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.

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