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July 25 2011

14:30

Vadim Lavrusik: Five key building blocks to incorporate as we’re rethinking the structure of stories

Editor’s Note: Vadim Lavrusik is Facebook’s first Journalist Program Manager, where he is responsible for, among other things, helping journalists to create new ways to tell stories. (You may remember him from his work at Mashable.) In the article below, he provides an wide-angle overview of the key forces that are re-shaping the news article for the digital age.

If we could re-envision today’s story format — beyond the text, photographs, and occasional multimedia or interactive graphics — what would the story look like? How would the audience consume it?

Today’s web “article” format is in many ways a descendent from the golden age of print. The article is mostly a recreation of print page design applied to the web. Stories, for the most part, are coded with a styled font for the headline, byline, and body — with some divs separating complementary elements such as photographs, share buttons, multimedia items, advertising, and a comments thread, which is often so displaced from the story that it’s hard to find. It is only scratching the surface of the storytelling that is possible on the web.

In the last few years, we’ve seen some progress in new approaches to the story format on the web, but much of it has included widgets and tools tacked on for experimentation. And it doesn’t fully account for changes in user behavior and the proliferation of simple publishing tools and platforms on the web. As the Huffington Post’s Saul Hansell recently put it, “There are a lot more people saying things than there is stuff to say in this world.” Tools like Storify and Storyful enable journalists to curate the conversation that’s taking place on the social web, turning ephemeral comments into enduring narratives. A story, Jeff Jarvis notes, can be the byproduct of the process of newsgathering — the conversation.

And the conversation around the story has become, at this point, almost as important as the story itself. The decisions we make now — of design and of content creation — will inform the evolution of the story itself. So it’s worth stepping back and wondering: How can we hack today’s story into something that reflects the needs of today’s news consumers and publishers, integrates the vast amounts of content and data being created online, and generally leverages the opportunities the web has created? Below are some of the most crucial elements of online storytelling; think of it as a starting point for a conversation about the pieces tomorrow’s story format could include.

1. Context

Context wears many hats in a story. It could mean representing historical context through an interactive timeline or presenting contextualized information that puts the story in perspective. It could be an infographic, a subhead with information — or cumulative bits of information that run through a narrative. When the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was published, many of its stories were only a few sentences in length. Most of its stories were reports that were gathered through word of mouth. But because of the infrequency of the publication and short length of the stories, it failed to provide the reader with adequate context in its stories. Haphazard newsgathering led to a somewhat chaotic experience for readers.

Today, though, with publication happening every millisecond, the overflow of information presents a different kind of challenge: presenting short stories in a way that still provides the consumer with context instead of just disparate pieces of information. We’ve seen a piece of the solution with the use of Storify, which enables journalists to organize the social story puzzle pieces together to suggest a bigger picture. But how can this approach be scaled? How can we provide context in a way that is not only comprehensive, but inclusive?

2. Social

Social platforms have, in short, changed the way we consume news. Over the last decade, we consumers spent a big portion of our time searching for news and seeking it out on portals and news sites. Now news finds us. We discover it from friends, colleagues, and people with whom we share intellectual interests. It’s as if on every corner one of our friends is a 1900s paperboy shouting headlines along with their personal take on the news in question. The news is delivered right to us in our personalized feeds and streams.

Social design makes the web feel more familiar. We tend to refer to readers and viewers as consumers, and that’s not only because they consume the content that is presented or pay for it as customers; it’s also because they’re consumed by the noise that the news creates. Social design adds a layer that acts as a filter for the noise.

Stories have certainly integrated social components so far, whether it’s the ability of a consumer to share a story with friends or contribute her two cents in the comments section. But how can social design be integrated into the structure of a story? Being able to share news or see what your friends have said about the piece is only scratching the surface. More importantly, how can social design play nice with other components discussed here? How do you make stories that are not just social, but also contextual — and, importantly, personal?

3. Personalization

One of the benefits of social layering on the web is the ability to personalize news delivery and provide social context for a user reading a story. A user can be presented with stories based on what their social connections have shared using applications like Flipboard, Zite, Trove, and many others. Those services incorporate social data to learn what it is you may be interested in reading about, adding a layer of cusomtization to news consumption. Based on your personal interests, you are able to get your own version of the news. It’s like being able to customize a newscast with only segments you’re interested in, or only have the sports section of the local newspaper delivered to your porch…times ten.

How can we serve consumers’ needs by delivering a story in a format they prefer, while avoiding the danger of creating news consumers who only read about things they want know (and not news they should know)? Those are big questions. One answer could have to do with format: enabling users to consume news in a format or style they prefer, enabling them to create their own personalized article design that suits their needs. Whatever it looks like, personalization is not only important in enabling users to get content in a compelling format. It’s also crucial from the business perspective: It enables publishers to learn more about their audiences to better serve them through forms of advertising, deals, and services that are just as relevant and personalized.

