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?