What I talk about when I talk about ‘important’ news

B4_F8uICEAAd2KFA few months ago, the first mobile expression of a news concierge materialized in the form of NOD – News On Demand. NOD is an iPhone app that tailors news to the user’s available time and attention by providing three important stories daily, in two sizes, and allowing to find them from a catch up calendar.

It’s about separating signal from noise to a quite extreme extent (wtf, 3 news per day only??!) and I’ve received many questions – at presentations, in meet-ups and conferences – about the selection process of these 3 stories. Why only 3? And why these and not others? But the question that people are really asking me is: define “important”.

So, I tried to explain what I talk about when I talk about “important” news:

Interesting: is the story telling you something insightful, necessary or fascinating about the world we live in today?

Matter: will the story also matter tomorrow? Is this the beginning of something that you may hear from in the next few days (think: a trial start, a cop killing leading to protests)? Is this the conclusion of an event that will make history?

Pressing: is the event very likely to be in conversations with friends or at work today, or in a few days maybe? Then you may want to be caught up on it.

Original: is there an odd and unique angle to an apparently “light” news story? Taking the opportunity of George Clooney’s wedding to learn about the great work of human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin makes a celebrity story more important.

Relevant: our users send us a lot of signals through their behavior. We try to act on them : for example, our users give a lot of “nods” to stories on climate change, so when Chile is flooded or a typhoon of uninque size hits the Philippines, it seems more relevant than a man past-retiring age saying he’ll retire.

Trending: is the story making headlines in a wide array of outlets, including major publications, aggregators like Google News and social media like Twitter and Facebook? Will our users wonder why everyone’s making a fuss about this?

Accurate: too often, stories are broken and then turn out to be falsely stated or completely trumped up. Fake kidnappings, murder charges that are dropped, people tested for Ebola who make headlines for 2 days cause they’re found to be healthy after all… So I’d rather wait 24 hours. For breaking news and breaking corrections, there are other outlets.

New: is the story about something we didn’t know yet? A lot of “NEWs” is merely an update in a longer story arch or a quote ping-pong (think Hillary’s email-gate, negotiation processes and plane crash theories).

Timely: obviously, all the stories we curate need to be fresh. If we put out an edition every 24 hours, the events have to have been reported on in the same time-frame.

There will be instances where at least one of these criteria may apply to something that doesn’t show up in the daily NOD edition. This is not enough, though: stories need to score, if not all, as many of those criteria as possible. Sometimes, I push the boundaries a bit: I do this on purpose to trigger user feedback and make NOD better (please write when you disagree!)

Of course, this is anything but perfect. Being human, we shouldn’t aim for perfection anyway, but for continuous improvement. So, I want to know: how do you define important news?

Why we read news


Late last year, I found myself hopelessly stuck. I had been experimenting quite successfully (translation=gathered interesting feedback) with Newstapes for almost a year. Trying to bring this timely news experience to a mobile device, however, I seemed to hit the same wall over and over again. While the idea of adapting content to your time sounded attractive to the users harassed at various cafés and commuter hubs, how to do it effectively didn’t appear very compelling so far. No love, no hate, just encouraging smiles. The worst place to be in.

Until a woman made this fantastic comment: “news is not that important“. Her remark was both sobering and life-saving: it led me to reframe the question from what I was doing to why it mattered. And to question the purpose of getting news in general.

I set up an online survey to ask a random sample of online users about their attitude to news. 70 people were kind enough to participate. Their answers were essential to help me design my next timely news experiment, NOD: News On Demand, an attention-centric mobile app that has received the support of the Knight Prototype Fund. Their answers are also very interesting to hear for anyone in the business of creating news content.

Here’s what they said.

Why do you read the news? The top reason mentioned is “be a better citizen” (36%), followed by “to make business decisions” (13%). My take-away: don’t insult your reader’s intelligence. There may be value to serve news vegetables. The trick may just be to present it like a Michelin-starred restaurant rather than prison food.

