Being brief

Interesting from Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab on giving reporters the implicit permission to write briefly.

So I like the idea of giving journalists a structure and permission to share little things — things that don’t need to be expanded into traditional articles, things that can connect a reporter’s knowledge to an audience’s interest without the templatized exoskeleton of modern web publishing.

It’s something I’d like to do more of here – sharing interesting links with a paragraph or two’s analysis. Not everything needs to be short enough to be a tweet or long enough to be a full article. Aside from the issues about it taking all the useful “byproducts” of reporting, as Benton argues, Twitter is a terrible medium for archiving, and not a great one for conversation; if either of those things are important in how you share little things, there are far better options for doing so. Tumblr, for instance.

Conceptualising CMS shortcomings as a “lack of permission” is particularly interesting – reminds me of poetics conversations around line length and form being limited by the size of the notebook or the eventual printed page. Form and content are still married. You can see that too in how hard it is for many news organisations to put up a story that consists only of a single fact. How do you break a single-sentence story in a traditional CMS where headline, intro and article must all say something?

Time vs the news

Jason Kint, in an interesting piece at Digiday, argues that page views are rubbish and we should use time-based metrics to measure online consumption.

Pageviews and clicks fuel everything that is wrong with a clicks-driven Web and advertising ecosystem. These metrics are perfectly suited to measure performance and direct-response-style conversion, but tactics to maximize them inversely correlate to great experiences and branding. If the goal is to measure true consumption of content, then the best measurement is represented by time. It’s hard to fake time as it requires consumer attention.

Some issues here. Time does not require attention: I can have several browser tabs open and also be making a cup of tea elsewhere. TV metrics have been plagued by the assumption that TV on === attentively watching, and it’s interesting to see that fallacy repeated on the web, where a branching pathway is as easy as ctrl+click to open in a new tab. It’s also easy to game time on site by simply forcing every external link to open in a new tab: it’s awful UX, but if the market moves to time as the primary measurement in the way that ad impressions are currently used, I guarantee you that will be widely used to game it, along with other tricks like design gimmicks at bailout points and autorefresh to extend the measured visit as long as possible. Time is just as game-able as a click.


It’s worth noting that Kint is invested in selling this vision of time-based metrics to the market. That doesn’t invalidate what he says out of hand, of course, but it is important to remember that if someone is trying to sell you a hammer they are unlikely to admit that you might also need a screwdriver.

In a conversation on Twitter yesterday Dave Wylie pointed me to a Breaking News post which discusses another time-based metric – time saved. It’s a recognition that most news consumers don’t actually want to spend half an hour clicking around your site: they want the piece of information they came for, and then they want to get on with their lives. Like Google, which used to focus on getting people through the site as fast as possible to what they needed. Or like the inverted pyramid of news writing, which focusses on giving you all the information you need at the very top of the piece, so if you decide you don’t need all the details you can leave fully informed.

There’s a truism in newsroom analytics: the more newsy a day is, the more traffic you get from Google News or other breaking news sources, the less likely those readers are to click around. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing those readers or that they’re leaving unsatisfied; it may in fact make them more likely to return later, if the Breaking News theory holds true for other newsrooms. Sometimes the best way to serve readers is by giving them less.

Break news everywhere, not just on Twitter

Steve Buttry has a great response to a reporter worried about being scooped by the competition if they post on Twitter. He argues that: “You can’t get scooped because competition gets tipped to a story when you tweet about it. Your tweets already scooped the competition.”

That’s true, but not quite complete. You may have scooped the competition, but you’ve only scooped them on Twitter – for readers who don’t use Twitter or who don’t follow you there, you might not have broken any news at all. The choice of where to break stories or how to develop them live isn’t just “Twitter and/or your own website”. Twitter matters, that’s certain, but what’s less cut and dried is whether it matters more than anywhere else, for you and for your readers.

Sometimes being first on Twitter is worth a huge amount of prestige and traffic for your work. Sometimes, in all honesty, it’s just nice-to-have – the traffic and prestige you really want is elsewhere. Would you rather be first to tweet, or would you rather be the first thing people see in their Facebook newsfeed or the first with a chance at a link from r/worldnews? Is the audience for what you’re writing actually using Twitter, or are they elsewhere? Are you better off dashing off an alert to your mobile app users, or an email to a specialised list, before you take to Twitter?

All Buttry’s advice for how to report live, digitally and socially, is excellent. And it all also has platform-agnostic applications. You can post to a brand Facebook page as well as – or instead of – a brand Twitter account; at the moment, with all the dials turned up, that’s likely to have a significant effect.

