Here is the future of online news

Lessig_reading_news (1)Warren Ellis, the one who writes comics and stuff not the one who is a musician, linked today to this Fast Company feature on the new way it is  handling news content. Ellis has a well-deserved reputation as an expert dowser of weird futures, and this one feels completely right and I think it’s a glimpse of what our online news portals will look like in a decade.

News is currently delivered on the web as discrete articles. The power of hyperlinking and accessible archives mean you can hop to related stories easily, but each news day brings a bunch of isolated units of content.

Fast Company has seen that this is old thinking. If the main connection between the thing you’re reading and related previous articles is a set of “Related Stories” links at the bottom, then you’re not taking advantage of what is really possible here.

Fast Co. decided to nest its reporting content within the relevant theme. Its coverage of the gender gap in the tech sector, for example, collates many different units of reportage on the one page, and the list keeps growing as new developments are written about. It has found significant changes (for the better) in how long visitors are staying on their site and engaging with their content.

This is the way forward. As news moves online and struggles to justify itself financially, the old workflow of the newspaper office will need to be kicked away to create space for new ways of presenting news content. Stories are already located within very high-level themes, analagous to the sections of a newspaper (Sport, World, etc.); sections come and go to focus on specific topics that are of timely importance (like this section collecting all budget reporting). These are very blunt tools, however, and apart from that, the content is atomised.

Let’s look at a specific example. Take an article highlighted on the Stuff front page as I write: Dotcom granted leave for Crown appeal. Now the Kim Dotcom case has been a complicated, fascinating saga involving the government, spy agencies, international copyright law, the FBI, law enforcement priorities, the nature of celebrity, and many other curious things. When you click on this article, however, all you get is a few hundred words that describe a new development in the long complex saga, with some reminders of what was going on down the bottom. If you haven’t been following along, this will mostly be incomprehensible. But the kicker is this – there is no way to get at any more information about the Dotcom story. There are over 100 clickable links taking you away from that story, and not a single one of them is in any way related to the content.

This is a structural failing. This article, and all the many others like it, forces the reader to do most of the work figuring out how this story connects to that story, and what else might be out there that matters. Not only that, but they carry over the daily newspaper’s model of focusing on the present. If you want to know the backstory, prepare to do a bunch of Google digging. They give you the facts, but the context is your own problem.

Other news orgs are doing better: this randomly-chosen story on The Guardian site lets you click on the subject tags and also features a “more on this story” sidebar leading to a mass of related articles. This BBC one on a Cambodian factory collapse has a related articles sidebar too, but you’ll need to do your own thinking to draw any connection to other recent factory collapses and the emerging discussion about them. CNN on the Bangladesh factory collapse has an even more informative sidebar, but it only goes back so far and there’s no apparent way to dig deeper or get an overview of what’s going on.

This is good stuff, but it only scratches the surface of what is possible. News organisations can do better at presenting their content than we have seen so far.

Here’s a parallel: Campbell Live, daily current affairs in the 7pm news slot, has hit a new level of excellence in the last year or so. There are two reasons for this: a clarification of the show’s mission (which has seen it embrace what is sometimes called “advocacy journalism” in a comprehensive way) and a commitment to build a bigger picture of important stories despite the limitations of the television news show form. Campbell Live’s approach has been to parcel stories up into 5-minute pieces, but to doggedly pursue them, day after day, week after week, taking a break then coming back in and building on what has been addressed before. They aren’t leaving it to the viewer to navigate their content for them – they are drawing connection lines between that piece yesterday, this piece today, and the next piece tomorrow. It is powerfully effective.

I don’t think the Fast Company model is ready for widespread adoption as is (and I’m sure they’d agree – it’s just a trial over there as well). The “slow blog” format will prove unwieldy over the long term, as most long-running blogs happily demonstrate. But it’s a signpost. The future of news sites is not just providing lots of content, but providing excellent ways to explore it and make sense of it.

My info-design talents are extremely shallow but even I can see some specific possibilities. Imagine a view of the content in your news site that allows you view articles by timeline. Say you read an article about some MP who has made a dickhead of himself; a click of the timeline link at the side and you can bring up a graphic timeline that shows every article relevant to the story going back to its origin. Another click, and all the opinion pieces that mention it pop us as well. Hey, then why not bring up another timeline in parallel, showing all the coverage of a controversial government bill that might have been overshadowed by the first controversy.

One of the long-standing critiques of news reporting is that it’s basically for insiders – if you don’t know something of what’s going on in the world, then seeing a bunch of updates on what’s going on in the world isn’t going to do much more than confuse you. This is a step towards addressing that problem. And the best bit is that it doesn’t require new technology; it just requires new thinking (and probably a massive ground-up redesign of the databases that drive news websites, but I’m not going to worry about that right now. Basically news sites need to get better at metadata, just like the entire rest of the web.).

So I’m excited for what we might see in the future. Just imagine how our knowledge of the world might be delivered if the content was assembled with the cleverness and snap of, say, Keith Ng’s budget visualisation tool. Hopefully it won’t be long until we don’t need to just imagine it.

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting read, though I’m not sure I agree with all of it.

    I guess my main issue with the idea of re-contextualising the presentation of news in this form is that there doesn’t seem to be any resonance with the field of journalism (i.e. the ethos that drives it as a cultural field). It also makes deploying framing techniques much more difficult – almost leaving it up to the reader to create their own frames – which again doesn’t really gel with journalism as a field. Certainly part of the role of the news media is to present pre-set frames so that individual readers can make sense of the reportage on a story by story basis without having the audience do the hard work of contextualisation.

    I guess the other thing which bugs me is that yes, news is delivered in discrete units, but news is almost never read solely in isolation of previous events – it’s an ongoing process which relies on the audience accumulating knowledge over a period of time (growing informed citizens). If we were to look at who clicked on a particular story I’d be comfortable betting that the majority of those clicking would already have some contextual understanding of the story based on their previous interest in the topic. Sure day to day it’s discrete packaging but what drives interest in a story is often previous knowledge of the field or subject.

    There’s certainly some potential – and there’s no doubt that things will change in the presentation of news – but I’m wary of what’s driving it as an experiment (consumption as opposed to reportage ethos) and the way it changes the relationship between the audience and the producer.

  2. I don’t see your concerns as disruptive to what I’m suggesting here – in fact I think in many ways they dovetail nicely. Essentially what I’m saying is that news organisations should use new techniques to enhance their current method of framing news (a few extra paragraphs at the end) and providing context (relying on regular readers to have followed the story for a while) . Those methods are newspaper methods, and newspapers are on the way out, permanently. New methods will keep power in the hands of the journalistic field – but allow new approaches and new avenues of exploration.

    In fact, extending thinking a bit further, I’d suggest that news orgs will generate revenue not by putting their news content behind a paywall, but by putting their contextualisation & info management tools behind a paywall. There’s real opportunity for competition and innovation there.

    I’d be very interested if you want to expand on your comments about “journalistic ethos” in relation to this idea, though! 🙂

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