4. Mobile

Tomorrow’s story will be designed for the mobile news consumer. Growing accessibility to smartphones is only going to continue to increase, and the story design and format will likely increasingly cater to mobile users. They will also take into account the features of the platform the consumer is on and their behavior when they are consuming the content. The design will take into account how users interact with stories from their mobile devices, using touch-screen technology and actions. We’re already seeing mobile and tablet design influence web design.

These are challenges not only of design, but of content creation. Journalists may begin to produce more abbreviated pieces for small-screen devices, while enabling longform to thrive on tablet-sized screens. Though journalists have produced content from the field for years, the advancement of mobile technology will continue to streamline this process. Mobile publication is already integrated into content management platforms, and companies like the BBC are working on applications that will enable users to broadcast live from their mobile phones.

5. Participation

Citizens enabled by social platforms are covering revolutions on mobile devices. Users are also able to easily contribute to a story by snapping a picture or video and uploading it with their mobile devices to a platform like iReport. Tomorrow’s article will enable people to be equal participants in the story creation process.

Increasingly, participation will mean far more than simply consumption, being cast aside as a passive audience that can contribute to the conversation only by filing a comment below a published story (pending moderator approval). The likes of iReport, The Huffington Post’s “contribute” feature, or The New York Daily News’ recent uPhoto Olapic integration — which enables people to easily upload their photos to a story slideshow and share photos they’ve already uploaded to Facebook, Flickr, and elsewhere — are just the beginning. To harness participatory journalism, these features should no longer be an afterthought in the design, but a core component of it. As Jay Rosen recently put it, “It isn’t true that everyone is a journalist. But a lot more people are involved.”

Image by Holger Zscheyge used under a Creative Commons license.

March 19 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Loads of SXSW ideas, Pew’s state of the news, and a dire picture of local TV news

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A raft of ideas at SXSW: The center of the journalism-and-tech world this week has been Austin, Texas, site of the annual conference South by Southwest. The part we’re most concerned about — SXSW Interactive — ran from last Friday to Tuesday. The New York Times’ David Carr gives us a good feel for the atmosphere, and Poynter’s Steve Myers asked 15 journalists what they took away from SXSW, and it makes for a good roundup. A handful of sessions there grabbed the attention of a lot of the journalism thinkers on the web, and I’ll try to take you on a semi-quick tour:

— We saw some conversation last week leading up to Matt Thompson’s panel on “The Future of Context,” and that discussion continued throughout this week. We had some great description of the session, between Steve Myers’ live blog and Elise Hu’s more narrative summary. As Hu explains, Thompson and his fellow panelists, NYU prof Jay Rosen and Apture founder Tristan Harris, looked at why much of our news lacks context, why our way of producing news doesn’t make sense (we’re still working with old values in a new ecosystem), and how we go about adding context to a largely episodic news system.

Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center echoes the panelists’ concerns, and Lehigh prof Jeremy Littau pushes the concept further, connecting it with social gaming. Littau doesn’t buy the idea that Americans don’t have time for news, since they obviously have plenty of time for games that center on collecting things, like Facebook’s Farmville. He’d like to see news organizations try to provide that missing context in a game environment, with the gamer’s choices informed by “blasts of information, ideally pulled from well reported news stories, that the user can actually apply to the situation in a way that increases both recall and understanding.”

— NYU’s web culture guru, Clay Shirky, gave a lecture on the value that can be squeezed out of public sharing. Matt Thompson has a wonderful live blog of the hourlong session, and Liz Gannes of GigaOM has a solid summary, complete with a few of the made-for-Twitter soundbites Shirky has a knack for, like “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does,” and “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Once again, Jeremy Littau pulls Shirky’s ideas together and hones in on their implications for journalism in a thoughtful post, concluding that while the future of journalism is bright, its traditional players are clueless. “I just don’t see a future for them when they’re trying to protect information as a scarce commodity,” he writes. “The scarcity, in truth, is in media companies trying to create civic goods via user sharing.”

danah boyd, who studies social media and youth culture for Microsoft Research, gave a well-received talk on privacy and publicity online. It doesn’t have much to do directly with journalism, but it’s a brilliant, insightful glimpse into how web culture works. Here’s a rough crib of the talk from boyd, and a summary from TechCrunch. There’s a bunch of cool nuggets in there, like boyd’s description of the “inversion of defaults” in privacy and publicity online. Historically, conversations were private by default and public by effort, but conversations online have become public by default and private by effort.

— One of the big journalism-related stories from SXSW has been AOL and Seed’s efforts to employ a not-so-small army of freelancers to cover each of the 2,000 or so bands at the festival. The Daily Beast has the best summary of the project and its goals, and TechCrunch talks about it with former New York Times writer Saul Hansell, who’s directing the effort. Silicon Alley Insider noted midweek that they wouldn’t reach the goal of 2,000 interviews.

One of the big questions about AOL and Seed’s effort is whether they’re simply creating another kind of “content mill” that many corners of the web have been decrying over the past few months. Music writer Leor Galil criticized it as crass, complaining of the poor quality of some of the interviews: “AOL is shelling out cash and providing great space for potentially terrible content.” David Cohn of Spot.Us compared AOL to the most notorious content farm, Demand Media, concluding that journalists shouldn’t be worried about them exploiting writers, but should be worried about their threat to the journalism industry as a whole.

