We’ve witnessed 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Final Update 2015: Since this post was written in 2011, I put together a weekend working session of designers, journalists, and developers at the Stanford d.school with the help of the Knight Foundation. While there were many great ideas from that weekend, I came away with the realization that I really needed to create a startup around this idea. That need became Circa, which lived to breathe new ideas of atomization, object-oriented journalism, and mobile-first product development into journalism. But while the project gained more than $5 million in funding and lived for 3 influential years (winning Best App in 2013 from both Google and Apple, and the subject of many articles) the project came to an end June 24th, 2015. Thank you Matt Galligan, Arsenio Santos, Anthony DeRosa, John Maloney, and the rest of the Circa team for giving it your all.
Here’s a quote to you and your resilience:
“If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”
— Charles Bukowski