Posts Tagged ‘news’

newspicHave you heard..? Did you see..? Being bang up-to-date with the latest news or gossip is a big part of social capital. It’s what makes us interesting to others and it’s one of the reasons we give up our most precious resource to get it – our time.

Constantly revising knowledge of what’s going on around us is a deeply-rooted instinct borne of fight-or-flight perils. Anticipating threats and opportunities might just give us an edge to avoid mortal danger – or alternatively help us make a killing (metaphorically speaking).

The value of any information exchange comes from the usefulness of what’s being imparted set against the time and energy expended to find out.

For news providers this creates a quandary. They want to be consistently first with the news and they also want to deliver high value information; doing both, while not incompatible, is often difficult.

For readers and viewers, the sheer volume of material that has to be ploughed through to make the exercise worthwhile can be tedious and time-consuming, especially when the signal is suppressed by noise.

It’s why coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, MH370, was described by media commentator Michael Wolff as “the new anti-journalism – all data, no real facts, endless theories”.

The Public Editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, condemned her own organization for its use of anonymous sources and comments in its reporting:

“In a news story about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, there’s this anonymous quotation, commenting on a suggestion (also anonymously sourced) that someone may have piloted the aircraft to as high as 45,000 feet, above the 43,100-foot ceiling for the Boeing 777. The passage reads:

“A current Boeing 777-200 pilot for an Asian-based airline said the move could have been intended to depressurize the cabin and render the passengers and crew unconscious, preventing them from alerting people on the ground with their cellphones. “Incapacitate them so as to carry on your plan uninterrupted,” the pilot said.

“As a reader, Danny Burstein, wrote to me: “There’s absolutely no reason to quote an anonymous source who’s making a ridiculous claim of this sort, and triply so since your reporter could have called any of a hundred other pilots who’d have gone on the record saying this was garbage.”

The lack of sourcing is in clear contravention of the Times’ reporting guidelines. It’s also a symptom of the competitive pressure news providers are under; quality is compromised for the sake of speed.

Those prepared to put in the extra time to check facts, verify details, and find robust sources, come a poor second when the rumor mill is in full spate. There is no “slow news” movement.

We, the audience, are fickle. We know the trade-off, but we want to have our cake and eat it too. A news organization that’s consistently behind the curve when a major story is unfolding suffers reputational damage. Caution gets trampled underfoot in the audience rush to those who will fill the vacuum.

In my previous post …and now the news for you, and you, and you I talked about a much more personal form of news; narrowcast not broadcast, tailored more to the individual, less to a mass audience.

News organizations are firing blind with their salvoes of information and they’ll continue to do so until they offer readers and viewers the chance to fine tune their news supply.

Push notifications, alerts and updates were once a way of staying across major news developments. Now they’re an irritation.

Andy Hickl, cofounder and CEO of the lifelogging app, Saga, recently stated that he was turning off his alerts and opting out of what he called notification overload – at least until his apps got to know him better.

He’s not alone. From my time at the BBC, I quickly learned that some users wanted fewer breaking news alerts, too many were being sent and they were intrusive and annoying. For others there were too few: why hadn’t an alert been sent on such and such? (We all gauge the importance of news through our own prism of interests. My world’s big news may not correspond to your scale of what’s important).

There were complaints, too, from viewers who wanted only fact-checked, double-sourced, fully verified alerts, while others preferred the absolute latest information and were happy to make reach their own conclusions about its worth.

The gripes haven’t gone away. There’s still no rheostat for breaking news that lets me decide how much is too much; that lets me choose to swim through the farrago of twisted facts, half-truths, rumors and theories to distil my own version of plausibility and value, or to signpost that I’ll have none of it until the dust has settled and a clear picture has emerged.

Fine-tuning to that degree is easy to talk about, much more difficult to deliver. It also begs one very big question: Would you use it if it was offered?

Optimization choices in the recent past have been a minority pursuit because of the time required of individuals to set them up. We now spend so much time batting away the irrelevant and the inconsequential that the tide may have turned.

So, is sophisticated filtering time well spent, or is it more trouble than it’s worth? Once we have the answer to that question we can either move towards a smarter, more precisely targeted supply of stories – or we can continue to scrabble for news nuggets in a growing mountain of information.

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I’m waiting. Still waiting, that is, for a new type of news product that meets my needs.

It’ll be one that makes the best use of my time, which signposts important material, riddles out the irrelevant and delivers the unexpected.

I’d like some contrarian content in the mix, something that challenges my world view, jolts me from my perch of certainty and make me re-evaluate my position.