But something else deemed to be very interesting. A whole third of the respondents offered an “other” reason to those offered (sound smart, entertain, be entertained, argue, just because). One theme came back over and over again in those spontaneous responses: the idea of finding one’s place in a bigger cosmic setting. Here’s how they said it: “to understand the world better”, “to improve my knowledge of the world”, “because I want to know what happens around me and in the world”, “because I am curious about the way the world works”, “to see what’s happening outside of my cave” (and many more variations)… This idea suggests a quest for a sense of general awareness of someone’s surrounding, and a curiosity for global and diverse matters, that could be distinguished from the wish to become an expert on anything through the media…

Now that we know why people get news, let’s look at how they go about it. Question nr.2 was: what matters when you get news? (multiple answers allowed) Here’s what doesn’t matter: Facebook likes! Embedded video! So maybe we can save some valuable space on a mobile screen now. What does seem to matter…. is the source. A reassuring 40% of people picked the fact that it comes “from a trusted source” as the number 1 criteria that matters when they get the news. The second most important item was “it’s recent” (21%), followed by an “impact on my daily life” (10%). Also, longer detailed content (8%) seemed more important than “short” (5%). One explanation could be that, in “other” reasons suggested by the users the notion of “learning” or getting “new insights” came up several times.


Having in mind that news is “not that important” and therefore competing for attention with many other things in a user’s daily life, I asked what was more and less important than news. Here’s how we fare:

  • news is apparently more important than: entertainment, gossip, Facebook, games (really??)
  • news comes after: family, work, school, exercise (!!), free time (!!!), money

Some good context to keep in mind…

Finally, the last question was an open-ended wild card, planted to gather maybe some surprising use cases or odd views: “what’s special about your attitude to news?“,I wondered. Here’s how users perceive or describe their views and routines of getting information:

  • visuals are extremely important to obtain / lure people into news”
  • “I want to get rapidly the global picture so I can think of it by myself, have an opinion, know the subject, just in case
  • “I love when I can get an “executive summary” about the most important latest news with a bit of background so I can catch up”
  • “I don’t give much preference to news and just take a quick look on the headlines in morning. If a news seems to have an effect on my life, I may read it. Otherwise not”
  • Even after reading, I don’t think much about news as I get involved in my busy lifestyle”
  • “I’m old enough to take the long view on day to day political and social events and to have some perspective on what might actually change the world and what’s just a blip”
  • “I trust people around me and people I follow on twitter to warn me on real big news”
  • “Unless it may influence a decision you could make, no information is urgent” 
  • “I expand an article only if it can entertain me
  • “news uses action verbs to promote or defend a side and sub-consciously allows the individual to think the same way”
  • “News is about “staying aware”. Humans want to stay aware, because it allows them to predict and engineer change in their lives”
  • “Getting away from low-value/fact-oriented news”
  • “News has a special role in helping us understand people who are not like us”
  • “Instantly share articles, read almost always instantly or put in a separate tab and sometimes read, sometimes forget”
  • “happiness”
  • “I feel a bit guilty for not following it but I don’t like the stress caused by the constant stream of bad news”
  • “I’m the only person in my friend group that reads the newspaper on a daily basis”
  • I like to get first hand news and break it to others. Gives an impression to others that I am better informed and intelligent than my peers and family.

This experiment, although led on a very small scale and totally randomly sampled, has proven to be very insightful and interesting. I would like to extend again my gratitude to all the participants who helped me advance my project this way. Also, as a news producer, I believe we should check in with our users regularly. I will definitely try to do so more often.

3 reasons why media should put readers first

The customer comes first. What seems obvious for most industries seems still hard to find in the news industry. Maybe because we are still conflicted about who’s our customer – advertiser or reader/viewer.  So, for those who still need some convincing, here are 3 good reasons, from prominent thinkers, to put readers first.