— One other session worth noting: “Cult of the Amateur” author and digital dystopian Andrew Keen gave a sobering talk called “Is Innovation Fair?” As Fast Company’s Francine Hardaway aptly summarized, he pointed to the downsides of our technological advances and argued that if SXSW is a gathering of the winners in the cultural shift, we have to remember that there are losers, too.

Pew’s paywall findings: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual “State of the News Media” study, and it’s a smorgasbord of statistics about every major area of journalism, from print to TV to the web. A summary of summaries: The study’s six major emerging trends (expanded on by Poynter’s Bill Mitchell), some of its key statistical findings, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s seven eye-popping statistics from the study.

The biggest headline for most people was the study’s finding that only seven percent of the Americans who get their news online say they’d spring for a favorite news source’s content if it went behind a paywall. (The AP writeup has a few more statistics and some analysis about online loyalty and advertising.) Jeff Jarvis, a longtime paywall opponent, wondered why newspapers are spending so much time on the paywall issue instead of their “dreadful” engagement and loyalty online. Former WSJer Jason Fry breaks down the study to conclude that the basic unit of online journalism is not the site but the article — thus undermining the primary mindset behind the paywall.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, who writes the study’s section on newspapers each year, said he’s done with dead-and-dying as an industry theme. Instead, he said, the problem with most newspapers is that they are becoming insubstantial, shells of their former selves. “They lack the heft to be thrown up the front porch or to satisfy those readers still willing to pay for a good print newspaper.” Editor & Publisher pulled some of the more depressing statistics from Edmonds’ chapter. Yet Lee Rainie, who co-authored the study’s section on online economics, said he was still optimistic about journalism’s future.

A bleak look at local TV news: Another fascinating journalism study was released late last week by USC researchers that found disappointing, though not necessarily surprising, trends in Los Angeles local TV news: Crime, sports, weather and teasers dominate, with very little time for business and government. USC’s press release has some highlights, and co-author Martin Kaplan offers a quick, pointed video overview of the report, concluding with a barb about wants and needs: “I want ice cream. I need a well-balanced meal. Apparently the people of Los Angeles want 22 seconds about their local government. Maybe if they got more than that, they’d want more than that.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was “flat-out alarmed” by the study and vowed some vague form of action. Jay Rosen was ruthless in his criticism on Twitter, and Los Angeles Times critic James Rainey used the study as the basis for a particularly well-written evisceration of local TV news. Rainey had the most promising suggestion, proposing that a cash-strapped TV station find a newspaper, nonprofit or j-school interested in partnering with it to build an audience around more substantive, in-depth TV news.

The iPad, magazines and advertising: As we expected, lots and lots of people have been ordering iPads since they went on sale — 50,000 in the first two hours and 152,000 in three days, according to estimates. We’re also continuing to get word of news organizations’ and publishers’ plans for apps; this week we heard that the AP will have an app when the iPad rolls out next month, and saw a nifty interactive feature for the digital Viv Mag. (The Guardian has a roundup of other video iPad demos that have come out so far.)

SXSW also had at least three sessions focusing on media companies and the iPad: 1) One on the iPad and the magazine industry focused largely on advertising — here’s a DigitalBeat summary and deeper thoughts by Reuters’ Felix Salmon on why advertising on the iPad could be more immersive and valuable than in print; 2) Another focusing on the iPad and Wired magazine, with Salmon opining on why the iPad is a step backwards in the open-web world; 3) And a third on iPad consumption habits and their effects on various industries.

Reading roundup: One ongoing discussion, two pieces of news and one smart analysis:

The conversation sparked by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen’s advice for newspapers to forget the printed paper and go all-in with online news continued this week, with Frederic Filloux noting that “there are alternatives to envisioning the transformation of the print media as only a choice between euthanizing the paper product or putting it on life support.” Steve Yelvington looked at setting up separate print and online divisions (been there, done that, he says), Tim Kastelle spun Andreesen and Google’s Hal Varian off into more thoughtful suggestions for newspapers, and Dorian Benkoil took the opportunity to marvel at how much things have changed for the better.

The first piece of news was Twitter’s launch at SXSW of @anywhere, a simple program that allows other sites to implement some of Twitter’s features. TechCrunch gave a quick overview of what it could do, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy looked at its targeting of Facebook Connect, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was unimpressed.

Second, ABC News execs revealed that they’re planning on putting up an online paywall by this summer. The Guardian and paidContent have detailed interviews with ABC News digital chief Paul Slavin.

And finally, newspaper vet Alan Mutter examines the often-heard assertion that small newspapers are weathering the industry’s storm better than their larger counterparts. He nails all the major issues at play for small papers, both the pluses (lack of competition and broadband access, loyal readership) and the minuses (rapidly aging population, some local economies lacking diversity). He ultimately advises small papers to ensure their future success by innovating in order to become indispensable to their communities: “To the degree publishers emphasize short-term profits over long-term engagement, they will damage their franchises — and open the way to low-cost online competitors.”

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