By necessity I’m going to have to give up a lot of information about myself and my interests to get what I want. And I’m willing to do that if it delivers the relevance I crave.

I’m happy to enter into a relationship where what I share creates a better experience for me and a better business proposition for my news provider.

I want them to come to know me better, to change and develop their offering as our engagement deepens.

I’m unique, of course, just like you. And what you want and what I want isn’t going to be the same.

The successful news provider of the future is going to have to pander to each and every one of us, to manage millions of nuanced relationships and to cope with requirements in a continual state of flux. Pushing the same stuff at everyone simply isn’t going to cut it.

We’ve transitioned away from a world of time-specific TV news broadcasts and individuals’ favored newspapers and magazines. The virtual doorstep is piled high with content and no matter how much you wade through there’s always more to take its place.

It’s all very well for author Clay Shirky to dismiss the idea of information overload as “filter failure” – even though he’s correct in his observation. Without effective filters consuming news is a Sisyphean task.

So where are the tools that let me, the person who knows me best, define what I want or, perhaps more usefully, what I know I don’t want?

Up to now, Zite has come closest to resolving the filtering problem and its recent acquisition by Flipboard’s Mike McCue makes for a doubly exciting prospect.

As well as delivering stories from a wider range of sources than I would have reached by my own efforts, Zite does a pretty good job of aggregating content by topic headings.

I say pretty good, because the oh-so-clever algorithm regularly comes unstuck and delivers items about garden gates into my Bill Gates aggregation pot.

Marking stories with indications of approval or disapproval is a good step too, especially if the feedback assists in the selection or rejection of future pieces.

That said, the thumbs up, thumbs down, notifications can seem insensitive. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to give a thumbs-up to an article about Auschwitz or a disaster or an atrocity. And what does it signify anyway – that you enjoyed reading it, that it was insightful, or that you agreed with its conclusions?

At least Zite is soliciting feedback, even if it’s pretty basic. Offering consumers a chance to give reactions is laudable and much as I’d like to have something more sophisticated I concede that it’s likely to be a minority sport for the foreseeable future.

I like, too, that Zite allows me to indicate that my news preferences skew towards certain publications and individual journalists – more from these, less from others. It lets me hone the organizations and people I want my content to come from.

The danger with this kind of filtering is that it ends up reinforcing existing prejudices, you only hear what you want to hear and that’s when the serendipity engine needs to kick in. Whether it’s based on the zeitgeist of most read, most watched, most shared material or a counter-culture of contrarian opinion there needs to be some wild card content in the mix.

Another of my requirements has taken root in Cir.ca – the ability to track a story by flagging an interest in it.

Cir.ca stories come with a “follow” button and they have identified this as one of their key metrics. When a reader follows a storyline it tells them the person has more than a passing interest; if there’s something new to learn, they want to know.

Capturing “follows” lets Cir.ca target notifications to those who actively want to keep abreast of developments while avoiding those with only a passing interest.

As it states in its blog, push notifications are nearing saturation and these types of update have become both a blessing and a curse.

“Our solution is to put the choice in your hands and allow you to decide what’s important enough to push. You could say we have two main goals: to inform and to respect your time while doing it.”

I’d like Cir.ca to take this process further, to allow me to fine tune my “follows” to take account of the waxing and waning of my interest.

There are times when news is breaking that I want every detail to be passed on as soon as it emerges. There are others when I want only the most significant developments to be pushed through – a development that would require the story’s intro to be recast. And there times when I want a longer term notification, an update on a story that was big news but has since gone off the boil: Haiti’s earthquake four years on, for instance.

No single news provider is going to be able to accommodate all these needs. Businesses are going to have to figure out how to work with rivals to synthesize content and share the proceeds.

It’s why the coming together of Flipboard and Zite is one of the best and most exciting developments of recent times.

More than two million magazines have been created since Flipboard’s inception in January 2010. It offers both abundance and niche, a pro-am aggregation mix, and packaging that attractively reformats itself as new content rolls in.

With Zite it gets expertise in personalization and recommendations, meaning better and easier content discovery.

Facebook hasn’t been standing still while this unfolds. It recently launched a mobile app called Paper in the US, which takes a leaf from Flipboard’s book and recrafts users’ news feeds into something more elegant and magazine-like.

The winner will be the one that can build the deepest relationship with its readers and viewers while meeting the needs of the individual as well as the masses.

Mobile has pulled ahead of the desktop web as the “most important medium” to get breaking news.

That’s one of the main findings from a US survey of 300,000 people across a broad demographic range.