You can argue the Facebook audience will most likely disappear when Facebook makes another newsfeed tweak; that ignores the fact that right now is a good time to put your work in front of people who might never have seen it before and might never see it again unless you go where they are and show them.

It also misses the important point here, which is that no one platform is the answer in all situations for every news organisation all of the time. You have to build a strategy that will be flexible enough to respond when something changes, positively or negatively, on a social platform. Social and search sites do not owe you traffic, and relying on one at the expense of others is not sensible in the long term. You have to be willing to allocate resources away from the shiny media-friendly very-visible things and towards the more oblique, less obvious, less sexy things. You have to be able to go where your audience is, not just where you are as a journalist. If your audience is all hanging out on an obscure forum, go post there.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t also try to be first on Twitter – if you’re doing news seriously, you absolutely should. Twitter’s huge, and hugely important, but it isn’t all there is to social news, and it’s crucial to think about where else your readers might be. If you’re only thinking about breaking news on Twitter, you’re not thinking broadly enough yet. Break news in weird places, if that’s where your audience is.

Aggregation – a substitute newspaper?

I’m not sure that I completely agree with Scott Fulton’s conclusion in this piece, but it’s well worth a read nonetheless. On the difference between Google and journalism:

News has always been a loss leader; it’s the thing publishers provide to make the real products they used to sell timely, interesting and competitive. It’s literally the sugar coating.

The Internet commandeered the services that newspapers once championed and delivered each of these services on an a la carte basis. In an earlier era, it made sense to bundle these services in a single package – the newspaper – and deliver it fully assembled. Today, the Web itself is the package, and each of the services now competes against other similar services in separate, often healthy, markets. And this is as it should be – this is not somehow wrong.

But it leaves local news providers with only the container, abandoning them with the task of making a living from the news alone. What’s worse, it thrusts them into a market with tens of thousands of journalistic ventures of all sizes, all of which have charged themselves with the same objective: building a business model around solely the news. What gives all these services a bit of a reprieve, albeit temporary, are Google News and the other aggregators in its category. Aggregators serve not only as front pages for a multitude of news services, but by bundling them together and giving them the illusion of plurality, aggregators substitute for the missing thunder of the press. The end product is not exactly editorial, but if you squint, there are moments when it reminds you of something that might have been editorial once.

Journalism online has a distribution problem. Unlike a road network, Google isn’t a neutral network through which news can be pushed; unlike hauliers and newsagents, social networks don’t exist primarily to distribute our news but have their own purposes and uses that sometimes conflict with ours. As the Mail Online prepares to turn its first profit, there is a wider argument playing out about whether journalism can or should be valued by how well and widely it is distributed – for display ad driven models this is particularly acute. And Google, as a display ad provider, potentially profits twice by being the primary distributor as well.

For news, Google is a distributor trying to make the product fit its network. (In other areas too – microdata, authorship markup and other elements of Google+ spring to mind.) Though it’s certainly useful – I would argue vital to most news sites – it’s not the only way to distribute news, and for some sites it’s not the dominant method. Google is competing with email, social networks or even direct traffic to be the primary access method. Of course, then, it wants access to news and other content in a form that’s easy for it to parse and display. No wonder it fell out with Twitter and Facebook.

To my mind, this is the quote that gets to the heart of it:

Like it or not, aggregation is an interim solution. It’s a kludge that satisfies an immediate need in the short-term; it’s a substitute newspaper.

Google News is the best of what we’ve got now. It’s not necessarily what’s best for news. It’s certainly not where we’re going to end up.

Stop blaming the internet for rubbish news content

Newspapers and newsrooms generally have always striven to publish stories that are important, interesting, informative and entertaining.  Not every one puts those in the same order or gives them the same importance. But the internet hasn’t changed that much.

The unbundling effects of the net mean that instead of relying on the front page to sell the whole bundle, each piece has to sell itself. That can be hard; suddenly the relative market sizes for different sorts of content are much starker, and for people who care more about important/interesting/informative than entertaining, that’s been a depressing flood of data. But the internet  didn’t create that demand – it just made it more obvious. Whether we should feed it or not is an editorial question. Personally, I think it’s fine to give people a little of what they want – as long as a newsroom is putting out informative and important stories, a few interesting and entertaining ones are good too, so long as they’re not lies, unethically acquired or vicious.