  1. The reader doesn’t give a flying fuck who breaks the news, writes Felix Salmon in this excellent post. Still, news organizations decide on what to publish, based on what their reporters have seen elsewhere. Which is not helping make the world better informed. “The argument for caring about such things is that news dissemination has become increasingly fragmented and social: if you have the news first, then your story gets a headstart on Twitter and Facebook, which is how more and more people are getting their news. But frankly while a headstart is nice, it should never make the difference between publishing and not publishing. Readers come first, and all decent publications have their own readership: they shouldn’t be so meek as to assume that their readers will have invariably found the same news elsewhere, just because someone else’s version arrived a little earlier.
  2. Law of supply and demand applies to journalism, underlines Bill Keller in this Politico interview. “The law of supply and demand applies to journalism, and there is a demand for it. It’s really hard sometimes finding the connection between the supplier and the customer, and that’s what’s been so utterly disrupted in the last 10 or 20 years.” It’s kind of ironic for an industry named to be the middle.
  3.  We work in tech. A friendly reminder from Cindy Royal at Nieman Lab. Which means we have to stop thinking of the Web as a shelf to deposit content. “The ways we communicate both personally and professionally have been profoundly altered“. Social networks rule the Web, distribution trumps production, and sharing is done… by people.

Information overload is really meaning ‘underload’

Friend and colleague Simon Decreuze shared this excellent piece on Facebook earlier today. The problem with too much information is a great article from Aeon, totally worth the 7-8 minutes it takes to get through it. Why? Because for once, and unlike what the title might imply, it is NOT just another piece on FOMO, information overload, filter bubbles and the likes. It is a good and deep look at what it actually means to be faced with “too much information” and how it relates to WHY we actually want information: to make sense of the world we live in:

Knowledge has a point when we start to find and make connections, to weave stories out of it, stories through which we make sense of the world and our place within it. It is the difference between memorising the bus timetable for a city you will never visit, and using that timetable to explore a city in which you have just arrived. When we follow the connections – when we allow the experience of knowing to take us somewhere, accepting the risk that we will be changed along the way – knowledge can give rise to meaning. And if there is an antidote to boredom, it is not information but meaning.


Read it in full here.

Slow news, my way: meet the News Concierge

As a 2013 Knight fellow, I spent the past 10 month working on a way to make news consumption more time efficient. I placed myself in the vast “slow news movement” (hence this site), as I focused my work on allowing people to catch up at convenient times, rather than helping them spend less time reading the news (say hi to Cir.ca, Summly!)

The result of my explorations became a web-based prototype, The Newstapes. And a memorable talk in the Bing Auditorium at Stanford, on July 12, where I introduce the concept behind all this. Meet the News Concierge!

I am now working on taking this project to the next step. Any thoughts, interest, ideas are most welcome :)

When it’s time for the media to… shut up

In the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings and the manhunt that followed, a lot of thought and critique is going to the way the news functioned during the events. I love the way James Gleick described this to Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times. Also, a series of mistakes clearly made the case for a “slow news” approach in these kind of situations – see Dan Gillmor’s take on this.

But maybe, it’s time for the media to push this even further. Going from putting the brakes on the news to complete… silence! It’s the radical yet sensible suggestion made by Mike Ananny, in a very interesting piece published by Nieman Lab. “What would it mean to create breaking news environments that thoughtfully represented the absence of reporting?“, he asks. In the age of real-time information, pushed by many different stakeholders, there may be an opportunity to look into the value of silence during breaking news events and the trust it could translate into.

Here are some excerpts of his note (further reading highly recommended) :

“The ideal press should be […] about demonstrating robust answers to two inseparable questions: Why do you need to know something now? And why do you need to say something now?”

“When news can break at any moment, when should it break?”

“We are in a unique historical moment when the press is ripe for radical redesign — when it’s possible for those creating the conditions under which the networked press operates to help us understand the meaning and value of online silence during breaking news events.”

Full text: go to Nieman Lab

3 arguments in favor of taking it slow

Do you still need help convincing yourself that there is some good in taking things slow? Here are three articles I found lately, all making the case of putting the brakes on the real-time craze…, all for different reasons.

1. “What grew each day was my capacity for absorbed focus“. Tony Schwartz, from The Energy Project, took 9 days off and details what happens when you really disconnect for the Harvard Business Review. “I realized how much richer and more satisfying any experience is when it’s not interrupted — even if the interrupter is me.”

