Why Are We Still Consuming News Like It's 1899?

We’ve witness a torrent of nature- and man-made news in 2011. And if I were a betting man, the range and impact of the events to come will make news even more essential to all of us. But reading all this news started to bother me, not only because of what was happening in the world, but because the experience of consuming news sucks. For the past new months, I’ve been thinking about this problem (unconnected to Cheezburger).

As my friend Dan Sinker said: “We’re still delivering the news in the same way since the Civil War.” He’s right. The pace of news may have gotten almost real-time (radio, TV, social media), but we still consume the same basic product.

News Sites Are Limiting Themselves
Currently, news sites have many problems. The limited amount of space on news homepages and their outmoded method of presentation poses big problems for the distribution of news as well as consumption by the public. Even though it’s been more than 15 years since the Internet became a news destination, journalists and editors are still trapped in the print and TV world of message delivery.

The traditional methods of news-writing, such as the reverse pyramid, the various “editions” of news pose big limitation on how news is reported and consumed. Unfortunately, internet-based changes such as reverse-chronological blogging of news, inability to archive yesterday’s news, poor commenting quality, live-blogging, and others have made news consumption an even more frustrating experience.

The Problem With News

I’ll take on just three of the major issues I see with the way news is presented today:

1) Editors Don’t Know What We Already Know
Having read the last 10 updates on the efforts to cool Japanese spent fuel storage pools, I’ve noticed a very annoying problem. After the initial 3 paragraphs that contain the latest update, the rest of the article is just a regurgitation of the previous 24-hours worth of stories that I’ve ready 9 times before. Why can’t the reporters just write a short update on the latest news? If you don’t understand what’s happening, the update makes no sense. But if you’re like me and are following the news closely, I feel like I wasted my time. This update-the-last-story practice is a leftover from the days of printed newspapers and wire updates. There’s no need for this today.

2) News, Not Front Pages
The front-page of a newspaper is an iconic symbol. One that sums up a generation’s influences and chronicle life-defining events. But more than ever, those front pages, ported to the web, don’t fit the way we use the web.

Walking through the hallowed halls of the New York Times, the front pages of the Gray Lady on historic days call out like a collective social memory. Unfortunately, news site front pages have lost the cultural benefit of archiving our collective memories — I have no easy way of knowing what the homepage of CNN.com looked like on September 11, 2001. And at the same time have become less influential due to the rise of social media — we’re much more likely to dive directly into the story from a friend’s Tweet as I rely more and more on social filters to tell me what’s worth reading.

3) One Front Page For All The News That Fit’s to Print
6 billion people can’t agree on a single perspective — let alone fit an entire world of news on one homepage. Talking to news editors, it’s clear that their job performance is more and more tied to generating traffic and news front pages are their drug of choice. The more traffic you can draw off a homepage, the better you are at your job. That’s a very poor way to use very talented editors.

The web can do much than this. Techmeme is a great example of a front page for mainstream tech news. Hacker News is a great example for a developer community front page. The list of examples can go on and on. By curating the news that appears on the front page, editors and curators set a powerful tone and setting for future coverage.

Not Your Mother’s Google News

The solution isn’t Google News — even though it’s an excellent service, it’s still a thin layer of aggregation technology atop a traditional model of news and sections. When I compare Google News against the amazingly fast-shifting landscape of the news world, Google News’ strength are aggregation and distribution, not presentation.

The Thrill of the Hunt

What I’m proposing to build isn’t going to solve all presentation problems for all types of news. I am interested in tackling the most exciting part of journalism: the Big Breaking News. If you’ve ever been a journalist, you know the exact feeling of a big news hunt. This is the Moby Dick of news, the big game that turns you into Ahab.

The Moby Dick Project*

I am trying to create a dialog to raise awareness to solve this problem. This project’s goal is to create discussions around how and what we can do to solve the problems we face with news presentation today. I’m no more qualified to lead this discussion than an average news junkie. It’s been too long since journalism school and I don’t work in the news, but I would like to bring together great minds and passionate people around this problem.

Unsure But Curious?

I can’t fully explain the solution in this brief post — and I don’t have all the answers. But I hope that I have outlined the serious problems that are currently being ignored by the news sites of today.

If you’re curious to see how you can play a part in solving this problem, I can be reached at benhuh+mobydick@gmail.com.


P.S.: A reporter asked a Cheezburger employee if I was leaving the company to work on this project. The answer is a clear, resounding “No.” I love my Cheezburger and we’re just getting started. Journalism is a personal passion of mine and I would love to see others spread the message of this problem.

* Project Moby Dick was originally a US program designed to gather news and intelligence on the Soviet Union using high-altitude photography. I think it’s pretty fitting.

Posted on May 23, 2011, in Business, Personal, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. Ben,
    As a fellow news junkie I’m very interested in your idea. I just sent you a message with some thoughts.

  2. Interesting article. I’m a web developer for a major British newspaper and find some of these points particularly interesting, especially the “Editors don’t know what we already know” one.

    I do find point 2 a little tricky, though. I agree it would be cool to be able to flip back to arbitrary dates for news sites and see how they covered major events. At the moment your only option for that are caches and archive.org versions, assuming they exist. The one issue I find with that, from a technical perspective, is how to actually store that information. Speaking for my own newspaper, our front page changes by the minute and it’s hard to capture a “definitive” edition for that day. When do we archive that day’s front page? Or do we break it down by hour? What about half hour? This could go really granular. What if someone wants to view our homepage from 6 months ago but we’ve since removed the particular template or component that page used? How do we support backwards-compatible webpages from an arbitrary time period?

