Maybe news is just more efficient

I wonder whether Andrew Kohut got his analysis of Pew Research’s latest survey of news consumption — as my West Virginia father would say — bassackwards.

Pew finds again that young people are spending less time with news — 46 minutes per day for millenials (ages 18-31) vs. 84 minutes for the so-called silent generation (ages 67-84 … though my 80+-tear-old parents are far from silent). That’s only a little over half as much time. This leads Kohut to predict a “perilous future for news.” Conventional wisdom would certainly agree. I have too, arguing for sometime that one of our biggest problems in news is declining engagement.

But what if instead Pew’s survey indicates that for young people news is simply more efficient? They don’t have to block out time to sift through a newspaper to find what matters to them and more time sitting, passively watching an hour or more of local and national TV news to get a one-size-fits-all summary that could be more efficiently delivered online: more meat, less bun.

Now I know that the public spending less time with news as currently configured is injurious to our egos and business models. But those models are based on the mass media equation of audience attention and time equaling exposure to more ads. See my argument with Google chief economist Hal Varian over just this point last week: Attention worked as a model when we in mass media operated by the myth that all readers or viewers saw all ads so we could charge all advertisers for all of them. In those good old days, more people giving us more time (in truth, only a proxy for attention) could be monetized through CPM mass advertising, whose price we controlled through our ownership of the scare resources of production and distribution. Great while it lasted. But abundance kills that model.

Thus Pew’s latest survey makes me think we are still chasing the wrong horse. Instead of seeking an engaged audience — that’s a metric better suited for movies and prime-time TV — we in news should be seeking an informed public, using new tools to make them better informed with greater relevance and more efficiency. Instead of measuring our success by how much more time we can get them to spend with us, we should measure it by how much less time they need to spend with us to reach their own goals.

I always tell my students that where they see a problem, they should look for the opportunity in it. Journalists tend to find problems and stop there, complaining. Engineers find problems and seek solutions. If the problem is that young people spend less time with news, where is the opportunity in that? I say it is in helping anyone of any age spend even less time, getting more information more efficiently.

So let’s look at this issue entrepreneurially and invent a new service: News Pal.

News Pal requires knowing you and what you want. Google should be good at this but, surprisingly, Google News has left that opportunity for others to grab. It feeds me the same Google News everyone else gets. If I want to get something more relevant, it makes me go through the effort of manipulating sliders for various categories and adding keywords. That is so 1998, so My Yahoo, which is better under Marissa Mayer but which still requires me to make my own predictive personalization decisions. Some 15 years ago, I filled out that Yahoo form … and never returned. Four years ago, when still at Google, Mayer dreamed of a hyperpersonal news stream, but neither Google nor Yahoo has yet built it.

I want News Pal to be an emergent system that watches what I watch in news and feeds me accordingly with no effort on my part. If it sees that I watch news about Android, it should prioritize Android news. If it sees that I stop caring about Android after I buy a phone, it should stop caring for me. If it sees that I never read sports, it shouldn’t give me football stories. If it knows where I live and work, it should give me relevant news for those locations. Of course, this system should also give me the news that everyone will want to know, feeding me reports on the Kenyan mall attack even if I haven’t shown an attraction to Kenyan news. Editors recognize those breakthrough stories. So does Google News’ algorithm.

I also want News Pal to cut through the worsening clutter of repetition. Look at the tech blog landscape, where the slightest morsel of news or rumor replicates like The Andromeda Strain, mutating as it gets farther from the source. Google and Google News have made efforts in recent years to seek more signals of authority and originality of reporting as did the startup where I was a partner, Daylife. But they and others can do much more. They all have made the mistake of trying to analyze media as news sources. The real winner will also use Twitter, Google+, Facebook, YouTube, et al to find original sources in a larger information ecosystem: difficult but doable.

Cir.ca is a worthy News Pal competitor, for it offers two bits of value I want. It cuts up articles into constituent elements and so, if you’ve already seen an element of a story, it doesn’t waste your time giving it to you again. It also enables you to follow a story as it happens — not predicting a tag of interest as required by Google News and My Yahoo.

In the net, my News Pal would give me greater relevance because it knows me, higher quality because it knows news sources, and greater efficiency because it reduces the noise in news. It would take the advice of Medium founder Ev Williams — who has twice changed media, thus changed the world (and earned a billion-plus bucks via Blogger and Twitter) — adding effiency. Wired summarized its interview with him:

The bottom line, Williams said, is that the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It’s not a utopia. It’s not magical. It’s simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely….

There’s an organizing principle that explains what thrives on the internet and could potentially predict what will thrive in the future: Convenience.

“The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience,” he said. “Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease.” In other words, people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to think — and the internet should respond to that. “If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realize they are masters at making things fast and not making people think.”

Or waste time, as news makes us do now. That is the lesson from so-called millennials in Pew’s study: They are more efficient with their news.

What about the business model? News Pal would gain my loyalty — and, ironically, my attention — making the switching cost away from it high. If it really builds my hyperpersonal news stream — including such streams as my email — it could compete with Google and Twitter. It would gather valuable signals about me and my interest that it could exploit with higher value advertising and commerce and data. News Pal itself would be quite efficient, depending on smart algorithms.

