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February 11 2012

12:06

FAQ: The stream as an interface; starting out in data journalism

Here’s the latest answers to some questions - this time relating to these predictions for 2012:

Q: What are the advantages of “stream” as an interface for news website homepages? 

The main advantages are that it’s very sticky – users tend to leave streams on in the same way that they leave 24 hour news channels on, or keep checking back to Facebook and Twitter (which have helped popularise the ‘stream’ interface).

If you compare that to the traditional story layout format, where users scan across the page but then leave the site if there’s nothing obviously of interest, you can see the difference.

I think there’s room for both, but if you want to know what’s new since the last time you looked, the stream works very well. And it’s not difficult to combine that with subject or region pages that show the most important news of that day, for example.

I think it can work for every kind of news: the stream says ‘Here’s what’s new’ across all topics; the ‘layout’ says ‘Here’s what we think is important’ – in other words, it performs a more traditional ‘snapshot’ function akin to the daily newspaper layout.

2) What are the skills a reporter should have in order to be a top-notch, first-rate data journalist?

The basic skills are the same as any journalist: a nose for a story, and the ability to communicate that clearly. In data journalism terms that means being able to interrogate data quickly and then focus on the most important facts within it.

That will most likely involve being able to use spreadsheet formulae to work out, for example, the proportion of time or money being spent on something, or to combine different datasets to gain new insights or overcome obstacles put in your way by those publishing the data.

You also need to be able to avoid mistakes by cleaning data, for example (often the same person or organisation will be named differently, for example), and by understanding the context of the data (for example, population size, or methodology used to gather it).

Finally, as I say, you need to be able to communicate the results clearly, which often means pulling back from the data and not trying to use it all in your telling of the story (just as you wouldn’t use every quote you got from a source) but keeping it simple.

May 27 2011

18:04

Nielsen: content-focused iPad apps perfected form but are hard to navigate

Ars Technica :: A report released by the Nielsen Norman Group shows that many iPad apps are confusing users by being too subtle about the gestures needed to navigate them, and some are not sensitive enough to the accuracy limit of fingertips. The authors also found that many companies with perfectly functional websites are wasting their time making a less-functional iPad app.

Continue to read Casey Johnston, arstechnica.com

June 02 2010

19:20

WaPo rezones a neighborhood on its site, builds a new local point of entry

Following its recent launch of PostPolitics, The Washington Post today unveiled another stand-alone landing page at PostLocal.com. The page pulls together existing local content from its Metro section, plus houses new blogs and a few interactive features. The goal is to build an engaged local community around a site-within-a-site.

The timing of PostLocal coincides with a hiring frenzy at its new startup competitor in Washington, TBD. The local online-only news venture, owned by Politico parent Allbritton, plans to launch this summer.

Maria Cereghino, a spokeswoman for the Post, told me in an email that she “would not characterize” PostLocal as a response to TBD. Still, there are some prominent similarities between the sites. PostLocal hosts the Post’s new local blog network, which offers a platform to a selection of local bloggers. TBD is working on a similar model and is currently in the midst of solidifying relationships with its own set of local bloggers, Steve Buttry of TBD told me.

PostLocal is also home to interactive tools, like “The Daily Gripe,” powered by SeeClickFix. Locals can post a complaint about problems in their neighborhoods, like a broken street sign, or a large pothole. The tool automatically sends a notification of the problem to the proper authority. Users can vote on gripes they like (or, perhaps, dislike) most; one gripe per day gets a full report.

PostLocal and PostPolitics represent a shift in thinking about how newspaper readers arrive at the paper’s website. Aside from readers who arrive via search or inbound links, the homepage has always been the primary point of entry for regular visitors. But as major news organizations have expanded their content in myriad directions, Post content is competing with itself for reader attention and a showcase spot on the front page. The PostPolitics redesign sought to change that, creating a place for politics-obsessed readers to get just the content they want, something they’ve already been able to do at sites like niche sites like Politico. Now, readers looking for just local content can do the same; if the Post can convince some portion of its audience to use PostLocal as its front door, that could mean a wider array of stories getting attention.

And there’s a potentially lucrative reason to build an engaged local audience. One startup, for example, Main Street Connect, which hopes to get 3,000 franchise-style sites off the ground in the next few years, just attracted $3.97 million in first round financing. AOL thinks it can make money on its growing network of Patch sites. Yahoo is wading in as well. Local advertising remains a largely untapped resource online, and newspapers still have the largest set of relationships with local advertisers in most markets. So even if the Post isn’t seeing a threat, it must at least see some dollar signs.