    The Guardian, my company, has a content API which developers can use to build their own hacks with. It’s free, offers full article text, and goes back for years’ worth of data. With it, people could build their own version of our homepage featuring all of the news from a specific date, optionally filtered by tags, sections and more. Obviously this won’t reproduce how the page looked visually, but is that what’s important here? Your first point suggests that you don’t care about additional backstory when you just want to know what’s new, so why care about layout? Not that I don’t think it’d be cool to see these old front pages, but is that what news (particularly online) is all about?

    In relation to point 3, I think a news editor would argue that they *do* curate the news. Obviously traffic is an important factor but it’s not the only metric. Getting the top link on reddit for a novelty video or picture might boost ad impressions but it won’t do much for longtail stuff. If newspapers used community-driven tactics like reddit’s upvote system (for example), who’s to say the news wouldn’t be “gamed” by SEO marketers, or buried by politically-motivated downvote mobs? We need good people to edit and curate, as you say, and I think we have them. There’s always room for improvement though – will follow this idea with interest.

  3. http://www.cnn.com on 9/11/2001:

    http://classic-web.archive.org/web/20010911200318/http://www.cnn.com/

    That’s one “major issue” down, want me to Google for the answer to the other two?

  4. All great points, Ben. I totally agree. Also hilarious that this just popped up on betali.st Sounds like someone else agrees too :)

    http://www.comunitee.com/

  5. Hi Ben, I am working on a news-related project with my co-founder, Peter K Chen. Over the last couple months, we tried a number of approaches and although haven’t sold for a billion yet, we got a few good points of feedback from our alpha group. At the moment, we are building features, testing, trying to understand what might click with the users. I am confident that although a ton of applications out there are funded up to wazuu, we will find something worth using, w/out all the money. If you could find time, we would love to meet with you for a coffee/drink and chat further about your ideas.

    Thanks for sharing, and let’s get in touch!
    -Kirill

  6. Ben -

    I share your frustration with the presentation of news, and in particular breaking news. As we have been noting for some time, we also need to create news differently in the first instance, and allow community curation of key community topics to allow easy engagement at any time or place, on any device.

    I would suggest including Abe Abreu @thinkbigsmaller, Dan Conover @xarker, Stijn Debrouwere http://stdout.be/2011/04/15/context-is-not-a-bolt-on/#summary, and Jonathan Stray http://jonathanstray.com/designing-journalism-to-be-used in your conversations.

    Next time, I would like to be a Seer!

    Thanks,
    Chuck

  7. Hi Ben congratulations on picking this topic to explore. It’s much needed.. The summary outline is very interesting. Looking forward to the updates!

  8. On 1). It is a problem. But. As news pieces are ‘triangular’ have the older/context stuff further down you could stop reading when you reach it?

    I think the triangular shape is from when print pieces needed to be able to be fitted onto the press and cut from the bottom with no journalistic/editorial input.

  9. The real problem with news is all the critical information that the advertisers blackmail the editors into censoring, like poison in food or water.

    If you want to release a distribution of Drupal that looks and functions exactly like Huffington Post or hascrapburger then go for it. Every journalist worth a damn already has his or her own blog. You’re not really saying anything new or constructive, IMHO. The last thing i want is the FOXNEWSbot tracking what i already know.

  10. I agree with all the points except for the one about the updates—I like having the update in the story’s beginning and the older version at the end. Sometimes having an explanation of what occurred earlier is helpful and places the update in a larger context.

  11. We had a good discussion at SXSW session “Why Journalists Need to Think Like Geeks” http://schedule.sxsw.com/events/event_IAP8168 – I got some push-back from journalists.

  12. Just heard Ben on TWIT #305 and came here.

    Matt wrote above: “What if someone wants to view our homepage from 6 months ago but we’ve since removed the particular template or component that page used?”

    Easy, take a snapsnot and archive the static image. Do away with any scripting or widgets.

    DJFelix above points to Archive.org’s CNN webpage from 9/11. The hyperlinks connect to archived articles from that time. I think this is the way to go, except Archive.org could curate the collections much more extensively than they have. For far only a few collections exist and they are USA-centric:

    http://classic-web.archive.org/collections/web.html

    But they HAVE the archives of news sites already going back a while. All they have to do is curate them like this, more extensively.

    The German startup “Niiu” bridges the gap between hardcopy and website news by allowing clients to choose what news will be published into a paper for them, and delivered the next day. An interesting blending of the two media:

    http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/oct2009/gb20091020_812530.htm

  13. Nice name … PITA coming up with a good one. (I tried to register Agora mid-90s and it was already gone!)

    I think the key design depends on an answer ti this: are we selling popcorn? or polishing diamonds? I’m all about the latter. (I think of the LIbrary of Alexandria for inspiration, and of Hesse’s glasperlenspiel to keep me focussed.)

    cheers
    @bentrem | @ITGeek

  14. Quite true. Those are the facts that some stupid editors needed. Real editor is needed to edit and present an accurate news.

  15. Notice Mr. Huh’s replies in this thread?
    I didn’t. Looks to me like he didn’t reply at all.
    Pundit? Well … if that doesn’t require actual action, maybe.

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