Thursday, July 14, 2011

Atomised, Exploded and Socially-Filtered: that Is my new Daily News

After one month without reading a paper-newspaper, some initial observations on going digital-only and on the influence of physical construction as a prompt to reading. 

Two recent events inspired and inform this post. We cancelled our work subscription to The Irish Times in May, and last week I received the final printed edition of Design Week in the post. I have been reading the printed versions of both of those publications for over twenty years. Now that I have the opportunity to reinvent my reading experience of each, it is worth observing the initial changes in my reading patterns and whatever advantages or disadvantages I have encountered in switching to all-digital consumption.

As an avowed early-adopter and tech nerd I consume 90% of my news digitally anyway, so the prompt for writing this was the removal of my last vestigial daily and weekly analogue news sources. A not insignificant event. So I am contributing this post as one very small data point towards the larger discussion about “whither news media” and reinventing the news and that overall discussion. A disclaimer: I am keeping away from the all of the nostalgic, non-rational “I love the smell of the newsprint” distractions that still add so much noise to this discussions about this topic. So lets take it that, yes, I do understand that I cannot wrap my chips in an iPhone and that you cannot line a budgie cage with your iPad. I am also not getting into overall industry issues such as monetisation, advertising, and “analogue dollars to digital dimes”. Those are best left to more expert commentators. Consider this a dispatch from the front lines; one reader’s point of view.

The most significant behavioral change I have found relates to the fact that the physical newspaper encourages the reader to treat the contents as one aggregate whole and to engage with it on that basis. When I had five minutes to skim The Irish Times over a coffee, I would read the top layer of news: the front page, an editorial, an opinion piece, a few letters etc. When I had a longer stretch of time over lunch, I would browse deeper into the whole paper (excluding the sports pages). My more leisurely perambulation around the sheaf of pages would take in the secondary news articles, non-news articles and all of those miscellaneous content barnacles newspapers have accreted over years. Honestly thinking back, a lot of that material I really only browsed because it was within the total package. Habit was surely another factor as well.

In contrast to the paper’s definite boundaries, the topography of the online edition is hazy, and its edges are fractal-like. On the internet all pages have parity and are theoretically adjacent. So each post and article on The Irish Times site competes equally with all of the other feeds, posts and pages clamoring for my attention and only a few keystrokes away. The immediate effect of this is that my experience of reading The Irish Times online has become both more atomized and yet more tightly focussed.

I rarely, if ever, start at the home page and navigate from there anymore. Accepting Jeff Jarvis’ principle whereby “the news comes to me” means that I now primarily start reading at a particular article.

There are two primary patterns that now lead me to articles.

Firstly: a Facebook friend shares a link to some article from today’s Irish Times. If shared early in the day, it will already have accumulated comments, endorsements and likes which can further encourage or discourage my clicking-through to read further. Interestingly, where the summary and headline do not grab my attention enough to click through on their own, but where there is an active debate or interesting comments going on underneath, then I am far more likely to go ahead and to read the article. As an aside: Miriam Lord is the most shared writer amongst my circles of Facebook friends. Perhaps colour writing is a more shareable from of journalism?

Secondly: on Twitter someone tweets a headline and its link. Twitter has less cumulative social influence, but if a link gets a lot of RTs then the effect is similar to that observed on Facebook. In my experience the more bare-bones factual classes of news reporting are preferred on this platform, being shared more than the op-ed or colour writing pieces.

I toyed with the current iteration of The Irish Times iPhone app, but never kept with it. The bar for quality of fit and finish of iPhone apps is set very high. It is effectively set to a global standard now. The fact is that most of the apps so far produced bt Irish organisations still fall far short in usability and functionality. Hopefully The Irish Times app is on an ongoing upward path of revisions and updates.

Once at the article’s page on The Irish Times web site, my default pattern has become much more likely to be “read it and leave”. A stark contrast with the “read and browse” affordances encouraged by the physical composition of the physical paper edition. Articles surround other articles on the physical page. So in choosing one article to read, you always gain some slight awareness of those surrounding it. That the online articles are surrounded by outward links representing those other articles, rather than by their actual content seems to be a topic worth exploring further.

Primarily what has happened is that my old mental construct of ‘The Irish Times’ as one aggregate container of disparate classes of content has exploded and been replaced with a new construct where the ‘article’ has become the quantum of news rather than the ‘edition’. (I think that is why the app version never became a habit for me.) So, operating with that mental model, what is a newspaper now? Is it an attitude, a tone of voice or a stance perhaps?

The definitive result of all this is that I now read a lot less of the total content available within each edition of the daily newspaper. This turns out to be a good thing from my own perspective, but presumably not such a good deal for the long term career prospects of second-tier journalists.

I surmise that the downside for certain journalists is that – with the article/post/page as the new atomic unit of news – there is going to be far more accountability and where someone’s reporting is not engaging, insightful, contributing new knowledge or other useful value to the ongoing conversation, then that is going to be blatantly obvious.

I think that this is a win for me and for all other readers, as using social filters to surface the key articles every day means a more efficient reading experience. For now I am happy to keep within the filter bubble of Pareto’s 20%.

Obviously this is a multi-faceted topic, and one that bears returning to. So I am off to get my hands on this week’s edition of The Economist which coincidentally has a supplement on the macro-trends and disruptions occurring within the businesses of the global news media.

#analysis  #irishtimes  #media  #internet