If you spend a lot of time online you will see a filter bubble effect, where stories from certain news organisations are not often shared by your friends and don’t often turn up in your sphere unless you actively go looking for them. That means the ones that break through will be those that outrage, titillate or carry such explosive revelations that they cannot be ignored. That does not mean those stories are the sum total output of a newsroom – any more than the 3AM Girls are the sum total of the Mirror in print – but those pieces attract a new audience and serve to put that wider smorgasbord of content in front of them (assuming the article pages are well designed).

Of course, some news organisations publish poor stories – false, misleading, purposefully aggravating or just badly written – in the name of chasing the trend. That’s also far from an internet-only phenomenon. The Express puts pictures of Diana on the front, and routinely lies for impact in its headlines. The Star splashes on Big Brother 10 weeks running. The editorial judgement about the biggest story for the front is about sales as much as it is newsworthiness. Sometimes those goals align. Sometimes they don’t, and editors make a choice.

It is ridiculous to blame the internet for the publishing of crap stories to chase search traffic or trend-based clicks – just as it’s ridiculous to blame the printing press for the existence of phone hacking. In both cases it’s the values and choices of the newsroom that should be questioned.

Pasties, horses and duck houses: the power of symbolic objects

The world famous GreggsWhen is a pasty not just a pasty? When it’s a metaphor for class divide, of course.

In literature, symbolic objects transcend their physical limits to embody themes or carry metaphors. Pandora’s Box, to take a very obvious one, is not only a functional, fundamental element of the story but also a powerful metaphor for the confusion and chaos released by curiosity. It’s an integral element of the myth but it also carries meaning beyond its origin story.

As news stories run and run, twisting and turning often in far more fanciful ways than any fiction, sometimes these sorts of symbolic objects turn up. My favourite for a long time now has been the duck house, made famous during the MPs’ expenses scandal. More so than any of the other ludicrous things paid for by MPS out of their expenses, the duck house came to symbolise the lavishness, the detachment from reality and the sheer unadulterated silliness of the whole affair. It’s hard to sum up all of that with a news story, or even with a pithy quote, but a symbolic object can do the heavy lifting that no amount of text can quite manage. The duck house even manages to subtly imply a bunch of waddling, quacking MPs into the bargain. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Then a couple of weeks ago we had the horse. Phone hacking as a news story has gotten so convoluted and complex that it’s impossible for anyone but the most dedicated news junkie to follow in full. There’s a (necessarily) slow-moving inquiry that hasn’t yet brought politicians into the picture, and there’s an ongoing feeling that the cosy relationships between principle actors in the drama are not going to be publicly revealed.

Hence, the horse: a wonderful symbolic proxy for power, passed back and forth between the police, the Brooks family and Cameron himself. Horsegate played out in microcosm the larger drama, with denials, memory lapses and an eventual, half-hearted confession after which precisely nothing changed. It was a gift for cartoonists, too, especially in its connotations of servility – and a physical reminder of the closeness of Cameron in class and in pastimes to the Chipping Norton set, and the vast chasm between that and most of the rest of the country.

So today, to the pasty. It’s not a sausage roll tax or a hot food tax; it’s a pasty tax. A regional delicacy beloved of workers and students, both of whom have been walloped pretty hard since the coalition came to power. It’s a working lunch, a travelling lunch, a cheap, hot lunch eaten on the go by busy, normal people. It’s sustenance for hard days. In its Cornish origins it has subtle echoes of resistance, of regional pride; it’s determinedly non-London, as is Greggs, which has its origins in Newcastle. Greggs is on every high street; it’s well loved for what it does; and it’s almost impossible to imagine Cameron or Osborne there.

It is no coincidence that these symbolic objects are all about class. British national discourse is fairly bad at talking about class, thinking about class, examining unspoken opinions or getting a good sense of the realities of social stratification. The definition of “middle” class has vastly expanded and encompasses everyone not wearing a tiara or a hoody. But the duck house is so far out of everyday experience that it can’t be packaged as anything other than a symbol of wealth. Horse riding is a pricy pastime that carries Victorian, upper-class connotations. And the humble pasty is something an awful lot of people have eaten in the last few years – the sort of people who’ve been hit badly by the economics of austerity. The sort of people who aren’t Cameron.

These things surface an undercurrent, a class divide that doesn’t often get publicly debated outside of riots-based moralising. That we latch onto these symbols shows how hard it is to talk about class, equality and social mobility in the UK without resorting to stereotype or self-delusion, especially at present, when the optimistic view is that we are all headed for difficulty. Almost everyone is braced for the worst, counting pennies, fearing redundancy or more price rises. We are all so terribly nervous about what happens next. We have to have a pasty to focus on instead.

News SEO: optimising for robots is all about the people

Some people in the news business get very wary of SEO in general. There seems to be a perception that content farming and low-quality stories are a sort of natural consequence of making sure your stories can be found via Google. But in fact there is a wide spectrum of approaches here, and news organisations make editorial judgements over whether to cover something that’s interesting to the public just because the public is interested. No Google robot forces a newsroom to make that choice, just as no print-sales-bot forces the Daily Star to splash on scantily-clad women and celebrity gossip.

If your editorial strategy is to chase search terms, then you’re not optimising for robots – you’re optimising for the millions of people online who search for certain sorts of stories. Websites like Gawker and the Mail Online create content to attract the potential millions who read celebrity gossip or who want the light relief of weird Chinese goats – and many of those people also care about the budget or the war in Afghanistan, because people are multi-faceted and have many, many interests at the same time.

If your production strategy includes making sure your headlines accurately describe your content, make sense out of context and use words people would actually use in real life, then you are optimising your content for search. Not for robots, again, but for people – potential and actual readers or viewers – some of whom happen to use search engines to find out about the news.

For example, search optimised headlines may well have the keywords for the story right at the beginning. Google lends greater weight to words at the start of a headline than at the end. But it does so because so do people. If you’re scanning a Google search results page, you tend to read in an F shape, taking account of the first few words of an item before either engaging further or moving on. [Edit: via @badams on Twitter, a more recent study backing up the F-shape reading pattern.] Google’s algorithm mimics how people work, because it wants to give people what they’re going to find most relevant. Optimising for the robot is the same thing as optimising for human behaviour – just as we do in print, taking time to design pages attractively, and taking account of the way people scan pages and spend time on images and headlines in certain ways.

News SEO is a very different beast from, say, e-commerce SEO or SEO for a small business that wants to pick up some leads online. Once you get beyond the basics it does not follow the same rules or require the same strategies. Link building for breaking news articles is worse than pointless, for example; your news piece has a halflife of a day, or an hour, or perhaps a whole week if you’re lucky and it really hits a nerve. Social sharing has a completely different impact for news organisations that want their content read than for, say, a company that wants to sell shoes online. For retailers, optimising for the algorithm might start to make some sense – if the only difference between you and your competitors is your website, then jostling for position in the search results on particular pages gets competitive in a way that news doesn’t. For news, though, optimising for robots always means optimising for humans. It’s just a matter of choosing which ones.

Distribution: journalism’s current (and next) big upheaval

the best free paper bag everThis month’s Carnival of Journalism post is late, because I’ve had my head busy in other places for the last few days – but as per the rules, there shall be no apologies. This month Steve Outing asks what technology or digital trend will up-end journalism next.

I want to pick apart the notion of trends for a minute. Trends aren’t about technology. Technology turns up because people create it, sometimes to fulfill needs or because of ideas about the future, but mostly because something that already exists just isn’t good enough. Innovations are born out of frustrations. If enough people have a particular frustration, and something comes along that fixes it, it’ll be widely adopted. Or if something designed to fix a particular frustration turns out to make life just that little bit better for lots of other people, lots of other people will most likely want to use it. Trends are about people, not things.

We’re in the middle of a massive upheaval in how distribution works, and media organisations for the most part are lagging behind in understanding and taking advantage of the changes. Online, the news is centrally hosted, unbundled, available in discrete chunks, accessible from anywhere; news pieces online are not just things to consume, but stations in ongoing journeys, spaces for conversation, and reference points for wider conversation. They’re used in many different ways, not all of which involve actually consuming the content on the page.

But most organisations are very much bound into a model where readers must come to us, rather than one where the news gets to people wherever they happen to be. This is one of the dominant trends at present: distribution models changing from top-down to peer-to-peer, both for news stories (in the sense of content created by journalists and hosted on a single URL) and for news itself (in the sense of the raw informational building-blocks of that content). This is true on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Delicious, and most other social media that offers link-sharing capability: we’re already a long way down this road.

The long, difficult road for news organisations is understanding that they can actually be distribution platforms, as well as reporting the news. It’s moving into peer-to-peer news networks, personalised and sociable. Letting people pick what they care about and customise their own experiences on our sites, and making it very easy to get our news wherever they happen to be online. It’s ceding control to the users, trusting them to know what they want, and understanding that they do value journalism enough to consume it voraciously, so long as it turns up at the right time and in the right place.

