Designing journalism to be used

There are lots of reasons people might want to follow the news, but to me, journalism’s core mission is to facilitate agency. I don’t think current news products are very good at this.

Journalism, capital J, is supposed to be about ideals such as “democracy” and “the public interest.” It’s probably important to be an informed voter, but this is a very shallow theory of why journalism is desirable. Most of what we see around us isn’t built on votes. It’s built on people imagining that some part of the world should be some other way, and then doing what it takes to accomplish that. Democracy is fine, but a real civic culture is far more participatory and empowering than elections. This requires not just information, but information tools.

Newspaper stories online and streaming video on a tablet are not those tools. They are transplantations of what was possible with paper and television. Much more is now possible, and I’m going to try to sketch the outlines of how newsroom products might better support the people who are actually changing the world.

What’s a journalism “product”?

This is an essay about product design, so I want to be clear on what I mean by a journalism “product.” Since journalists don’t make tangible objects, the product is defined by the user’s experience. It’s whatever the user interaction with the news is. It’s picking up the paper at breakfast, or watching CNN in bed, or waiting for your mobile app to update the headlines on the bus. And yes, the product includes the stories delivered by the medium, but those stories alone are not the product; they never were. The stories were packaged into a newspaper or a television show, and that was the product. Or more precisely, the newspaper and the television show as the user chose to use it was the product.

Much of the ongoing future-of-journalism discussion focusses on how reporting needs to change, and rightly so. But that analysis stops short of the user, and how journalism is actually used — or could be used.

Digital news product design has so far mostly been about emulation of previous media. Newspaper web sites and apps look like newspapers. “Multimedia” journalism has mostly been about clicking somewhere to get slideshows and videos. This is a little like the dawn of TV news, when anchors read wire copy on air. Digital media gives us an explosion of product design possibilities, but the envisioned interaction modes have so far stayed mostly the same.

This is not to say that the stories themselves don’t need to change. In fact, I think they do. But the question can’t be “how can we make better stories?” It must be “who are our users, what would we like to help them to do, and how can we build a system that helps them with that?”

Maybe the product has to include advertising too, and maybe it must be subsidized with celebrity gossip and movie listings. There are clearly business considerations in defining journalistic products, and that’s fine, but I’m going to focus on the user experience here. Lots of other people are already talking about the business of journalism. I’m trying to make something that actually fills a need in people’s lives. If you can do that you’ll have an audience, and then you can advertise to them or sell them subscriptions, or syndicate the product, or whatever.

The first thing I ask of an improved product is this: I want people to use it. Or rather, I want people to want to use it.

Is the news boring?

By boring I mean unengaging. Not something you want to spend a lot of time with. As Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab put it,

You never hear from people “Man, I just got lost on that news site!” We don’t create experiences that people just want to live in for a while.

He was referring to the following fact: Americans apparently spend 12 minutes a month on the average news site, versus seven hours per month on Facebook. (I’ll use American numbers as illustrative, because they’re well studied. Please let me know of data for other countries!)

It’s not that people are paying less attention to the news than they used to. American spend about 70 minutes a day with all news media, the same as in 1996. (Most of that is television news, but online consumption is climbing.) Meanwhile, total consumption of media is at an all time high. This discrepancy in growth means that people aren’t choosing to spend their increasingly connected time learning about the world — or at least they’re not learning about it through professional journalism.

I think that this is because existing journalism formats are not very good at engaging curiosity.

I’m not talking about making the writing “sharper”, adding “multimedia”, or doing better page layout. Those might be good ideas, but it’s all rearranging the furniture. There’s no fundamental change in such things. When editors give smug interviews about their publication’s “fresh new style” I want to throw things. It’s still exactly the same model of interacting with the user. There are better ways.

Design for curiosity

I live surrounded by infophiles, and for almost all of them Wikipedia is a better resource than a news site when they want to learn about the world. People spend hours roaming Wikipedia; they don’t spend hours on or or or (which actualy has a far bigger audience than any traditional news outlet.) Wikipedia also tends to take the top spot in Google results, which means that more people link to it than they do to any news site.

