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News Redux
July 18, 2011 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Digital news is broken. Actually, news itself is broken. Almost all news organizations have abandoned reporting in favor of editorial; have cultivated reader opinion in place of responsibility; and have traded ethical standards for misdirection and whatever consensus defines as forgivable. And this is before you even lay eyes on what passes for news design on a monitor or device screen these days. Suggestions for clarifying online news sites from Andy Rutledge.

Regarding content strategy and mechanism, today’s “news” is rife with irrelevancies and distractions. Part of this is due to the news industry’s abandonment of actual journalism, but much of it is due to thoughtless promotional strategy and pathetic pandering. I suggest that digital news acquire a responsible and more usable approach. For instance:
  • “Featured” sections are irrelevant, opinion-shaping editorial promotion; not news.
  • Headlines matter and can be scanned; intro text does not and compromises scanning.
  • Author, source, and date/time are important.
  • Opinion or Op Eds are distinct from news.
  • Article ratings or “likes” are irrelevant in the context of news.
  • Comments are not contextual to news, but to social media.
  • Media types (video, gallery, audio) are not sections. These are simply common components of each story.
posted by netbros (20 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
When I get news, I just want text. Tell me who, what, where and why with your words. If a picture is actually NEEDED to explain what happened, then include it. Stop trying to entertain me and just tell me what the fuck happened.

So, yeah, I pretty much agree with these suggestions.
posted by charred husk at 1:56 PM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting proposal.

The thing about most current designs though is that they're not actually designs. No one person designed them, they're just the state of the committee battlefield with everything lying as it was when exhaustion finally set in.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:00 PM on July 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


In a perfect world, they'd hire tons of writers, editors, and get this: journalists.

If I could buy news from an organization that was actually out, discovering/witnessing/reporting on things, in a good format, well edited, and well written...

Christ. I'd pay for that.

But I won't pay for some hack that writes like a grade six student to rehash the same article that everybody else is already running, with no sourcing at all on the information, and shoddy editing.

Bloggers and free news wouldn't threaten newspapers if they were actually providing something fresh, and something of quality. But for the most part, they aren't.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:00 PM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


After a quick scan, I don't see any suggestions on how to pay for it. While his suggestions look like interesting design commentary, I don't know that this is the most important problem facing a news company.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:01 PM on July 18, 2011


This sounds like one person's rant more than objective criticism. Take this:
"There is no “edition.” All news is global. All news is local. “Global Edition” and “Local Edition,” etc… are non sequiturs. Navigation and filters should be rational and easy to use"

All news is not global, it's local, depending on the person. People care much more about what's going on in their home town, than what's going on across the country or the world.

"Quality news is valuable. It must therefore have a cost. Quality news is subscription only. You pay for valuable information. Fluff you get for free."

Good luck with that.

"There is no “most popular” news. There is news and there is opinion and they are mutually exclusive. Popularity of stories is something not contextual to news sites, but to social media sites."

This is completely silly statement because it's trying to force a black and white division for snobbish reasons.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:05 PM on July 18, 2011


Related Articles:

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"Search for interesting design website continues" - Doublehappy 14 April, 2009
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User "doublehappy" discovers Rutledge site 18 June, 2007
posted by doublehappy at 2:09 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is basically dressing up a corpse, as the blog post notes. Bad design exists to hide the lack of real content. Why treat that as a web layout problem, when it's really a business model problem?
posted by mek at 2:11 PM on July 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I work in the very industry he's discussing. He has some salient points, but it's all abstract. It's like discussing philosophy without regard to real-world influences, where you can also be correct and also be a crazy dreamer.

The design is done by committee. It has to be-- there will be numerous people who have a say in the design and each one will have a different idea about which content must be emphasized. Generally there's merit to most suggestions, and people will feel slighted if their section is too deemphasized.

I guess the bottom line is that a news site isn't designed in a vacuum, and usability isn't the only consideration. I imagine that the need for profit complicates this by a factor. Mobile apps force a more selection, and that's why they're generally easier to navigate.

This is an interesting take on the subject provided that we're not thinking about feasibility; "in a Utopia, what would the news look like?" is a fine discussion.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:13 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Author, source, and date/time are important.

For the sake of fuck, YES!! I am so sick of finding articles that have no date or time and as a result, I have no idea how old the referenced material is. In this day and age, using this space-age "internet technology", time-stamping is practically built the fuck in; you have to be working to not show it.