I remember sitting in a meeting with Yahoo founder Jerry Yang many years ago when he said it was his job to get you want you needed as quickly as possible. The quicker your visit to Yahoo, he said then, the better its service. That changed, of course, when Yahoo adopted the mass-media advertising model built around attention and impressions, loading it up with content. Yahoo could have been News Pal if it had followed Yang’s vision of efficiency over drag. Therein lies the real lesson of Pew’s latest survey, I think.

Efficiency isn’t the enemy of news. It should be the goal.

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  • undertoad

    Right: the silents are getting their news on TV and newspaper. That means a third of their “news” experience is advertising. Voila, their 84 minutes of news is now 56 minutes.

  • http://www.davidbauer.ch/ David Bauer

    Zite seems to do a very good job at learning what kind of news I’m interested in and delivering them accordingly.

    It also allows me to manually add signals, both positive and negative ones (“no, you guessed wrong, I’m not interested in that”), to reinforce the signals I’m giving by clicking or now clicking on stories.

    What’s missing though, and it’s missing in most personalised news experiences, is a way to see what the system knows about me. I’d like to be able to see what profile the service has created of me and be able to correct where it got me wrong.

  • http://specialbrands.net/ Daniël W. Crompton (webhat)

    I think you are wrong in this pattern:

    “Journalists tend to find problems and stop there, complaining.”

    They are actually doing what they are trained to do:

    ” Journalists find problems, stop, and report on it.”

  • http://twitter.com/jimhirshfield JimHirshfield

    Interesting, thanks!
    Imagine an app like flipboard on your handheld with system level permission to track everything: where you go, sites you browse, who you call, etc. All this would get you the data set you reference, and make the news targeting efficient. But would the consumer accept such uses of their personal data?

  • http://www.hanelly.com/ Andrew Hanelly

    Very thought-provoking stuff, Jeff. You’re making a lot of solid points so it’s a struggle to be cohesive in a response. So, I’ll try to be efficient:

    - News consumption is more efficient: Absolutely. Faster web connection speeds also play a role here. Also, writers are being trained (Jakob Nielsen style) to write shorter and shorter, use bullet points, and let people scan. All contributing factors.

    - News consumption is not on the decline: Agreed. This is not a cause for panic. It’s an opportunity to play to the need for efficiency. Smart publishers/sites see that. Take a look at Reddit.com and you’ve got News Pal powered by the crowd and some self-selection.

    - Selection bias: This is my main concern with the machine-guided self-created echo chamber news system. There’s a high potential to sort of paint yourself into your own preferred corner and gain a narrower and narrower worldview. Perhaps that’s already happening. Perhaps it’s inevitable. But it’s definitely something worth considering carefully.

    • Edward

      Awesome point on the “paint yourself into your own preferred corner”, I think thats one of the huge hurdles of personalized news services bc it undermines the credibility of their offering as you constantly worried that you’re missing something.

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  • Scott B.

    A more personalized experience is certainly part of the equation. But if you’re talking about “efficiency,” then we need to start talking about which mediums of communication are most efficient at conveying information that the audience considers relevant. One thing that seems to be clear from a lot of research going on, is that younger generations are more visual and more aural. That’s why YouTube is so popular with millennials, and why they prefer (fairly definitively) Facebook over Twitter.

    Videos, photographs, and infographics ought to be taking center stage if we want to connect with a younger audience and KEEP them as they mature as news consumers.

    Unfortunately, the trend in the news industry has been to cut trained visual journalists from the staff and to simply put the technology and the tools in the hands of “reporters’ (writers, in the case of print, and “face talent” in the case of television) – then having them do everything. And these unfortunate souls get very little training (other than how to operate a phone or a camera) and many of them simply have no aptitude for visual story-telling.

    Infographics are incredibly underrated, too. In print and on television, it’s a great way to help the audience understand the most important aspects to stories – at a glance. It makes them more likely to read accompanying text or listen to a television reporter explain issues and events in more depth. And you can accomplish the same thing, maybe even more effectively, online with interactive infographics. The audience can choose, progressively, how much they want to delve into issues.

    We should not forget sound – audio experiences should become more of an emphasis in news reporting. Some recent studies have demonstrated that sound has an even more profound effect on memory than sight.

    And emphasizing choice – to delve deeper – with inviting visuals and sound – just might be the key to capturing a young audience and keeping them as news consumers as they mature into an audience that is looking for information to make informed decisions about their lives and to influence public policy.

    Visuals and sound are the front porch of the news. More and more, this is the way we connect with our audience. It’s the crucial connection, really. I might go as far to say that print mediums might become more influential and stay relevant if they highlighted photographs and infographics since photos and graphics are MUCH more powerful in print than they are on the screens of electronic devices.

    So maybe news organizations should start thinking about who needs to drive these efforts when making decisions about who stays and who goes, in order to survive financially.