Why is this? If professional news products are supposed to be such a vital resource, why are users overwhelmingly choosing to satisfy their curiosity elsewhere?

I think the answers to this are starting to be understood. Standard news coverage is written as a series of incremental updates, which are useless if you’re not already following the story closely. When I returned to coverage of the oil spill after not checking on it for a couple of weeks, Wikipedia was far, far better at bringing me up to date on the story. If I’d gone to CNN I would have been forced to wade through a series of daily updates to learn what I wanted to know. This has become known as the “context” problem within the future-of-journalism community, and there’s no better introduction to it than Matt Thompson’s “An Antidote for Web Overload.”

The professional news media also have a serious problem with linking, or rather, not linking. Linking is vital for creating immersive experiences online. Links create the web, the greatest time waster ever invented. They’re also neccesary for any site that wishes to be indispensable. I don’t want the product with the best content overall, I want the product that is going to serve me up the best content every single time, regardless of whether or not it was created in-house. That means links. (And content syndication, but no walled garden will ever match the wild richness of the whole web.)

Links are also vital for transparency and depth; they provide the option of more serious investigation. The uses of links in journalism, and their relative paucity in professional work, is a topic I covered in great detail in a three part series for the Nieman Journalism Lab this summer, and I also wrote about the use of links for deep storytelling here. But to make it short: linking is not yet part of professional journalism culture, and this creates a serious problem with the product.

There are many other features that afford the satisfaction of curiosity. Take the humble “search” box. Almost every news site has one, and search is an obvious way for a user to answer their question. But news web sites almost always implement search badly, and many news apps don’t even have a search function. Or, you can only search content from last few days or within the current “issue.” I don’t care about the metaphor of “issues” when I have a specific desire to learn something.

And then the river of data stemming from search logs is poorly analyzed. There is an ongoing debate about exactly how much news organizations should respond to user demand. If “Paris Hilton” is the number one search, I don’t think that the newsroom should make Paris Hilton stories their number one priority, but ignoring what users want is folly. And it’s no way to engage my curiosity, which is about what I think, not what the editor thinks.

Don’t fear fragmentation

Which leads us to another deep problem with existing journalism products: they’re not designed to be personal.

Perhaps this stems from the classic “we’ll tell them what they need to know” mindset among editors. That makes sense for a paper product, where everybody reads exactly the same copy, and you can actually “finish” consuming the content when you run out of pages to read. It doesn’t make sense when pages are effectively infinite, and there’s no obvious reason that my reading should overlap with yours. Grizzled hacks love the idea of everyone talking about the same set of stories, just like the good old days, but I don’t believe that, today, it is a reasonable thing to expect or want.

NYU journalism profession Jay Rosen recently introduced me to a 20th century social critic named Raymond Williams. “There are no masses, “ Williams wrote in 1958, “there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” Lofty discussions of journalism use words like “public” and “citizen,” but of course those are ideas. There is no homogenous audience. And at last it is possible for our media to reflect this truth, because the internet is not a broadcast medium. A newspaper or a TV report is the same experience for everyone, while my usage of a web site or an app can be extremely personal.

Then we have the problem of information overload. One person can only track so many stories. If everyone follows the same few stories, lots of important things are going to be ignored. (Which is exactly what’s happening now, according to internet scholar Ethan Zuckerman.) Delivering the same information to everyone and expecting that everyone engage it equivalently is not only an insult to diversity, it ignores that fact that our civilization is built on specialization. Different people have different capabilities, positions, and passions, and so they’re going to need different news agendas. Empathetic journalists have always been aware of this, but it wasn’t previously possible to target individual stories to specific people.

This targeting is something that users could do for themselves to a large extent, given the right interface. Today, the personalization features of almost every digital news product amount to 1) showing me stories that happen in my zip code and 2) letting me pick from a small set of coarsely defined “sections.” Why can’t I subscribe to updates on particular stories? Why can’t I set up alerts for particular terms? Why can’t I tell my news app “no more updates on Lindsay Lohan, ever”? Etc.