Please, for the sake of sanity, if you run a news site, please, please, please, include a time stamp of when the article was posted.
posted by quin at 2:23 PM on July 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


For the sake of fuck, YES!! I am so sick of finding articles that have no date or time and as a result, I have no idea how old the referenced material is. In this day and age, using this space-age "internet technology", time-stamping is practically built the fuck in; you have to be working to not show it.

Please, for the sake of sanity, if you run a news site, please, please, please, include a time stamp of when the article was posted.


Seconded heartily. I got into a heated discussion with some friends about an online article. It was as if we were discussing two completely differnent articles. "The word X doesn't even appear in that article!" I'd say, and they'd say it did.

Turns out the website kept changing the article. They may well have been updating the dateline, but it stayed with the same headline on the same link.

News sites ought to have some kind of wiki-like functionality, where you can see the changes that were made. I think it would be quite interesting.
posted by gjc at 2:42 PM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of this (less ranty) essay: Business Class for News.
posted by adamrice at 3:24 PM on July 18, 2011


So it would look like Google News?
posted by zabuni at 3:37 PM on July 18, 2011


Clay Shirky recently offered this take on how the news business was never really about journalism, and why change will be, and must be, chaotic.
posted by maxim0512 at 4:05 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was going to crack a Jakob Nielsen joke when I saw that his pinnacle of news design was the search page of the NYT, but then I got to the part about how the "most popular" stories list was useless because news is not opinion, and I started to wonder if he's advancing a very specific notion of what news should and should not do, or if he's just being incredibly obtuse for no reason.

I actually like what he's done with the article page—I think it strikes a pretty good balance between minimalism and actually displaying a decent amount of related content. Guess what's missing? First, any indication that there are comments on the article. Like them or not, they're a staple of any newspaper site nowadays, and removing them will only send more traffic to aggregator blogs like Gawker and Engadget. Second, related stories, which can actually be a vital way to move through a newspaper site when done well (i.e. the chosen stories really are related).

Meanwhile, the front page looks like a shell designed to hide a spam site. I disagree with the notion that headlines are all you need. Additional context helps you decide if you want to read an article fully, just like headlines, but they also give you the vital information if you decide you don't want to read an article fully.

I think there has to be a balance between the overcrowded pages of most newspaper sites and the blog-like austerity of many of Rutledge's comps. The latter hides a great deal of complexity and thought that goes into the construction of a newspaper archive, and even if what he's really trying to say with his designs is "NEWSPAPERS ARE TOO COMPLICATED," the comps do a poor job of explaining how he wants to simplify the mix of stories and sections.

If his proposal is simply that stories be ordered by the date they were published or updated, well, good luck with that plan. Reading through the politics page, I was struck by how little attention was given to how important or lengthy one story was over another. Without any of the usual surrounding context, it's hard to tell what some stories are even about; without the usual jockeying for position and space that occurs on most newspaper sites, it's hard even to determine the import of stories without reading them all first. There's a reason why the budget story takes up more space than Petraeus's thoughts on leaving Afghanistan, which in turn takes up more space than the Wichita doctor fighting for abortion rights. I can sense there's an implicit argument here as well—that the media's job isn't to do any of this sorting, but rather to present information in a raw format so we can decide what's important or not. I hope that IS his argument, because if he didn't even think that far...

I think he's created a series of designs that work great for the way he reads news. All he needs to do now is make it so everyone reads news just like him, and we've got something.
posted by chrominance at 4:49 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bloggers and free news wouldn't threaten newspapers if they were actually providing something fresh, and something of quality. But for the most part, they aren't.

That shit costs money. Online ads bring in less than one-tenth of the money as print. A few years back --- just before the economy as a whole went to shit, but well into the decline of print --- I attended a presentation by a guy involved in a popular specialist news website that put out a limited circ print edition. The site had 1 million visitors; the print circ was something around 30,000. The print edition was making five times the money that the website was, though both were profitable.

If you wanted to have quality, original, entirely new-news every day, you'd need hundreds of reporters. Because there'd be plenty of days when any given reporter was out researching and going to events and interviewing people and schmoozing, and therefore they wouldn't have come up with any awesome original, totally information that day. So you need either the money to employ tons and tons of backup reporters, and I don't think there's a news site in the world with the kind of readership that would support that. Even then, you'd still get some fan servicy stuff because sometimes you have to be nice to people first before they will tell you stuff that will get them in trouble, e.g., news.
posted by Diablevert at 5:02 PM on July 18, 2011


One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two:Regarding content strategy and mechanism, today’s “news” is rife with irrelevancies and distractions. Part of this is due to the news industry’s abandonment of actual journalism, but much of it is due to thoughtless promotional strategy and pathetic pandering.

