understand – the overall view“. According to the journalist, it lacks sufficient transparency in communicating that even news articles, in addition to opinion ones, are not exempt from influence, albeit partial, of the author.

It is useless to omit this information according to Semafor, which, on the contrary, aims to make it explicit.

From a witty pun, “semaform” is therefore born. It is an innovative format that involves the subdivision of the article – or “the atomic unit of written news” – in five sections: 1. the news, in the most objective way possible; 2. the analysis from the journalist; 3. the presentation of the contrary opinions; 4. further perspectives on the topic; 5. additional information.

Chua readily provides an example, using a fictitious sentence, but with a possible construction: “In a move that will probably cost him the election, John Smith was caught stealing candy from a child”. Passing through the Semaform algorithm, this information would be broken down into: the “event” occurred, which is “John Smith was caught stealing candy from a child”, followed by what would become the journalist’s analysis: “This is a move that will probably cost him the election”.

This process aims to simplify the recognition of different steps in the journalistic work, in order to inspire greater trust in the reader and make him approach again to the consultation.

In addition to a compact blanket of sceptics, nevertheless there are many columnists wondering why such a profitable improvement had not become part of the common use previously.

A first hypothesis widely accredited suggests the possibility of a vicious circle created by the readers themselves: the cultural habit to the traditional article could be too much deeply-rooted to make a different format familiar. Readers themselves would therefore become the main stumbling block to the renewal of the news they desire.

A second hypothesis justifies the commitment to the traditional format of the article involving some notions of Psychology of Learning.

In the twentieth century, US psychologist D. Ausubel (1918 – 2008) classified the acquisition of information depending on the two methods it can be achieved: by discovery (actively) or by reception (passively).

In view of the above, considered the article as a uniform and concluded succession of words, the cognitive effort applied in order to pick out information leads the readers to consolidate them better. This is what is meant by “active learning”. Instead, if you read information that has already been deconstructed – in which, for example, the “fact” had already been detached from the “analysis” – a lower effort would be required to the reader in order to discern the overall picture and notions would be retained less.

In conclusion, launched only from Tuesday 18th of October, Semafor draws on itself the most contrasting opinions in a few days. Despite sceptics write that: “Semafor reinvents information making it harder to read” (from “The Gawker”), thousands of readers currently consult this newspaper daily and they are about to reassess their way of being informed.

One-hit wonder or persisting breakthrough?

By Noemi Manghi

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