Why “The Content Graph” Is Not The Next Generation of News

A couple weeks ago Scott Karp, founder of Publish2, began a blog post titled “The Content Graph and the Future of Brands” with:

Yesterday, two stories from Aol’s DailyFinance appeared in the Sunday print edition of the Daily Telegram, a newspaper in southern Michigan…Now I’m going to tell you why what you see on this page of the Daily Telegram could play a decisive role in the race between Aol, Demand Media, and Yahoo to win the prize of big brand advertising on the web, and why it is also pivotal to the future of news.

He goes on to detail the context for mutually beneficial interactions between large-scale content producers and traditional media institutions. The idea that this is the future of news is distressing.

The emphasis throughout the article is on large-scale content production. It focuses on the roles brand-names play in the construction of news. This is misplaced and, in my mind, ignores the lessons of the past decade.

How “The Content Graph” Sets Up Another Failed System

What Karp describes differs little from the type of one-size-fits-all news production that created organizations running large amounts of syndicated content. This traditional model of syndication has no close connection to the individual context and reality of readers. This is unchanged in Karp’s description. A newspaper in southern Michigan running stories that appeared on Aol’s finance page is no different than that same paper running a story off the Associated Press wire about finance. What relevance does content produced for Aol have to do with southern Michigan? Those are separate audiences and they deserve separate content.

Furthermore, what’s the pitch for news organizations here? There is not value in a news organization saying, “We take news stories you already ignore online and put them in print.” That does not sound like a winning proposition or a way to build a healthy foundation for journalism.

If the best hope for news organizations is to take content from a struggling internet company like Aol and republish it in print we are in worse shape then previously imagined. Reinventing journalism should be about new ideas and new models for content. It should not be about tired, failed methods of content syndication.

Losing Sight of the Individual

Lost among this collection of high-profile brands is the individual. Throughout “The Content Graph,” Karp never once mentions the role of a strong individual writer in this. All the focus is placed on impersonal brands.

Aol, Demand Media, and Yahoo are not even close to the top of my list of inspiring content producers. Instead, I think of John Gruber, Dan Benjamin, Gina Trapani, and Jason Kottke. These are individuals who have leveraged the power of today’s tools to create strong personal publishing powerhouses.

The tools we have at our disposal these days allow for an individual level of empowerment that provides a strong foundation for any news organization. From a news perspective this should be invigorating. It should drive us to think of innovative solutions to content that do not revolve around corporate brand names.

Dan Benjamin, for example, produces a series of podcasts that individually provide more value to me than any traditional news organization. What if news organizations syndicated this quality content that dealt with specific contexts instead of relying upon vague, bland stories? That would certainly give the news organization more value to pitch to readers.

To power the future of news, I would put my money behind a collection of these linchpins. Individuals who understand their audience and speak directly to experiences are far more worthy of my attention then a news organization republishing worthless content that nobody reads on Aol anyway.

A design critique of Publish2

I have written about Publish2 before but if you are not familiar with it its a great service that allows users to curate and share the best of the news they read from around the web. The sort of cliché way to think about it is a Delicious for journalism.

As great a tool as Publish2 is I have always been frustrated by its design. It has always felt stuck somewhere between the late 1990s and early 2000s where web design was in its infancy. Being that it is an entirely web-based tool for journalism I was also a bit boggled at how its design lagged behind other web-based applications. I finally got a chance to put some of my thoughts about it down though so what follows is a bit of a design critique.

In short, I see Publish2 as lacking in two key areas: user interface and site design. These two aspects are closely linked but for the purposes of analysis I will treat them as separate. First, some specifics. Publish2 has a nifty bookmarklet that allows users to add links to the system from anywhere. This is where I will focus my critique of the user interface because it is the tool that I have the most interaction with. The site design was something that was recently updated, at least for the homepage. While it is a definite improvement it is still lacking in my eyes.

Interacting with the bookmarklet

The bookmarklet is perhaps my greatest frustration. Every time I load it I wonder if it is really even worth the effort to share anything. In an age when so many web services make forms fun to fill out this just makes me think of standing in line with forms at the DMV or filing my taxes.

There are so many ways to enhance forms with jQuery, Uniform for example, and other technologies that it boggles my mind how this bookmarklet, the main source of interaction with Publish2 that most users have, is so completely undesigned.

When I started using Publish2 I was not really sure where to start with the bookmarklet. The various elements are not really given any sense of priority, besides being stacked one on top of the other. No field seems particularly necessary to fill out and perhaps that is why so many of the links on the newswire look like those that I was frustrated with back in June.

The newswire and collaborative elements of Publish2 all rely upon users inputting detailed data and yet the method of getting that information in is filled with friction.

The homepage

The homepage of Publish2 (which, frustratingly, can only be accessed when logged out) recently got quite an update and while it is a massive improvement upon the old one it is still lacking in a lot of areas.

First, my biggest complaint is the sheer amount of text on the page. If I am a journalist looking to use Publish2 where do I go to see how it works? All of the links on the Journalism half of the page (more on that in a minute) point me toward examples of how data looks coming out of the software but a prospective user needs to be able to see how they interact with the tools.

On a side note I am a little confused by the new homepage. Is Publish2 focusing on tools for individual journalists and news organizations or marketers? Maybe there is not yet a focus? Are the links that I put into the system going to be used as a way to drive marketers to the service? Either way it is unclear to me what the focus is with the way Journalism and Marketing are given equal weight on the homepage.

Finally, both of the above critiques get at a central point that I still feel is lacking with Publish2’s recent design updates: I am still not sure what the focus of the software is. With an application that provides for everything from link sharing to newsgroup collaboration to WordPress plugins a driving focus is essential.

Emphasizing certain aspects of the software makes it easier for users to understand and ultimately helps them use a tool like the bookmarklet. Both of those things help improve the end product.

…and the rest of the site

The last bit of the site design is perhaps the most puzzling. Like I mentioned above you can only see the main homepage when logged out. All logged in users are redirected to their profile pages which consist of the most recent links they have saved. Here is the confusing part: why in the world do I want to see my personal links upon logging in?

This is akin to logging into Twitter and seeing nothing but what I have posted. That is not at all why Twitter is useful and the links I save to Publish2 is not at all the reason why I want to be using it. Seeing a list of my links does not promote collaboration; instead, it makes me think of myself, not others. I want to see a newswire of my network links. Where do I find that in the current design? All the way at the bottom of the page.

Approaches that work

There are no shortage of web applications out there that have taken complex problems and turned them into simple solutions. Just take a look at Droplr, Dropbox, or Tumblr for an example of what I mean.

Notice anything similar about all of those successful applications? They all present a clear and concise description of what they do. Hell, Tumblr boils their homepage down to one sentence. I can already see a Publish2 homepage adopting that model. Publish2: The best way to find, save, and share news.

Droplr and Dropbox even provide videos to introduce users to how the software works and what it could do for them. They urge people to start envisioning themselves as users. Most importantly, they keep the focus on what the user is doing and how they are interacting with the application.

Furthermore, they all have boiled their user interfaces down to the essentials. It is very clear what I need to interact with to make effective use of those web apps. Droplr, Dropbox, and Tumblr all present polished user experiences that make it so easy to share files, keep things in sync, or publish online.

Ultimately, Publish2 is news software that isn’t acting as software. The way I see it, the power of Publish2 lies in the data that users put into the system and yet so much of the service puts the focus on the data that comes out of the software. If it really wants to be powering the next generation of news (like its homepage claims) then it is crucial to get people actually using it and using it effectively. The way to do this is to present a simple, clear message. Show people how your software works. Let them envision themselves as users.