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…

On the “summification” of news

iphone5-3The story made big headlines early this week. Summly, a mobile news app developed by a British 17-year old, got bought by Yahoo! for some 30 million dollars. Of course, this acquisition has something of a PR-stunt and there is also some down to earth truth behind the fairy tale. Yet, this story is very interesting because of what it says on today’s state of news.

Our vision is to simplify how we get information and we are thrilled to continue this mission with Yahoo!’s global scale and expertise“, writes Nick D’Aloisio, founder of Summly, on his company’s site. His take on “simplification” was creating “summaries” of news stories, more or less by extracting information from most articles first paragraphs (read technical take on this here).

Yahoo’s move for Summly seems to confirm a bet, many others have been making on, what I’d call, the “summification” of news – a trimming and slimming down of media content :

  • mobile news app Circa does a very good job with its editorial staff to break stories down into small data points, called “atomic units of news“. They got recent public praise from Dave Morin, co-founder of Path and Circa investor
  • newsletter TheSkimm promises to “simplifies the headlines for the educated professional who knows enough to know she needs more”. They “do the reading and explain it with fresh content” (unfortunately, the latter is not always much better than original).
  • in similar semantics, SkimThat lets the “community” do the summary work and really pushes the simplification to its limits…
  • so does the site tldr.io who promises to summarize webpages on the spot with the help of its users
  • on a more journalistic side of this specturm, there’s “10 things you need to know today“, in which news site The Week sums up ten news stories in five lines, and gives a brief link if you want to read further

I share their philosophy on the need for a more time efficient distribution and consumption of news. People can easily turn away from information if they feel overwhelmed. Simplifying some stories is very helpful for the more casual news consumer.

However, I’m bothered by the motivation of these services who still seem to care… about volume. For instance, Nick D’Aloisio, who thinks “summaries will continue to help navigate through our ever expanding information universe”, takes special pride in saying that “over 90 million summaries [have been] read in just a few short months.”

Personnaly, this is precisely what made my experience with Summly disastrous: everytime I would launch the app, an overwhelming “99+ unread summlys” would welcome me. I would flip through a couple of them but read none because of a lack of interest. Summarizing news to fit more pieces of content into my media diet doesn’t seem to make sense.

Which leads me to another important issue : the “why?”. Why do we want to summarize news? Is it because news is not worthy spending time with (sort of what Summly suggested) ? Or because we want to make room for the things that are worth our while (what I hope to achieve) ?

There is an inherent danger, in this tendency to over-simplify and über-summarize, that we suffocate the news and end up spreading the feeling that news is not valuable enough to have us spend time on it.

The Newstapes Experiment : redefining “daily news”

How can we catch up on news in a time efficient matter? The question is at the heart of my project as a Knight fellow, at Stanford. In order to try to solve this equation, I launched the Newstapes experiment about two month ago.

What is it ? The Newstapes is a Tumblr blog where I try to help people catch up or understand a story with 1 to 3 links to useful articles, videos or infographics. Depending on how much time a person has, he/she can choose to read only the first piece, or digg deeper with one or two other pieces. The user I’m aiming for is a casual news reader, not a hardcore news junkie, with no prior knowledge of those topics.

How does it work ? Everyday, I pick a story that is making headlines – lately, the bankruptcy of Cyprus, JPMorgan’s Senate hearings, the 2013 Oscars or the elections in Kenya. It has to be on the front page of major news outlets, potentially unfolding over several days and complex enough to need a brief roundup if you haven’t been living in sync with the 24 hour news cycle.

Then, I read and search for the best summary of the situation (story level 1), a good explainer or detailed version of the story (story level 2), and a third piece that will provide more context or shed the light on an intriguing perspective on this given story. The three links are displayed in this order, and I display the time it takes to read or watch each piece. Occasionally, I’ll throw in a great long piece that is a great explainer of an older topic by itself – for serenedipity’s sake.

What did I learn so far ?

