Which is the more important news story – a train derailment at London Paddington causing massive disruption or a mini-tornado ripping through a row of terraced houses in Oxford?
You could make a pretty good case for either depending on the detail and the circumstances. A big part of the answer would have to include consideration of the audience it was aimed at.
For news producers, these kinds of judgment are made every day as part of the process of building running orders and populating web pages.
We sift the significant from the insignificant and in doing so we weigh all kinds of factors: How unusual is the event? What are the consequences? Are there lessons to be learned? Was it avoidable? Does it have wider significance?
We also consider the content we can muster: How good is the audio? Do we have arresting pictures, or great quotes, or an insightful interview?
Serving material from one-to-many – broadcasting – has stood the BBC in good stead since 1922 but the news industry is in an unprecedented period of flux and broadcast is a blunt instrument for news delivery.
Even the BBC’s narrower-focused regional splits owe more to the accident of transmitter locations than real, on-the-ground, geographic boundaries.
Smartphone technology is now providing us with more refined tools to reach people in real-time as they go about their daily lives.
The trouble is we’re still using the tech in broadcasting mode. And seen from the perspective of news consumers, the judgment calls we make on stories can seem perverse.
The fact that thousands of commuters had delays to their journey is as nothing if your house has been battered by freak weather.
Equally, commuters might empathize with someone whose home has been damaged but mainly just want to know when the service will be restored or how they’re going to get home.
This isn’t just a case of one story leading a bulletin and the other one being pushed down, or something getting front-page billing with the other relegated to a few paragraphs.
It goes to the heart of future news delivery and to a world where successful news providers will be able to cater for the differing requirements of a diverse audience by offering tools for them to adjust the mix of their news flow.
Those requirements now include place, timeliness and context as part of the relevance equation.
We all filter for relevance, whether consciously or subconsciously. Why is this important? What does it add? How does this affect me? Why should I care?
There’s now such a deluge of information that it can be overwhelming and time-consuming to sample, sift and sort.
Wikipedia says information overload is characterised by:
– rapidly increasing amounts of new information
– the ease of duplication and transmission of data
– an increase in the available channels
– large amounts of historical information
– contradictions and inaccuracies in the material.
That sounds very much like the rapidly-changing news eco-system.
Consultant Clay Shirky says the problem isn’t so much about information overload as filter failure.
The problem we have to solve is how to serve relevant content to individuals without pushing out so much that they become swamped, or disinterested.
How is it possible to know what millions of individuals want and what’s relevant to them?
In short, we can’t. Only the individuals know – and that’s the point. We have to develop more sophisticated filters to allow people to make those decisions for themselves.
News organisations need to know their consumers in the way that Tesco knows its customers. Such an organisation would know that I favour technology news over entertainment, that I want more business-focused material than health, and that I might want to reverse these choices at any given time depending on where I am and what I am doing.
The compact implicit here is that individuals will have to surrender some information in order to get better information and that means thoroughly exploring and explaining privacy issues.
Typically, that might mean visiting a trusted source to find information before going elsewhere to see if anyone else has additional detail or more recent material.
It might also involve a visit to Twitter. Twitter’s rise as a news platform shows the hunger for rapid-fire, quick-to-consume snippets. If you’re caught up in an unfolding event or something that piques your interest you want to know more, right away.
But the repetition, contradictions and inaccuracies that typify overload are there in abundance and the precious commodity of time isn’t always well spent.
The ideal solution would allow an individual to register an interest in the story and to track significant developments which would be pushed to them, snap by snap, line by line.
Recognising that interest, the news organisation would offer a UGC backchannel through which witness information, or pictures or video could be passed – and rewarded in some way, if used.
It might also open up the possibility of involvement in live, or time-delayed, broadcasts by individuals at the scene – but that’s a whole different discussion and something for another post.