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.

12 Responses to “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.

    • 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:

    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 :)

    • 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. :)

      • #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.

        • 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.

  5. […] a sus­tain­able busi­ness and com­mu­nity. It’s one small step toward a greater move to chang­ing how we think about news. About Andrew Spit­tle Andrew is a Hap­pi­ness Engi­neer at Automat­tic. Pre­vi­ously he was CoPress’ […]