Who needs to know?

If we’re going to try to deliver specific stories to specific people, then who should we target? First of all: anyone who wants to know. The broadest possible access is important, and happily, the internet has been very good at extending access.

Beyond that, I go back to the idea that journalism should be useful by those who are acting to change and build our societies. Then the answer is “whoever is going to do something about it.” The product should serve the people who choose to act.

Some people will have shaping society as part of their job description, such as teachers and civil servants. Other’s won’t, and this is truly a great era to be an interested amateur. It’s not that every individual is a motivated genius just waiting for the right call to action. Rather, let’s say that there is tremendous knowledge and capability scattered throughout society, untapped. Some people are highly trained specialists with spare weekends. Other are merely informed and interested.  Some problems call for unskilled mass participation, but many more call for the dedication of a small number of the right sort of people.

My favorite example of this is the The Guardian’s successful attempt to find someone among their audience who could untangle the mystery of Tony Blair’s tax returns. Eventually, some crusading geek of an accountant stepped forward with the solution (and bravo to you, sir.)

In fact, we know that most people won’t work on anything at all. This is the nut of the 90-9-1 rule which seems to hold across many different types of online social activities: 90% of people are just audience, 9% are involved in some way, and only 1% are the real creators. The numbers vary somewhat from platform to platform, but the upshot is always that only a very small number of people do the core work. There’s no reason to believe that offline social initiatives — everything from campaigning for gay rights to  getting potholes repaired — would typically attract a much broader base of core agents. And this is fine. This is normal, and nothing to be upset about. One percent of a population is still a huge pool of talent and labor.

In this framework, the purpose of journalism is to deliver each story to the right 1%, at the point when they need it. Saying that most people won’t read a story about Madagascar doesn’t get us very far; that’s expected, and that’s the only way it can be in an era of spectacular information overload.

I don’t know whose job it is to facilitate the creation and nurturing of communities around issues; maybe it’s fine to let Facebook have this role. What I do know is that journalism needs to concern itself explicitly with figuring out who its audience is — for each story, down to the level of individual people and groups. Where in the world are those 1% who have something to say or do about the coup in Madagascar, and how do we connect to them, and connect them to each other?

This probably requires that journalists listen a lot better to what’s already happening out there on the tubes. As Felix Salmon of Reuters puts it, we need to teach journalists to read.

Journalism designed for agency

I come from a culture of makers; my personal life and my chosen communities are steeped in the ethic of hackers, entrepreneurs, crafters and artists. All of these activities are the expression of a participatory instinct, an instinct that extends to trying to shape the society we live in. I want information systems that facilitate self-selected civic action and social entrepreneurship in all its forms. If this is the goal, then journalism needs a better understanding of how its products could actually be used to effect change.

News can no longer be (only) about the mass update. Stories need to be targeted to those who might be able to improve the situation. And journalism’s products — which are more than its stories — must be designed to facilitate this.

News needs to be built to engage curiosity about the world and the problems in it — and their solutions. People need to get lost in the news like they now get lost in Wikipedia and Facebook. There must be comprehensive stories that get the interested but uninformed up to speed quickly. Search and navigation must be improved to the point where satisfaction of curiosity is so easy it becomes a reflex. Destination news sites need to be more extensively hyperlinked than almost anything else (and not just insincere internal links for SEO, but links that are actually useful for the user.) The news experience needs to become intensely personal. It must be easy for users to find and follow exactly their interests, no matter how arcane. Journalists need to get proficient at finding and engaging the audience for each story.

And all of this has to work across all modes of delivery, so it’s always with us. Marketers understand this; it’s amazing to me that the news industry has been so slow to catch on to multi-modal engagement.

It sounds like a tall order, but there’s nothing here that requires exotic technology. Just real product design, in pursuit of concrete journalistic goals.

(thanks to @chanders for feedback on an early draft of this post)

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