Making News Useful

Yesterday at the Googleplex, journalists, technologists and Googlers converged for the TechRaking summit. Our goal was to figure out how to break news of its bad habits lingering from the pre-Web era. We compared notes about our own organizations, shared examples of stories and projects, and dreamed up ways to serve you better. Here's what we've got so far.

The Problems

"We need to rethink every facet of the journalism model," said Richard Gingras, VP of News at Google, to start off the event. "I'm not saying everything must change," he clarified, but news providers need to find new ways to understand how their job should be done.

The newspaper is a sticky idea. It worked for a long time. But because we love it so much, we've wound up with a model for news websites that sticks to the idea of "front page news." The few hits of the day are visible, and then the content drops into an archive.

The news audience is evolving faster than news providers, though. Gingras told us that, only a few years ago, 50% of the inbound audience went to the front page, and the other 50% went straight to stories or other pages. By now, 75% of traffic is going to stories. A minority of visitors ever see a site's front-page curated presentation of the news.

But the problems go deeper than just presentation. News is a commodity now. It spreads virally across many media through new tellings and retellings. The Web is finally real-time. It doesn't happen in instants and static pages. It happens constantly. News organizations no longer get to control the story. They have to do more than inform to stay relevant. News sites have to be useful.

The Solutions

To be useful, news sites need to be information tools, not just sources. Journalists are the people with the time and skills to gather all the needed information into one place and filter out the rest. Data, machine-readable information, has to become human-readable somehow. But the value of information is not just in the knowledge of it; it's in what you can do with it.

Site designs need a do-over to work the way audiences want them to. News organizations need to think of their sites as products needing constant innovation. We can build software around public data sets or data gathered through investigation. Instead of just telling readers how to interpret the data, news organizations can give them the tools to look at it, figure it out and use it.

News isn't just about information. It's also storytelling. Anyone can publish text, photos or even video to the Web now. But technology enables new, compelling storytelling techniques that could shine in the hands of dedicated news organizations. For example, Nonny de la Peña taught us her notion of immersive journalism, using video or virtual reality to show customers what it was like to be there for an event in the news.

High technology has shaken up journalism, but it offers the industry promising ways to relearn its craft. The most important opportunity we have is to get to know our audiences better. Getting to know you will help us inform you and build things that you need.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock