At the foundation

XVI.4 July + August 2009
Page: 70
Digital Citation

Ps AND QsThe golden age of newsprint collides with the gilt age of internet news

Elizabeth Churchill

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Sitting in an economy-class seat on a United Airlines flight, I ducked for the third time as the gentleman next to me struggled to turn the page of his newspaper.

While he was perusing the day's events, I was contemplating the unfortunate juxtaposition of two iconic forms—the oversized broadsheet newspaper and the undersized airline seat—and the current state of two industries in deep financial trouble.

News stories. Crosswords. Horoscopes. Book reviews. Political cartoons. Recipes. Ink-stained fingers. Papier mâché. Stuffing sodden shoes. Wrapping fish and chips. Ad hoc packing materials. Starting bonfires. These are things that I think about when I think of newspapers. And despite the fact that I could never quite physically control a broadsheet without the aid of a table, I cannot believe this everyday artifact may go away. But according to my friends here in the digiphilic environment of San Francisco, it is inevitable—you can't walk into a coffee shop, never mind turn on a TV or the radio, without hearing someone opine about the economic crisis that newspapers are facing and the likely disappearance of the daily rag. I am as shocked and mortified by this as I was by the 2003 news story that bananas may be extinct by 2013.

Broadcast radio in the 1920s was low cost, with broad distribution and timely content delivery. The newspapers responded by adding content that was not so easily represented through audio waves, providing more in-depth and visually vivid coverage of key stories. As the 1940s and 1950s came around, television appeared as the main challenger. Newspapers again responded, lifting from television the short, pithy story format. Newspapers like USA Today responded with graphics and color. More generally, news publications started diversifying their content, mixing human-interest stories with puzzles, crosswords, book reviews, cartoons, recipes, and all the good stuff we have grown to love. Newspapers became about browsing, grazing, sharing, and surfing content that satisfied immediate information needs and longer-term general interests. And so, despite radio and television, newspapers managed to retain their position in the information value chain.

Not so anymore.

There are three interrelated causes for this shift in the information ecosphere: Internet-related innovations in news dissemination; new digital devices that are changing how content is produced and consumed; and a once healthy business model that is no longer viable.

Let's quickly look at these in turn. It is obvious that the Internet has revolutionized news dissemination. Speedy transmission of information around the globe means news can reach us as events are unfolding—hot off the keyboard rather than the press, with images and video for that "being there" feeling. "Citizen journalists" give us the layman perspective on events that journalists cannot or have not yet reached. Iraqi weblogs told us more about the impact of events as they were unfolding, and in more detail, than our daily papers could have hoped to offer. For many, the first reports of various disasters—from the fires in California to the shootings in Mumbai to the plane crashes in Denver and New York City—came through Twitter, the micoblogging service. The efficiency and effectiveness of this interconnected Internet world are undeniable.

Production and consumption of news has also been transformed by the explosion of lightweight, wireless, Internet-enabled recording and reading devices, plus the proliferation of computers in the home and in offices. I can record an image or a video of an event, upload it, and within seconds it is there for the world to see. News large and small is shared this way—from events of global importance to publicly shaming and castigating men who flash women on subways. A few years back, I found out about the London subway bombings from my Flickr stream; my friends' images came flooding in prompting me to seek out official press reports, which did not appear till sometime later.

Finally, the old business model is failing. For decades, the U.S. newspaper industry has been generating most of its revenue from advertising. The global recession and the resulting decline in advertising revenue have dealt a possibly fatal blow; the Newspaper Association of America reports that in 2008 total advertising revenue declined 16.6 percent, to $37.85 billion, representing a $7.5 billion reduction in numbers from 2007. This is reminiscent of the rollercoaster ride the music industry has been experiencing as it struggles to modify rather than abandon its own anachronistic business model. Proposals on the table for saving the newspaper industry now include micropayment schemes plus bailout and/ or government subsidies.

I don't feel qualified to assess whether micropayments or government bailouts will save the news industry. And I will not argue the obvious—securing the future of good journalistic practice. Instead I refer readers to the cogent arguments of writers such as Ethan Zuckerman from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, Clay Shirky from NYU, and Princeton University's Paul Starr; they eloquently cover the issues.

I am, however, screaming for a better news-reading experience on my desktop and mobile devices. Certainly I love having access to so much information, but the reading experience is just not the same as the structured, well-designed experience of newspapers. News websites are like buckets of Internet storm-drain runoff, all laid out in some distorted version of their print counterparts.

Ethan Zuckerman blogged about his experience browsing the New York Times site: "... counting possible links (using a search for anchor tags in the source HTML), there are 423 other webpages linked from the front page. A more careful count, ignoring ads, links to RSS feeds and links to account tools for online readers, gives 315 content links, possible stories or sections a reader could explore from the front page." He's right. I replicated his analysis with three online newspapers. It isn't just the glut and the "I can't see the wood for the trees" problem; it is the link to nowhere problem. I click on a link and it takes me to nothing interesting, usually just a few lines of some banal story from several years ago.

As a child I used to love getting lost in the Hampton Court Maze, squealing with excitement when I hit another dead end and then running back to where I started, hopeful the next turn would lead me a little closer to the prize. Somehow a link to nowhere does not hold the same fascination. No wonder I don't venture too far off my well-worn paths, especially when reading from my phone.

Is it possible to take the best of what we have in newsprint and create a good digital news-reading experience? Here are some basics I would like to work on:

  1. Information collection and presentation. Let's actively design better technologies for production and presentation of the news by citizen and professional journalists and editors. Can we provide better tools for the collection and management of information gathered on the ground? Can we improve the representation of information—graphics, fonts, layouts—to enable more effective skimming? Can we offer better guidelines for the coupling of different media types (text, image, video) and avoid gratuitous visuals? Let's improve navigation of well-filtered and segmented content online.
  2. Information architecture design. Let's think about how to do a better job of recommending "related" stories. Many search engines reveal items that are generally popular—that are highly ranked. Certainly we should design better filters, but we should also design better automatic information sniffers and surfacers that seek out stories of interest. Can we design better relational models so we can surface relationships between stories that are actually meaningful instead of the "also see" hyperlink that takes me to a story from five years ago that somehow got linked to the current one? Can we do a better job of making explicit the relationship between events at the local, national, and global levels? Can we design better tools for following story developments over time—even those stories that have non-sensational endings? Let's stop aggregating and dumping stuff onto a page because it is easy to do so, and start filtering and designing for more effective and enjoyable readership. I suspect our computational recommendation models are missing the point; they just aren't as good as a human being. Great journalists, editors, and documentarians are capable of making links, extracting lessons at various levels of abstraction, and at spinning a yarn out of a selection of stories. Let's get our imaginations flowing and think about how stories are told and interlinked, and aim for that level of quality—not just what is easily engineered.
  3. Design for time-appropriate reading, and for use and reuse. Can we design a better way to earmark content than the current, simplistic URL bookmarking? What are better ways to support different temporalities of information and different consumption paces? Can we design ways for slow-burn stories to linger, while fast-burn stories are updated with new content?
  4. Device design. My phone screen is just too small for me to really luxuriate in a good story, and layouts are not designed for effective skimming. Yesterday I cursed out loud as I gave up on a page that was taking way too long to load—although the story was tantalizingly titled it was beyond my reach, thanks to a combination of a slow network and a lot of pretty but slow-to-download content. I am curious what comes after the Kindle? Is electronic paper or Xerox's promised reprintable paper going to be a reality? I want the large-gesture, embodied experience of the broadsheet and decent screen real estate for laying out content.

There are three interrelated causes for this shift in the information ecosphere: Internet-related innovations in news dissemination; new digital devices that are changing how content is produced and consumed; and a once healthy business model that is no longer viable.

I am not alone in wanting some good design heads on these problems. We should better understand the variations that exist in how people read, share, tell, and retell news. In addressing people's everyday news-consumption practices, a 2008 Associated Press ethnographic study cited email and Internet-based sources as a mainstay in many young people's news experience. However, these interviewees, like many in a study I am currently running in the Bay Area, all talk about the "work" of reading the news online and say that "news fatigue" is increasing. What this seems to boil down to is that there are plenty of places to find news on the Internet. But in this bacchanalian information glut, the shallow story dominates; it is often difficult to find the follow-up to a news item; and there is a lot of repetition. To the last point, the Project for Excellence in Journalism observed in its 2006 "State of the News Media" report that though 14,000 unique stories were found on a news-aggregating site in one 24-hour period, there were in fact only a handful of discrete news events. There is vastly more content available, of course, and things have improved somewhat since 2006, but that other content is, relatively speaking, hard to find.

In design terms, online news is mimicking the advancement of the automobile, and we are in the equivalent of the late 1800s and early 1900s—in shape and form reproducing the horse-drawn carriage, not yet having found an aesthetic reflective of the new technology's infrastructure and capability. I laughed out loud when the U.K.'s Guardian announced on April 1, 2009, that it was going to abandon its print publication in favor of Twitter-based, 140-character stories. Whoever came up with that joke understood the issue at hand—and prompted me to think about media fads and how we need to move across the available channels and representational forms, and match the media and the story for best effect. Many forms of a story—summary, snippet, and in-depth coverage—are needed to really engage and inform a populace. It's not just about dissemination; it's about information, communication, and channel design.

Newspaper companies are on board with enlisting others to aid in the design of the next generation of news forms. In early 2009, the New York Times Developer Network hosted its first API seminar to start designing and building new forms of content provision. The aim is to make the entire newspaper "programmable." Programmers will be able to mashup the paper's structured content—reviews, event listings, recipes, and so on. This is a great opportunity for those immersed in information and experience design.

I love the materiality of a good broadsheet newspaper and the magazines that I read. It annoys me just a little that, thanks to my beloved Kindle, I don't have newspapers lying around the house to stuff my rain-sodden shoes (yes, it rains in California, too!). But I am also looking forward to a world with better designed digital news formats. What we need is some technical savvy, a design sensibility, and a deeper human-centered understanding of the gestalt of news consumption between and across representational forms. We need something more than the current state of the art, which offers us only the most superficial and easy-to-implement of technical convergences. We need more than the horseless carriage of digital news.

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Elizabeth Churchill is a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research leading research in social media. Originally a psychologist by training, for the past 15 years she has studied and designed technologies for effective social connection. At Yahoo, her work focuses on how Internet applications and services are woven into everyday lives. Obsessed with memory and sentiment, in her spare time Churchill researches how people manage their digital and physical archives. She rates herself a packrat, her greatest joy is an attic stuffed with memorabilia.

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UF1Figure. Citing an unsustainable business model, many newspapers like the Ann Arbor News are exclusively focusing on online content.

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0700  $10.00

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