What was that part about 'hats'? Can we promote hats as part of our new marketing strategy? What if we had HATS! 24/7 on people's mobile phones so they knew we were dope and fresh and awww yeaah, all about the hats bay-bay? For reals.

In a perfect world, they'd hire tons of writers, editors, and get this: journalists.
Who's hiring the what now?
The fat profits are coming to an end, because newspapers are running out of ways to cut costs
back in 2008. Still cutting apparently.
I mean, yeah, why the hell are they cutting journalists, editors, writers, etc?
I'm no business...ologist, but if I make widgets, the way I'd cut costs is not by getting rid of the widget making machines that make the product I sell.

Apparently though it's just to more efficiently deliver advertising. Perhaps all the noise Rutledge alludes to is just to cover up that fact and make it look like somethings going on.
(Disclaimer: I couldn't design a web site if my life depended on it)

I still get a chuckle out of outsourcing and robotic online content production in the news business. In the dystopian "were all going to hell" sense of course.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:34 PM on July 18, 2011


After a quick scan, I don't see any suggestions on how to pay for it.

Subscriptions for news, advertising in features.
posted by eyeballkid at 6:03 PM on July 18, 2011


Why conceptualize so much information as news? Why not simply maintain public databases? People who care about the local murders could pull up an info-graphic for the murder rate that let you drill down to the interesting points for individual cases?

We should focus less upon isolated events that must be processed alongside other events to understand their role in society. Instead, we should focus upon events that'll happen in the near future, which mostly boil down to local social events, ala concerts, street parties, etc., and political stuff, i.e. protests, votes on new laws, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:01 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I work at a large tech blog. A lot of the stuff we cover (and this isn't a secret) isn't "news" that would be "reported" or "investigated" by someone who might be described as a journalist. Instead we essentially manage a large store of non-privileged but specialized data and synthesize something people find valuable from there. Global news where a reporter has to be on site to report what he or she is seeing is incredibly valuable, but these people are expensive and the jobs are trying and dangerous, so few people are interested. On the other hand, a huge amount of the stuff people care about and want to consume is essentially fed to the media via press releases and controlled leaks. How would I go about "reporting" on Microsoft or Apple? Sneaking around campus at night? The information people want is under lock and key, being doled out by PR at the exact time and rate they think will have the best effect.

Gizmodo's big reveal of the iPhone 4 was about the biggest piece of so-called journalism in the last few years of tech (despite the fact that they completely botched it), if you define journalism as taking a risk to report information that others may not want reported, and to which people on the street have no access. Mistakes of that magnitude happen rather rarely. Real journalism in tech now is more or less reduced to having a couple "sources" inside a company that pass along such tidbits as they think might benefit them or the company. Many pay such sources for this information.

The problem may be the definition of news and the way consumers self-select only the news they find interesting now, which needless to say is often fluff, editorial, garbage, and all the rest. I think that the reporting period of the last hundred years demonstrates a sort of supply exceeding demand partially because of the structures required to produce enough content for a daily newspaper and so on. Now with far more information flying in every direction, the demand for "real" news is simply smaller in magnitude, because people have more choice in how and what they consume. It's not a good thing, but it's a thing.

What's the end game? No idea. Personally I write a lot of editorial because I think it's more valuable than much of the "news" we cover (though to be fair we are a good and consistent source for that kind of news). But what will happen as "citizen journalism" and constant broadcasting become more commonplace? These processes are underway. It's going to get worse (in my opinion) before it gets better, because really, most people don't look with this critical eye at the NYT front page and think "What the devil! 'Video' isn't a kind of news! And why do I care what other people are reading?" No - they read the most emailed stories, skim the entertainment and health news, check the local weather and then move on to whatever it is they were doing before.

I do agree that too much information is being presented, and that clarification would be a good thing. But this volume of data is the great achievement and the great curse of globalized, instantaneous communication. It's going to take some time to work it out, and while some of his suggestions are good in the short term for site designers looking for dos and don'ts, they don't address the problem, because the problem is the internet. And the internet isn't a problem, it's a force of nature.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:58 PM on July 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Khoi Vhin responds: http://www.subtraction.com/2011/07/28/unsolicited-redesigns. Seems to me that Rutledge offered some helpful suggestions - especially when I pulled up the times on my mobile this morning then moved on to the guardian. Perhaps the Times should talk to @punchcut for an afternoon - that would be exciting.
posted by specialk420 at 10:10 AM on July 31, 2011


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