April 05 2010

14:15

Three iPad design choices that will influence how we read news online

So we don’t have to guess about what news apps on the iPad will look like any more. With Saturday’s debut of the device — which is, oh by the way, amazing — we now know how about a dozen major news organizations have chosen to present themselves on Apple’s new platform. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen no revolutionary apps to this point — solid, competent, but not revolutionary — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t already some important lessons to be learned from what’s already out there. After a weekend of playing around with all the news apps I could find, here are three design choices that I think are worth taking a closer look at.

Story-to-story navigation

Web-analytics types push time-on-site and pageviews-per-visit as measurements of a reader’s engagement. It’s fine to have someone following an occasional link in Twitter, but the real money, some argue, is in dedicated readers who spend lots of time with your content. And to that end, a number of sites have been working on their internal website navigation to push users from story to story, rather than asking them to head back to a list of headlines first.

On news iPad apps, that story-to-story navigation has become the norm. The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Associated Press, USA Today, NPR, Reuters — their apps all allow (and in some cases emphasize) swiping or tapping from story to story rather than Back and Forward, web browser-style. (The New York Times’ app is an interesting exception.) I suspect that’ll lead to more stories consumed per session — and I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t see more news companies taking that lesson back to their websites.

Diving right in

Similarly, just about every news website created in the past 15 years has pushed users down a similar path: show them a whole bunch of headlines, arrayed into a variety of design styles, then expect the user to choose one of them and begin what the site hopes will be a lengthy run of clicking on stories. It’s a decision tree: Here are your options, now make a choice.

The very attractive BBC app takes a key step away from that pattern. When you launch the app, you’re not confronted just with a bunch of headlines — you’re also thrown immediately into the text of the app’s top story, without so much as a click. And once you’re reading one story, the act of flicking to another one seems closer to a default act than when you’ve just selected from a menu of options.

It’s a model that makes perfect sense from a broadcasting background; a BBC radio or TV show doesn’t wait to ask which story the listener wants first. It just dives right in. Considering how many news website users never get past that list of initial headlines, dumping the reader directly into a story might be a way to push browsers into readers. The BBC may not rely on in-app advertising to pay the bills, but for sites that do, it’s a model worth watching.

The Times’ cyberclaustrophobia

There’s been a hearty debate among a certain breed of techie over whether the iPad’s existence as a closed ecosystem of apps makes it somehow evil. I think that argument’s more than a little overblown, but using The New York Times’ Editors’ Choice app, I was surprised at my own reaction to the closed universe of Times news it presents.

The free Editors’ Choice app includes a limited sampling of Times stories; presumably, that’s because the full New York Times experience is being held back for a subscription-only app to come later. But the experience of using the app is markedly different from going to nytimes.com, because it has an endpoint. Give yourself two minutes and you can easily read every headline, with five swipes and four taps. Not too much longer and you can read all the stories you’re interested in reading.

On one hand, I’ve heard print-centric people complain that one reason they prefer newspapers over their websites is that, with a newspaper, you know when you’re finished. Turn that last page and you know your news-collection job is complete. With a news website of any size, there’s always one more place to click, always one more link to follow, always one bit of breaking news that dribbled in since you started reading. Maybe an approach like the Editors’ Choice app’s can give a jolt of emotional satisfaction to those users.

But for me, the Editors’ Choice app just gave me a weird case of cyberclaustrophobia. It’s like swimming in the river of news only to find it ends not at a lake but in a parking lot. It’s like reaching the end of the Internet.

I can’t knock the Times, or pretend my reaction is logical. They are giving away around 50 stories at any given time, nytimes.com is still a click away in the iPad’s web browser, and I’m glad to see them (and others) experimenting with paid-content strategies. But at a gut level, reaching the end of a Times digital project still feels wrong after more than a decade of training.

March 31 2010

08:21

BBC Research and Development blog: Could the Mythology Engine be applied to online news stories?

Interesting prototype from the BBC for a new way to explore the stories, characters and archives of drama series.

The video below explains how the Mythology Engine works:

“The featured characters stories and things all link to other places in the Mythology Engine,” says the video.

While the idea is currently being applied to fictional series and dramas, such as Doctor Who, the alternative way of navigating through an ongoing story, of learning more about the key characters and events and being able to discover the connections between these is an interesting prospect for news storytelling.

And should this model and framework make us think differently about how we write and produce stories? Could we start to create narratives that are tailored for the web?

We’re already seeing experiments by news organisations with presenting ongoing stories with deep archives, such as the New York Times work with Google on the Living Stories project, and ongoing topics featuring characters with multiple connections and important backgrounds, like Channel 4’s Who Knows Who politics site.

The Mythology Engine goes a step further in the way it uses data to link elements of the story together and present them in an exciting and explorable format for users – could a version of this be created for more rapidly updating, unpredictable news events?

Full post at this link…

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