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.

“The Guardian” creates automated slow news experience


Just saw this on Nieman Lab: “The Guardian experiments with a robot-generated newspaper“. Called The Long Good Read, this new publication is a weekly digest of the “best longform stories of the previous seven days”.

The philosophy behind the product fits perfectly into a “slow” approach of news. Nieman Lab writes:

Jemima Kiss, head of technology for The Guardian, said The Long Good Read is another attempt at finding ways to give stories new life beyond the day they’re published: “It’s just a way of reusing that content in a more imaginative way and not getting too hung up on the fact it’s a newspaper.”

The algorithm put behind the experiment is merely a way of making the selection more efficient. But it may promise more future computer-assisted selection of content that ends up being printed…

The project overall reminds me of The Guardian weekly I subscribed to years ago, which was a digest of the world’s news stories published in the British paper.

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?

5 steps to catch up on news after the Winter break

A few days before Christmas, my co-fellow Andrew Donohue teased me, asking on Facebook “with everything that’s been going on, I could really use MCB’s innovation when I return. Do you think you can have it finished by Jan. 3?“.

I decided to take him up on that challenge and work out manually a prototype of the service I hope to offer to people in his situation. On January 4th, I shared with him (and my social media friends) a Google Doc, inspired by a friend’s mention of Jason Calacanis debut with Launch ticker. It listed one major event per day since his Winter break had started and a link to catch-up on the story.

newsyoumissedHere are the steps I took to get there :

  1. Read paper copy of USA Today, on January 2nd. Goal : get an overview of the topics in the news, in order to identify things that are unfolding and that one might need context for, if they missed the story that set events into motion. Stories on the fiscal cliff, Hillary Clinton’s health and North Korea stood out after an hour of reading.
  2. Check out Twitter and Google News to see what’s trending. Twitter was mostly about sports, following the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. On Google News I confirmed that Hillary Clinton was a widely covered, as were stories on Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Syria.
  3. Check out “pictures of the week” features of several online news outlets. Objective: find out about events that happened during the elapsed time but aren’t in the headlines anymore. This is how I decided to add different moments of the days after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, such as Obama’s speech and the NRA’s news conference. I also realized with these images that protests in Egypt and the adoption of their news constitution had been a major event during the past month.
  4. Rewind major events of each week with the perfect “10 things you need to know today” feature of The Week. Goal : find what I missed. Here I narrowed my stories on Syria down to the talks between Brahimi and Assad, discovered the terrible snow storms in the North east of the US, was reminded of the resignation of the Italian Prime Minister and the death of a first Gulf war commander.
  5. Search for useful link to catch-up on the story. Depending on the topic, it was either the article of that day, a timeline or a dynamic infographic that proved to be most useful.

Here are the things I learned with this “Andy” experiment, both through my own experience and users feedback:

  • when narrowing the media offering down to ONE article per day, the user needs to know precisely the criteria used to do the selection
  • Google Docs is bad for gathering data on the number of visits
  • the catch up digest has to mix context for unfolding stories as well as brief reports of one shot events that still matter in the future
  • it would make sense to be more explicit about what the user is going to find in the catch up link
  • calendar-based catching up works for general news, but there’s demand for topic-centered catching up
  • major news outlets are still useful to understand the global agenda.

The Hawaii experiment


Winter break has started at Stanford. For me, it began with a week of vacation in Hawaii. I decided to put this time off to good use and do some work on my Knight project. Or, actually, to have other people do some work for me while I was going to enjoy some Pina Coladas on the beach.

Dreading the perspective of diving trough piles of unread emails and missing out on great stories, to catch-up on a week of news – as I was prepared to follow information only casually – I put a message out on  Facebook. It read :

“Friends! I want to run an experiment and need your help: I won’t read any news this week, as I’m travelling. Please share in the comments below your 1-3 favorite articles or stories of the week, so I can catch-up on the greatest things next week-end. This curation will also help me push forward my Stanford project – so many many thanks in advance. And make it GOOD :) “

My hope was to gather about 30 to 50 links from a small participating part of my 400+ friends, some of which would be redundant and hence give me a sense of importance in volume, some of which would be very random and hence make sure I got a random and surprising harvest.

What I received was indeed surprising. But not quite in the sense I would have expected. Here’s what I gathered thanks to four devoted/playful friends:

Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States, Washington Post (4’48”)

 The worst CEOs of 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek (2’07”)

110 Predictions for the next 110 years, Popular Mechanics (6’55”)

Coursera to offer social dance, The Stanford Flipside (35″)

Time to stop the massacres, Jeff Sachs (9’40”)

Looking for America, New York Times (2’13”)

Politicizing tragedy and the Aurora Theater shooting, Mother Jones (1’26”)

A response to Jack Stuef’s Buzzfeed article about me, The Oatmeal (10’08”)

The secrets of the Internet’s most beloved viral marketer, Buzzfeed (3’22”)

Poll: which party is Santa in?, Politico (11″)

Was it the Newtown mass shooting that slightly threw off the experiment? I didn’t feel like I could jump right into the many op-eds that were shared and started by looking for a timeline of events (2’41”) that I had just discovered through Facebook hear-say and emotional reactions.

41 minutes and 31 seconds later, I knew a bunch of stats on guns and mass shootings in the United States, I had learned that some law passed in Australia in 1996 contributed to a zero-mass shooting environment down under and I had heard of some clash between a comic artist and Buzzfeed. I had learned that the CEO of Zynga had beaten those of Facebook and Groupon to the list of worst CEOs in America and realized that it didn’t matter much since in fifty years, we’ll all be needing help of robots to programm our own brains….

It may say a lot about my caracter but somehow, I wasn’t sure I could consider myself fully informed on the major events and good surprises of the last week with this bouquet of news curated by my friends. Especially when some dated back to… last July. So I went off to scan my inbox for good stuff to read in the various newsletters I subscribe to (it to about 2 hours to open dozens of tabs of things to read).

Then, I was intrigued to learn that my instinct was to go for local news first (16″) while on a day to day basis, it seems like candy you munch on after dinner. I also enjoyed the “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” (5’04”) a friend had recommended me by email. The piece felt more interesting that all the op-eds I had swallowed earlier. But I couldn’t have understood it without some context a.k.a the initial timeline of events. Also, I could not resist indulging a not that important yet meaningful piece to me, on GigaOm : It’s not Twitter, it’s just the way the news works now (4’08”).

Finally, there are still many of favorites waiting on my Twitter feed to be read and understood.

Still, here are a couple of take-aways from this experiment. Things I’ll keep in mind while further researching ways to slow down the news:

  1. Your friends can be the best and the worst of curators.
  2. Relying only on them (social curation) may feed your fear of missing out on good stuff.
  3. Local news rise in importance when offline for a while.
  4. Op-eds without context (=headlines, timelines) fall into the catefory of “nice things to have”, not “vital stuff”.
  5. Personal interest > funny story.
  6. Funneling the reader from short contextualizing stories/headlines might be a good idea.