Why we read news

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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.

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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.

Is it time to slow down the news, asks Journalism.co.uk

Slowly (why of course!) but surely, the “slow news movement” is becoming part of the media conversation. This week, online magazine Journalism.co.uk dedicated a podcast to the question “Is is time to slow down the news?

It features Newstapes and De Correspondent, but also more recent players to the game, like The Charta founders Carolina Are and Charles-Edouard van de Put. They just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their “slow news magazine”, that would wait for events to unfold before starting to cover them.

The Charta and De Correspondent are both exploring an interesting territory as they are trying to prove that “slow news” does not equal putting out a weekly magazine but really is more about redesigning the content for the age of the permanent update. Listen 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 :)

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?