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 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 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.