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At dinner last night, a friend told me he has no interest in picking up a newspaper because the information in it is "outdated" and "fabricated."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The “outdated” part is obvious.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?

1 comment:

Chris O'Brien said...

The problem, I think, is that your friend is really just talking about breaking news. Which does lend itself to snackable bits, delivered in small chunks to a phone or in various forms to the Web. But these snackable bits will be stripped of things like context, the "fabricated" part he doesn't like.

In fact, that print edition probably still has all sorts of stuff he didn't get on his iPhone. Longer enterprise stories. Not all news is time sensitive, and has an immediacy. There are also longer form features, etc., that he probably didn't read.

The real challenge is to understand what fits best on each platform, and who the consumer is in each case. Sure, I wouldn't worry about publishing a five-part investigative series to the iPhone. Many folks will print those out even from the Web.

It's also worth noting that while some folks do want the raw feed, many others don't. So the next day print version needs to have a roundup of the snackable bits plus the longer-form, timeless stuff that lends itself to the more leisurely read.

The challenge for news organizations is that they need to deliver all of the above, not one or the other.