2. “Multitasking can have long-term harmful effects on brain function“. Time.com resurfaced a study from Stanford professor Cliff Nass, suggesting that there is “a two-task limit on what the human brain can handle“. His recommendation: a precious 20-minute rule.

3. With the manhunt for the Boston bombings suspects came the hunt for media screw-ups. Last week proved to be a sort of “stress test” for the media in general, and former experts of the real-time continuous news cycle in particular. “Covering heater stories in today’s instantaneous, 24-hour news environment is a flat out sprint. No network made it to the finish line without tipping over at least a few hurdles., writes the Chicago Sun-Times.  But CNN showed us it needs to get in shape, fast.” I myself find it much better to catch up on the story just now…

Fighting information overload will be a thing in 2013, says GfK

For almost two years, I’ve been thinking of ways to fight information overload. My beliefs were subject to animated discussions with colleagues and bosses at my newspaper, in France. They also informed the innovation proposal I submitted to the Knight Journalism fellowship at Stanford, late 2011. And finally, I have proof that I have not been delusional or wasting my time all these years!

Fighting information overload is actually a thing. Global market research company GfK says so. It listed “managing information overload” as one of their 6 Tech Trends 2013.

The introductory observation sounds *very* familiar:

“With email and the social feeds that followed, we increased the speed of our communications to instant. More recently, thanks to the shift to mobile, our exposure to these communications has proliferated, creating an ‘always-on’ society where interactions happen in real-time, rather than when we choose to fit them into our live.

Even when we’re not being demanded to provide real-time responses, we find our attention drawn to information streams as news breaks, conversations take place, and opinions are formed.”

This reminds me of one editor whom I discussed my project with and who assumed that the existence of this ‘always-on’ society was actual proof that the user/reader wanted to be constantly fed with content as events happened. I tried to argue that people were rather shaping their schedules and minds to follow the constantly in-flying flow of news and starting to suffer from FOMO or worse…

However, GfK noted that, lately, several “innovative new products and services have responded to this overload” – they range from Instapaper to The Little Printer, via Undrip and iDoneThis. I would add news services like Circa, Newsbound, Pocket and Summly to this list.

These tools – and the one I’m working on now – are doing nothing less than… “shaping the next stage in the evolution of information accessibility”, writes GfK.

And this represents a major challenge for content providers:

“With traditional consumption continuing to fragment and the growth of on- demand media, trying to integrate seamlessly with individual consumer lifestyles is no longer optional.”

Let’s just see how long it takes for them to figure this out… ;-)

[via GigaOm]

When news is just a zap of adrenaline

How much are we, as news consumers, responsible for the permanent news craze that seems to overwhelm us more and more? Until recently, I had completely forgotten about the term “news junkie” and the pride I used to take in calling myself that. The phrase surfaced again in a recent column entrepreneur Steven Rosenbaum published on Forbes.

In Too Much News ? he makes several compelling points – a lot of which I agree with.

1. Technology allows us to push more and more information faster and faster:

Is there really ‘more’ news than there was ten years ago – or are there just more ways to get your “breaking news”  zap of adrenaline?.

2. Like any good pusher man, news organizations know how to trick us into asking for more:

My email is full of reports like: “Well Known CBS Star Arrested”  –  with only one action required. “Who?”  I’m supposed to wonder and click the link.

3. More information makes us less informed:

Today I have trouble keeping track of the shootings. Schools and colleges, movie theaters and wedding parties. Politicians on the corner, or criminals in Times Square. Each story is presented with breaking news headlines, and powerfully scary urgency. But with a lack of context, or perspective, the shear volume of ‘breaking’ stories all meld together – and solutions seem harder to comprehend.

There is good news however. At least if you’re in the business of creating content. Indeed, Steven Rosenbaum believes that in this world, the need for good filters is greater than ever. “Those organizers – journalists – are going to beat algorithms all day lone“, he writes.

I would add: this works only if you’re actually… a news junkie! Addicted enough to news to get through the trouble of seeking out the right curators, filters, human organizers. I fear that the vast majority of users, not that hooked, will just give up on being well-informed altogether.

[via The Bureau]