News as Software

Lately there have been a couple ideas bouncing around in my mind about news. To commit them to memory I wanted to write them down here. What follows is a rough outline of how I would structure a news organization’s online presence. These are by no means polished ideas but are first passes at a conception of journalism’s future.

The driving point behind all of this is an idea that I’m calling News as Software. What this means in my head is that news organizations need to start adopting some of the approaches that have been so successful for software developers on the web.

Use not Consumption

News organizations need to begin promoting the use of their product instead of its consumption. The traditional print product fit very well as a unit of consumption. Readers could sit down and consume the information. After reading whatever percentage of articles interested them there was not much left to do with the news. At least in my house the old product simply becomes paper to start fires with in the winter.

News as software requires a fundamentally different mindset. Software provides a sense of utility to users. It does something for them. More importantly it does that function over and over. Granted, this would be difficult to do but the first step is to break down the idea that news arrives in an organized package.

Experimentation and Play

Closely connected to this idea of news as software that people use time and again is the ability for users and developers to experiment and play with content. For the technically inclined among us Twitter is far more useful because of its API than it ever would have been as a limited website.

The API of a web service is what transforms something ordinary in something magical. The fact that I can use any number of client applications, or even other web apps, to read and post to Twitter is a testament to the ingenuity behind it all. By providing a platform from which users and developers can customize an experience Twitter has given us a service that we can customize to our liking.

Contrast this with any major news site. The New York Times simply does not allow for its users to play with the news. Sure, they’ve made initial attempts at doing so with things like Times People and the Times Skimmer but ultimately the content is staying within the New York Times packaged site.

Help your users

Every successful web app and desktop program I can think of has a thriving online community of users who help on another. Generally this is everything from fixing bugs in the software to promoting some of their favorite tips and tricks. Why doesn’t this hold true for mainstream news organization sites?

The New York Times has a “Help” page. You find it by scrolling all the way to the bottom and finding the link in about 11 px type. Perhaps this works for finding help with subscription related information or other things but it fails at stimulating the type of community that’s present in many web apps.

If I were a user looking to restructure the manner in which I consumed information from any mainstream news organization where would I go to find out about how others do it? Where could I engage with other readers about ideas for using the news? If there is any place that allows for this kind of thing (no, not Twitter, I want it on the news organization’s site) then tell me but I highly doubt it.

What do we do?

The current design of mainstream news sites is what I see as the biggest stumbling block toward this conception of news as software. Take a look at the New York Times, Washington Post, or The Guardian websites. Every one of those sites presents content in an already organized format.

Loading nytimes.com for example brings up a static grid of content. Once a user finishes looking over that content there is no sign of when new content will become available. There are very few ways for the user to customize or play with the content as well.

Furthermore, there is no method of tracking what content readers have already seen. Thus, were you to visit nytimes.com 2 hours from now there would be no way to tell what you had already seen. Some of the same stories will be exactly where you left them, others will have simply shifted around the page. To inspire people to start using a news site we’ll have to completely reorient the design of sites.

Currently, everything is prepackaged. Perhaps this makes things easier but somehow the success of services like Twitter, Google News, and others tells me that people like to have control over what information they see, where they see it, and how detailed it gets. Without inspiring creativity there is little reason for users to become attached to a news site. They all offer the same thing: prepackaged content organized by an editor with little connection to the millions of users. That’s not software, it’s shovel-ware. That’s not what people enjoy using and it’s certainly not what they are going to pay for.

12 thoughts on “News as Software

  1. I like the idea of switching away from the consumption model. This mindset has hobbled many types of media organizations. But I’m not as clear how customization (a good thing) can meaningfully scale down. The New York times has a vast quantity of content, the Union-Bulletin does not. But even within large news organizations like NYT the content is fairly limited compared to the vast world of news that we’ve become accustomed too “consuming” day-to-day. It’s obviously a tremendous paradigm shift for publishers but I think coming up with a fair way to monetize a Google News type program would fit how I want to interact with the news. Because at the end of the day there isn’t a news organization capable of being my sole supplier of information.

  2. Win. The biggest challenge, though, is the culture and mindset shift, which I don’t really see happening all that much. Most “newspaper” websites are stuck in a certain paradigm where only the editors know what we need to know. Which is a bit of a ridiculous notion, considering now you can just publish all of the information and float it in more effective ways.

  3. I don’t disagree with the bulk of this by any means, but I don’t think we should lose sight of the value editors bring to the picture.

    Information, misinformation and opinionated drivel are out there in abundance. There’s no shortage of ways I can engage with the content on the web. I don’t have an infinite amount of time however and I want people/organizations I trust to curate some of that information for me.

    1. I didn’t mean to imply that editors would have no value in this setup. If anything, I think they’d have more value.

      However, I do think their role would have to change slightly. I think this point is a place that would be ripe for greater editor engagement.

  4. Quite an interesting post. I have a few points:

    1) The Guardian is one of the most open and sharing newspapers we have in the UK and there are numerous examples of people building on top of the product using their open platform:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/open-platform

    2) Familiarity and traits are such an important factor when it comes to design. The style of print newspapers has not changed much since their beginning. Headlines, captions and content, all in a grid layout with justified text. These are proven ways of displaying this kind of information. The same is now beginning to apply to online newspapers too. They’ve found ways of displaying content which users are comfortable and familiar with so they have no reason to change unless usability testing shows otherwise. And if usability testing had shown otherwise, we’d be seeing something different today.

    3) Your point about content you’d already seen is interesting. It makes sense for content to be chronologically ordered so older stories move around the page but most importantly all news sites that I use do so in a consistent manner. The behaviour of news randomly jumping from columns doesn’t hold true at least in my reading.

    Regarding content that has already been read, this can be solved using CSS:visited. Unfortunately a lot of websites don’t use this for aesthetic reasons. And, surely people are familiar enough with bookmarking if they want to go back and read something later so content they have previously read becomes irrelevant.

    4) Your final point about people not paying for the news online: I couldn’t agree more. I have absolutely no interest in paying to read news online in its current state. What could make me change my mind? I’m not sure :)

    1. Hi Dean. Thanks for the comment.

      To point #1: Absolutely. I think the Guardian has done some really wonderful things to engage their community and inspire people to play with news content.

      #2: I understand the importance of familiarity and comfort but at the same time what many large-scale news sites are doing in the online space just isn’t working. Having a design that your readers are familiar with is great but you’ll just be leaving the door open to an enterprising news startup who is not afraid to take risks with their presentation. The web allows for rapid iteration, unfortunately this doesn’t happen with news sites.

      #3: True, the :visited property in CSS can do wonders here. However, that’s only good if all of my reading happens from one device, something that is less and less likely. If the news organization can have a personalized flow for content on their site then through my user account they could patch that same personal stream to my visits on an iPad, or mobile. There’s a lot more potential here than CSS rules allow for.

      #4: I have a few ideas of my own. Perhaps in a future post. :)

      1. #3: Isn’t that what RSS/google reader is for. I read most of my “tech” content via subscribed RSS feeds and google reader which works great across multiple devices.

        1. True, and that’s fine if news organizations want to continue to rely upon outside technology vendors.

          The reading experience is one of the greatest assets a news organization can control. If they want to outsource that then so be it, but long term they are then relying upon a third party for their audience.

          RSS should without a doubt always be an option for readers but news organizations should additionally work to provide the best, personalized reading experience they can for their users who wish to not use Google Reader, et al.

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