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”
- “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 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.
- 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.“
- 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.
- 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.