Adaptation is continuous. It isn’t going to stop

EvolutionWe live in the future. The pace of change is astonishingly fast, and it’s accelerating. We’re living through not one but at least two huge technological advances – hardware in the form of computers and mobiles and tablets, and the network itself. We’re just starting to see the social changes that come as a result of those things: interlinked networks, technologically enabled, doing new stuff like Wikipedia and Wookiepedia and breaking the entire news industry by publishing stuff immediately and talking to each other directly.

Of course, children born today have no idea what a rotary telephone is, or a vinyl record. That’s not a hard thing to understand. What’s startling is realising that most 12-year-olds now have no idea what the save icon in Microsoft Word is meant to look like. Floppy disks are gone. We’ve gone through so much tech so fast.

But we’re not done with those changes. Not even the network changes are over, never mind the hardware and the social effects from those things. We have got so many more years of this to come – magical devices emerging from big conferences that change the way your whole life works; new ways of having conversations and sharing things and spreading information virally that come out of tiny startups with no cash. Things we can’t imagine yet, but that will seem inevitable as soon as they exist.

We don’t get to stop yet. In fact, we probably aren’t going to stop in my lifetime. I’ve made my peace with the idea that every solution I work on, every innovation I’m part of and every exciting development I eagerly enjoy is a step on the way somewhere else. Everything we are currently doing is temporary.

It’s pointless trying to adapt to survive the current conditions and then stopping. By the time you’ve adapted the current conditions will be old news. In three years’ time your nice, completed adaptation will be obsolete.

That doesn’t mean we get to stop doing it. It means that – in the news business especially – we need to get a move on doing it now. We need buckets of innovation now, in chunks that we can test and deploy and iterate on and learn from, so that in six months’ time we can be doing the next thing. And then the thing after that. And then the next thing. Because standing still would be monumentally, suicidally stupid.

This post was brought to you by @currybet on innovation, @adders on disruption, and @yelvington on Kodak.

Google News: doing gamification wrong

OK, I know I’m late to this. I’ve been busy. But it’s still irritating me, more than a fortnight after it was announced, so here we are.

Google News US has launched collectable badges for reading news stories.

This is stupid. There are several reasons why it’s stupid, and I’m sure you can come up with your own – leave some in the comments if I’ve missed them. Here are my main problems with the idea.

These badges don’t represent anything. You don’t have to learn anything or complete anything or even finish reading the news articles in order to get the shiny reward. There’s no sense of achievement, no mastery involved here. So what’s it rewarding?

They encourage clickspam. Look, most of the people who seriously care about collecting these badges are going to be hardcore completionists. The easiest way to collect them is to CTRL+click your way down the entire Google News homepage a couple of times a day for a couple of weeks. Done. Does anyone benefit from that? Anyone at all?

They’re counterproductive. It’s relatively well established that extrinsic rewards (eg digital badges) reduce intrinsic motivation (eg the desire to be informed about the news). It’s called the overjustification effect. You might get some short-term results in terms of improved participation – but once I’ve gotten all the badges, what then? If the only reason I’m reading the news is to collect the shiny things, what happens when all the shiny things are gone?

They make it about Google, not about the news. This isn’t an attempt to serve me better as a user. We’re heading perilously close to the Foursquare badgification realisation (slide 12 here) – when it becomes clear that certain user actions are in fact of very little benefit to the user, but of great benefit to the company. I’m not going to choose Google News over any other aggregator unless it’s genuinely better. Badges might shift that balance very briefly – but shiny things and Google+ integration are no substitute for fantastic experiences. There’s still no real reason to stop using Flipboard or Zite or Twitter.

They make digital news consumption self-conscious. If I want to make my badges public, they become part of my publicly constructed identity. So if I have a guilty penchant for celebrity facelift gossip, I’m not indulging it through Google News any more, because I want the world to see me in a certain way – for similar reasons, certain classic novels are far more often purchased than read. Making personal consumption data public distorts behaviour.

They’re getting in the way of better ideas. As @betterthemask pointed out when I was getting narked about this on Twitter: this is Google, you’d expect them to iterate. But if this is their prototype, I can’t help but feel they’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards. What if they’d started with the desire to encourage more people to actually seek out news, and then built something that would appeal to folks teetering on the edge?

What if they’d made something that genuinely helped make news consumption more fun?