Commentary

Reimagining 'The News'

Just about everyone in the news business seems to be rethinking what it means for us to consume their content on mobile devices. For all that we wring our hands about the diminishing business models around good journalism and the fragmented state of the news, we really are in an energizing and fertile place in a process that likely will go on for a while. Developers are experimenting with a wide range of formats, lengths, communication methods, blends of formal and user-generated inputs, and much more.

It is too early to tell which, if any, of these germs of ideas will establish themselves as new conventions, but many are driven by important insights about the nature of mobile media consumption.

Both Twitter and Facebook have been trying to domesticate the news-gathering process in which their users already engage. All publishers know how much of their traffic now depends on discovery in social feeds. But as news delivery platforms, Facebook and Twitter are haphazard, random encounters.

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While Instant Articles does streamline delivery of news that one chooses in the stream, it did nothing to aid discovery or organize news items for users. The new Notify app is an attempt to better serve news consumers and publishers on Facebook by aggregating news providers and then driving people to them through mobile alerts. In its first few days, Notify has been flooding my Notifications screen with way too much, so it clearly has the disadvantage of needing to be managed by the user -- perhaps too carefully. Nevertheless, it is a smart first step by Facebook to solve for a real problem. The social feed is a messy and unreliable way to discover the latest news. Notify tries to filter the feed accordingly.

I find Twitter’s new Moments tab in its app more evolved and enjoyable than Facebook’s Notify approach. Here the aggregation comes in the app and it effectively blends formal news sources with user tweets and image/video posts. So far I have found the approach educational insofar as it aggregates in a compact way a diversity of perspectives and media takes. I wish it served as a better portal to deeper information and click-throughs to detailed reporting. Right now it is a good conduit for headline-like updates and unique takes on news that you already know.

The CBS news app takes a tiered approach to delivering detail to the mobile reader. Its elegantly designed app is a clean scroll of headline that expands to a lede with a tap and drills into the full article on a second tap. This has proven to be an eminently efficient way for me to catch up on news. The app also understands the triaging mode of many mobile users like me. We will often catch up and find items we want to explore at a more convenient time.

Information triage has been a fundamental mode of mobile use since before the smartphone. Early mobile news providers told me back in 2005 that the most common activity they found on their mobile sites and apps was people emailing stories to themselves. CBS gets this and makes it easy to share and save stories at the second tier of drilling into them.

Making the interminable news scroll interesting on a mobile device is no small thing. If the Internet browser broke the elegant design sense of print and turned content into a visual mess, then mobile devices and the social media that defines them transformed the mess into a bore.

The Guardian is among the few news providers that are focusing on design as a driver for consumption. Its app uses different pane sizes and image positions to keep the scroll itself lively and variegated. But it is in those little animations that the app adds a bit of fun to news reading. Stories expand or flip out gently from their position in the scroll to fill the screen and then gently fold back into the scroll with the tap of the back button. This may seem a little thing, but it makes the prospect of opening the app just a smidge more likely. And it dispenses with the physical page metaphor that unnecessarily held over from print to digital. The newspaper is now a surface, not a stack. You don’t turn or load pages so much as zoom or concentrate attention. It is a visual metaphor that embodies a mental process, perhaps the process that is a characteristic of the new attention economy.

All of these providers are contemplating in useful ways how we are absorbing information under radically fragmented media conditions. My guess is that we will not see these experiments shake out into standard conventions. Unlike the mass media of the previous century and a half, apps and mobility do not require standardized modes of consumption. We are in a post-industrial, post-mass media era where the modes of consumption can be personal and idiosyncratic, and the technology allows for that diversity of styles. What we used to call “The News” will now mean many different things to all of us.
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