Yes, it was conducted by a mobile app developer, Handmark and, yes, it was questioning people who have bought into a smartphone lifestyle.

But it underlines, once more:

  • the growing importance of mobile for news consumption
  • that mobile and desktop services have different strengths
  • that there’s an opportunity to feed news demands in new and varied ways

Handmark CEO Paul Reddick believes 2011 will see consumers increasingly relying on their mobiles as a primary source of news and information and the survey findings bear that out.

It  assumes, of course, that network capability will keep up with demand for bandwidth and that’s far from certain.

But leaving that aside for now, I’ve long argued that mobile requires a different cut of content to mainstream web coverage and that it should convey the sense of flux and excitement that comes from breaking stories.

News organizations should be offering chronologies of content as well as the traditional, editorially-weighted mix of material.

And the paid-for SMS news alert should be sent to the dustbin of history. At upwards of 12-25p a message it works out as the most expensive bandwidth in the world, especially if you measure it against the amount of data transmitted.

Yet organisations still pump out alerts, many of questionable value, in the knowledge that companies rather than individuals are footing the bill.

If you’ve already paid for “unlimited” bandwidth, or bandwidth capped at “fair use” levels, why on earth would you pay for SMS alerts?

Push notifications do, at least, take cost out of the equation but they need to be used sparingly or the news currency becomes devalued.

And if you have several apps offering push alerts then the distraction can quickly become annoying, especially when they aren’t deemed relevant or important enough to warrant the interruption.

It’s why I believe news organizations need to incorporate time-driven hierarchies into the mainstream of their platforms and make much more of immediacy.

That doesn’t mean throwing away the traditional, editorially-weighted view of the news – that still has value – but it does mean presenting content in a new way that makes a virtue of “nowness” and conveys information in snackable bursts.

Twitter’s already shown itself to be a powerful force for breaking news with its 140-character snippets rewarding repeat visits – there’s always something new to consume – and rapid updates  are a key strength of mobile.

But presenting only one that type of view means important news can swiftly be displaced by less substantial matter.

It’s not a case of speed over importance, one or the other, mobile can and should do both.

AP puts new focus on mobile news

Posted: October 22, 2010 in Journalism, Mobile, News
Tags: , , ,

AP logoAP chief executive Tom Curley has signalled a change in the agency’s mobile strategy to meet the challenge of “a new golden age for the development of new products”.

There would be more touch screens than front pages by 2012, he told the Southern Newspapers Publishers Association in Austin, Texas, as he anticipated a period of explosive growth, .

“That shift to mobile and easy-to-use touch screen devices will transform the market we’ve been operating in.

“A one-dimensional, Web-based marketplace will be supplanted by a multi-dimensional, multi-platform opportunity. We’ll be moving well beyond websites, search results pages and RSS feeds.”

Curley said AP’s mobile strategy would morph away from simple repurposing of traditional wire feeds toward the creation of new experiences, handcrafted by the expert journalists.

“By early next year, we expect to launch new applications in the mobile and tablet markets that will offer consumers fresh perspectives on the day’s top stories and take them behind the scenes with our experts.”

The full text of Curley’s speech is here

Stacked shelvesNever mind What Google Would Do?  If Tesco decided to go into the news business What Would Tesco Do?

Right now, somewhere in southern Spain a farmer is growing to order rows of lettuce to be harvested on a specific day and delivered to the shelf of a Tesco store which, typically, is within a few miles of your front door.

The logistics behind a modern supermarket are nothing short of miraculous – thousands of lines of produce brought in from all corners of the world to provide greater choice and greater variety than any generation has experienced before.

The internet has opened the door to similar abundance for news audiences and given easy access to newsmakers and thought-leaders across the globe.

Tesco tracks the shopping habits of more than 16m families through its loyalty card scheme. Each product sold is classified by data – a luxury item or a loss-leader, ethnic, exotic, own brand etc.

The data is filtered by a Tesco-owned search engine and the results help them decide what to sell and when. Tesco also has a nice, not-so-little, earner selling the data to other companies.

So if Tesco decided to go into the news business what would it do and what could it teach established players in the sector?

For sure big data would be a key part. Tesco’s data-miners would be drilling into consumption habits to try to build up a picture of an individual’s news needs.

Over weeks and months patterns of behaviour emerge.  What stories are they reading and when? In which parts of the world do their interests lie? How do the items break down by genre, or business, or team, or personality? Is there a skew towards politics and social issues or a deeper interest in health care? Is sport a priority or a turn-off? What topics find no favour – and why?

