Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Data Point of One: What Happens When Readers Only Want *Raw* News?

At dinner last night, a friend told me he has no interest in picking up a newspaper because the information in it is "outdated" and "fabricated." Interesting. So what does that mean for the journalism industry?

The “outdated” part is obvious. Sitting next to me, my friend picked up his iPhone. “By the time I walk by a newspaper box in the morning," he said, "I've already read the latest news on this," referring to apps from news organizations like the BBC which have the most recent breaking news. "The stuff in the newspaper is 12, 16 hours old.” Sounds reasonable.

As for the “fabricated,” what he didn’t like was that the stories in the newspaper had been kneaded and churned and framed this way and that until they were a package of sorts, presenting an interpretation and assessment and analysis of the particular news item. In the past 10 years, he, like many others, have gotten used to the snackable nature of the blogosphere, and now the Twitterverse. Readers like him are becoming increasingly used to consuming news in short hits more police-blotter style than 700-word inverted pyramid. The longer stories no longer hold as much appeal.

Which makes sense, if you think about it. It used to be the newspaper business had only one opportunity a day to deliver the news to its readers: In the paper that was dropped on everyone's doorstep. So it made sense that we crammed everything into that single story. But in a day and age when readers can stay tuned into latest developments as they happen, that longer story not only is no longer optimal, for many readers it's actually a drag. Why should I have to read through all that stuff that I already know to find out the latest?

So what does this mean for the future of the news business?

Long-time readers know that one of my main mantras is: Don’t worry about business models for now. Instead, re-think the product. So this one friend’s feedback should prompt the news strategists to consider the following kinds of questions:

  • In what situations/for what kinds of news does it make sense to provide readers with a short-and-sweet “just the facts”, snackable summary of a news event? Or, from a different angle: In what situations/for what kinds of news do readers generally just want the short-and-sweet “just the facts” snackable summary?

  • If readers want that, what does the end product that we create to deliver it look like? What would it look like on our news organization’s Web sites? What would an iPhone / iPad app just for that look like? How would we leverage Twitter to deliver that?

In other words, we might want to re-think what the atomic unit of news is. In the last few years, we’ve heard that the atomic unit of news is the article (rather than the newspaper or Web site). But maybe there's another atomic unit: the snackable summary? If that's the case, how should that change how we report—and design/deliver the news—to offer readers the product—and value—they’re looking for?

What 'The Big Short' Has to Say About the Journalism Industry

The epigraph to Michael Lewis' new book, The Big Short, could be applied as easily to the journalism industry today as Lewis applied it to the recently crashed financial industry.

It reads:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.

-- Leo Tolstoy

The primary challenge to journalism finding its way forward today, to finding new sustainable financial models, is the fact that many in journalism, especially at the highest levels, believe they know certain parameters to be immuatable. Until the industry goes back to the beginning, and revists every truth it believes to be self-evident, and assesses which really are immuatable, and which were simply artifacts of the ecosystem and technological environment in which they emerged, the industry will not be able to see, much less embrace, those new truths which will be the key to its future viability, and success.

Photo courtesy of:
ercwttmn, Flickr. Creative Commons license.