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.