Just as Tesco knows from your shopping list whether you have a baby, or young children, or a dog or a cat, even if you’re a novice in the kitchen or an experienced cook, news consumption habits can reveal a lot about an individual.

They’d also be looking long and hard at the products being placed in front of the customer by both themselves and their rivals.

The not-for-profit Media Standards Trust is already in the data extraction business, producing Twitter factoids along the lines of:

Tristan McConnell (Times) has written more articles this month about the Rwandan election than anyone else

Andrew Anthony in the Observer wrote the longest article this week

– Lindsay Lohan has been written about 39% more than the European Parliament in the last week. Reasonable?

These snippets are mildly interesting, but the real value lies in the Trust’s wider aggregation and linkage of material.

Its site, Journalisted, aims to make it easier for people to find out more about journalists and the topics they tackle.

“Read all about them!” it declaims.

It makes it easy for the public to search for a journalist they want to contact, and to sign up for article alerts from their favourites. Journalists can also edit their own profiles within the site.

This kind of aggregation further cements the position of journalists as individual brands within a brand. Top columnists have always been that, of course, it’s now just a lot easier to see each person’s profile and the billboards for their bodies of work.

Whose stuff is flying off the shelves? What’s not moving?  Is expensive investigative journalism a required loss-leader to attract a different kind of clientele? Who’s providing the staples of everyday coverage on a particular reporting beat? And whose work ends up in the equivalent of the end-of-the-aisle bin?

It’s easy to see how this might lead to performance-related rewards, though the complexity of how to gauge influence and value against high-click popularity makes for odious comparisons.

We’re already seeing the emergence of low-pay article farms that generate content based on search term popularity; these are the snack-food purveyors of the business – consumed by millions but ultimately not very satisfying.

Influence metrics are where we will find the news equivalents of Jamie Oliver and  Gordon Ramsay – the star communicators who appeal to different demographics and sub-groups.

Might sites like Klout – which measure an individual’s online influence – have a bearing at future job interviews?

Tesco shelf space is a valuable commodity and brands which want to occupy part of a shelf, or get prime positioning, have to show they can earn their keep.

At the BBC, correspondents and specialists already have elevated status – though their branding and packaging may be ripe for a makeover.

You like Matt Frei’s work? Well here’s a shrine to the man. His complete works – his past and present columns, his broadcasts, his packages, his speaking engagements, his upcoming interviews, a photogallery, his biography, his book-reading list. His professional life, fully exposed to your gaze.

As consumers we have unprecedented levels of choice and, increasingly, future news grazing is going to be a pick-and-mix selection of the best, most trusted sources – and they’ll be different for everyone.

We value brands but we are also promiscuous with our favours. We want to flit between the best offers without having to do too much running around.

So what’s the future for news? Well, if media’s big brands are the equivalent of supermarkets then the BBC and New York Times become convenience stores where you can get most of what you need, in one place, in the least amount of time.

But the social media Ocado man, who delivers direct to your door and takes the chore out of shopping is a big new challenger.

Aggregators, specialist publications and bloggers are the farmers’ markets, delicatessens and quirky shops.

Even the slow food movement has its journalism equivalent in people like Nicholas Carr who want to ratchet down the flow of information in favour of a less frenetic, more considered view.

The competition in this mixed news economy will be fierce, and data will be a key factor.

The more scraps of understanding that can be gleaned about an individual the more tailored and appropriate their news service will be.

A case of Every Little Helps, perhaps.

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.

Location and context have to play a big part in our future thinking. For someone wanting more information on the Paddington story the onus is on them to do the legwork and go and look.

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.

Can newspapers survive the online onslaught? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question and my answer’s always the same: there will be casualties along the way but they will adapt and they will survive though with nothing like the circulation or the margins they currently enjoy.

Jeff Jarvis has a challenge posted on Hubdub that a daily US paper with a circulation of 50,000+ will fold this year –  nearly two-thirds of respondents believe one will.

Technological change doesn’t always lay waste to everything that went before. The superhighway that was the UK canal system was devastated by the arrival of the railways, and the railways themselves were massively pruned by the Beeching cuts as road became the dominant system.

The canals are still with us, reinvented for leisure use, having been key arteries that fed the industrial revolution and their own downfall. And railways have been revived in the face of stiff competition from the car and air travel.

Herein lies hope for the newspaper industry, maybe more niche and different from today but still with us for the foreseeable future.

Just as music buffs hunt down vinyl versions of their favourite sounds might we see newshounds of the future sniffing out specialist shops to consume content on paper?

After all, there’s nothing quite like a freshly ironed Times to start the day.