  • Displaying time : it’s a tricky subject. People tell me they want to know beforehand that they’ll find out “everything they need to know on topic X in 5 minutes”. Others, tell me they’re put off by this, saying “even 5 minutes is way more than I want to spend on this topic”. I tried to solve this problem by picking very short stories of level 1 (30 seconds to 2 minutes) and to display the time for the following stories as incremental (“+3 minutes”).
  • Content format : it’s a tricky subject. When I started, a lot of complaints I heard were : “you only pick text, what about video, radio, infographics ?!”. Once I tried to mix things up a little bit more, people complained again : “I don’t like videos, they force me to watch this thing without knowing where it’ll take me”. Take away : there’s no way of pleasing everyone. I’m going with the best explainers and summaries for now. Whatever the format.
  • Catch up worthy stories : one of the reasons I’m so interested in making news consumption more time efficient is that I hope to, eventually, create more time in people’s schedules for the good rewarding long reads that make readers and journalists happy. But the Newstapes that attracted the most readers to date were : 1. the 2013 Oscars ; 2. the death of Hugo Chavez ; 3. Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the hospital. And I’ll have to keep this in mind in the future.

Why the Newstapes ? People born before 1990 might remember the mixtapes, these great collections of songs a friend or a DJ would put together on a cassette in order to share it with other people. It was a good way of telling stories musically and discovering new sounds, recommended and curated by some DJ you liked. And I’m trying to do the same thing with the news, as I’m arranging little collections of news stories for friends and other random curious people. In both cases, it’s about discovery and social interaction.

Where do I go from here? With this experiment I’m finding out how people react to quantified news. It also helps me define what is worth catching up on. Eventually, it may help me redefine the concept of “daily news” itself : instead of going for the all you can eat buffet of stories, what would be the *one* story you would want/need to explore, on any given day?

USA Today partners with time travel app Timehop

How slow can news be? USA Today is maybe about to set a new standard for the it’s okay to read yesterday’s news tomorrow“-way of thinking. The newspaper just announced a partnership with time travel app Timehop.

Timehop is a mobile app that sends you daily reminders of what happened a year ago on the same day, by scanning through the social media accounts that you linked to Timehop. Not sure if their’s an use for that? Well, I was reminded by Timehop just a couple of days ago that, exactly a year earlier, I had received an e-mail telling me that I had been selected to be a semifinalist for the fabulous Knight fellowship I’m lucky to be part of now. Seeing this brought a great dose of happiness to my day.

In the case of news, these time capsules can have other kinds of value. They can add context, be a fun fact or piece of trivia to discuss at the water cooler, or maybe something else, that USA Today will find out later on.

This is how the paper sees the use of Timehop for now:

When a user pulls up a specific day, it will show content they shared last year, two years ago, or as far as they prefer. Starting today, USA TODAY stories will filter into the daily feed, showing users the big stories written on that day.

But it’s not all about exploring archives. USA Today digs out the past to connect it to current events. This would be the story featured today on Timehop:

timehop+usatoday Possibly, this will lead to stories of their own. This is maybe one of the things that are likable in this partnership, along with the early adoptive attitude of the newspaper, trying to make use of a new technology that is not, per se, dedicated to storytelling or journalism.

It will be interesting to see if other media outlets will follow USA Today’s steps.

[via AllThingsD]

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]

Peter Laufer calls for “slow news revolution”

“It’s ok to read yesterday’s news tomorrow”, writes journalist and author Peter Laufer in a column published by the Oregonian. In it, the James Wallace chair in journalism at the University of Oregon details how our relationship to food and news are close:

We must eat in order to survive. Accurate information can be another requirement for our survival. Yet our quest for instant information has made it more difficult to find the truth and see the larger picture behind breaking events.

A realization that dawned on him with the recent mass shooting in Newtown :

When news is an important element of our societal curriculum, as in the case of the Newtown story, we should shun fragments and wait for detailed reports and thoughtful analysis once critical facts are ascertained.

Now is the time to “question the value of the perpetual fast-food-like empty-calories news that is processed to keep us addicted to it”, because some good might come out of “ruminating” more. I so agree.

This way, please, to his full column.

More on Peter Laufer.