Designing journalism to be used

Journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray asks why Americans spend only 12 minutes a month on the average news site versus seven hours a month on Facebook and concludes that journalism needs a root-and-branch rethink.

He argues that existing journalism formats are not very good at engaging curiosity and that news can no longer be about the mass update, it needs to become intensely personal so people get lost in it like they do in Facebook and Wikipedia.   I think we can all agree on that, though the “how” part is elusive.

Stray wants journalists to look beyond notions of how to make better stories and ask:  “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?”

And he suggests that emulation of previous media fetters thinking: “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.”

Whether you share his conclusions or not, his observations do provide food for thought even if they only take us so far; identifying issues doesn’t necessarily lead to solutions.

He’s right when he talks about the “tremendous knowledge and capability scattered throughout society, untapped”. But unlocking the potential in crowd-sourced news or collaborative journalism is far from trivial.

Curation isn’t cheap, rules of engagement are a minefield and stoking active participation through community needs eternal optimism, the subtle art of diplomacy and a very thick skin.

I’m not convinced, either, that comparing time spent in a news site against time spent on Facebook is valid or useful. Personal relationships and the ties that bind people will always win out over wider, more general themes – it’s what makes us human.

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