Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Web news, not websites

One of my “steckenpferden” (something that just keeps coming up in my thinking) is how we specifically tell stories that attract audiences for the online medium. No one has successfully defined this yet (as we have for television, radio, cinema and print) but it is coming.

If we can come up with a set of rules, proven to attract audiences to online stories, it seems there would be a market for this. So here’s some of the thinking. It’s mostly all theoretical now but it’s an approach I think might be worth developing for news clients and their online platforms.

Of course, there’s both a production aspect and an editorial aspect.

Deciding how stories should look for the online medium should be driven by the technology and how people use it (just like TV, radio and cinema) - obviously. But not so obvious to many news websites around now.

There’s a growing consensus that laptops and PCs are on the way out, and a new study predicts that by 2015 more mobile devices will sold than either of those. So the technology of choice for most news consumers will be the mobile device. The question is, what does content 1) look like for those devices and 2) how do news people choose the stories and produce them?

Research about people’s habits when they use their iPhone, iPad and Blackberry should be a part of designing the online content. Production characteristics need to reflect user habits. The easier it is for the user, the more likely they will engage with the story.

News production for mobile platforms should include: super fast retrievability and display; stories that are easily changed, updated, and added to (by user sharing and linking); bold text, provocative headlines (the essential skill in compelling online news writing), iconic images, close ups, raw material (footage, interviews and especially primary sources - such as .pdf's of the budget document, etc). High quality audio will also be a very important component as these are phone based devices; a “game” component will probably also prove to be very important in engaging audiences. Again, all of these things are about the devices themselves and how people use them.

There is also a big shift in what to “program”, aka editorial choice. That has changed as the web has grown. What many newsrooms don't understand: “websites” simply don’t work anymore.

Today, more than 80% of Google searches are people simply looking for answers, not websites. They just know they will find it “somewhere” and it doesn’t matter where. So it will probably be proven within the next few years that, with the exception of an elite few news organizations, it is a waste of time, money and talent for most stations try to build a “news channel” on the web.

A better, more effective approach for building audience share for a station's online platforms may be to focus on what the web does best: building “communities of interest” around specific topics.

Succesful online news operations will recognize it isn’t practical to maintain a news website that covers “all” the news that happened that day, but rather that the editor/producer decides on far fewer (let’s say ten), only the “biggest” stories of the day using whatever criteria is important to them, and develops just those selected stories in-depth for the website.

It will be the talent and sense of the people deciding which stories to cover in-depth each day that will draw audience share (and compel the audience to “share” it.)

The New York Times reported how “niche” websites often trump bigger players like AOL and Yahoo when it comes to news coverage: the Times observed that consumers of web news “program their browser” with stories that appeal to their sensibilities, in other words, the programming of a news website is less important than how a particular story is presented for particular audience.

That's again confirming the general trend, that online news audiences are searching for answers, not websites.

The obvious implication is that online news stories that are intended to build and maintain “communities of interest” and “program” to them could probably build audience share.

Instead of trying to cover the news the way broadcast channels do, the key challenge for editors and producers of online news will be 1) to identify what specific issues would be most likely to appeal to the online news audience each day and 2) create stories about those issues that are compelling, fun and most importantly, easy for audiences to engage with on the devices they like best.

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