  • http://www.smartpei.typepad.com robpatrob

    My go to news every morning are my twitter feeds – I have several groups that cover things that interest me – You Jeff are in my Pub Media/Journo group – So is Jay Rosen + others such as Greenwald Here I get 2 for 1 – I get breaking news + thought AND I get the evolution of news and journalism – I have other groups who follow health, book publishing, PEI etc. I don’t miss much and I am very attached to my sources

    • gaspart

      Same here. My feed reader is my perfect News Pal. I am the sole editor and I know my preferences, so no need of complex machine guesswork. And I bet that my echo chamber has much more diversity than most mass news services

  • Ted Cannelongo

    If you’d like to see how “News Pal” plays out in that audio-visual world that Scott B. describes, take a look at Class6ix, which builds a personalized newscast for you without any explicit effort on your part. I developed this service in conjunction with my brother, a local news producer, in an effort to reimagine how video content could be delivered online. Some of the things we considered, which align pretty closely with the points made above:

    - The service should be as close to zero-effort as possible. We wanted to recreate the lean-back feel of television watching without requiring the user to jump through hoops to get there. As a result, we scrapped the idea of having the user select keywords and categories of interest within the first hour of brainstorming. The last thing I want to do as a news consumer is continually have to update my interest profile as my interests change over time. What we built instead, then, is exactly as described above. If you tend to watch the stories about Android versus skipping over them, you’ll be more likely to see stories about Android first on future visits. Lose interest later, and stories about Android will be accordingly deemphasized as the system recognizes you’ve lost interest.

    - Location is an essential component of relevance. As a result, the only demographic information we collect during the sign-up process is a zip code, which is used to select local content providers of interest. Since we’re seeing traditionally print operations produce more and more video, we have been able to incorporate some content from metropolitan and community newspapers. We do this at the content provider level now, though ideally we’d love to be able to have stories tagged with location and use that where available.

    - We don’t want a bunch of users all trapped in their own individual filter bubbles. As a result, we look for a community behavior, social, and journalistic cues to identify items that have relevance to the audience at large. We also provide users the ability to control the balance of weight between personal signals and community signals, so they can tweak the algorithm in a way to fit their consumption objectives. We make decisions based on the predictors of relevance that we know and make no other assumptions, which also allows for serendipity to be maintained. We can offer a personalized experience and still be a discovery engine.

    - The system should know what we’ve already watched recently and attempt to show new, novel content. When a number of providers are all covering the same story, we select one based on other indicators of user preference, and then we push the remaining ones down in the stream based on a set of factors. We show the other similar coverage alongside the selected story so that the user can explore further if necessary.

    - The system should allow for a seamless transition between platforms. Recognizing that the devices used for news consumption tend to change throughout the day, the experience transitions seamlessly from device to device.

    Not being native to the field of journalism myself, I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time perusing articles, video, essays, etc. about the current news predicament and the future of the industry, and so lessons learned along the way have certainly inspired the development of the service. In my collection of key quotes, I have a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jsb9NfJmqPY), in which you touch on Mayer’s comments from the Aspen Institute, along with a quote of hers from a TechCrunch interview (http://techcrunch.com/2009/12/09/marissa-mayer-le-web-2009/) making much the same point. I saved these because they so perfectly described the very type of service we had been building.

    While I understand the point about “information gain” being a better indicator of effectiveness than time spent, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that attention or engagement are not important, just that perhaps they were overestimated previously. For instance, if I have on the regular local news, I’m clearly not interested in everything that is airing, so I’ll be doing other activities at the same time – paying bills, checking Twitter or Facebook, etc. This also means I’m probably not really paying much attention to the ads, either. The same is true with print; we’ve become very good at selectively tuning out advertisements. However, if news can be delivered in a way that a true measure of engagement (the user’s actual level if interest) remains high, the occasional advertisement will be viewed because there’s more relevant, quality content to follow.

  • jeddings

    As someone who has worked on signal-based content recommendation systems (including news), this is one of the challenges I see today with this: people wave their hands and say, “…and use signals to find the best content for me…” This is absolutely a non-trivial problem. There are many that try this, and it is not an easy thing to solve. Part of the problem is in understanding which signals to pay attention to and which to ignore, and with so many sources of signals, this is more an art than a science. Another issue is that the kind of thing provides good recommendations today aren’t necessarily the same as tomorrow, or even later that day. Unfortunately, humans aren’t as predictable as we want them to be! Finally, there is what I call the New York Times problem. One of the reason people read the NYT, and in particular the Sunday Times, is because when read cover-to-cover, they are exposed to things they normally wouldn’t and discover they like new things. With recommendation systems, you can’t do this too much (sampling) because it starts to seem like irrelevant content recommendations.

    Yes, efficiency would be great. But so would solving the near-light-speed interstellar travel problem. The solution may be easy to state, but actually solving it often is not.

  • Kaisa S.

    Definitely worth checking out: https://www.scoopinion.com/ ! It tracks what you read in stead of what you click. Your own, crowdsourced “magazine” by a promising Finnish startup. Also a possibility for journalists to track their audiences’ reading habits.

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  • alex

    making a product like Circa even better isn’t the problem, IMHO. the problems are 1) getting people to use a news product in the first place and 2) developing habits around using such a product consistently.

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  • Bob_Sassone

    I don’t want more personalized news. I don’t want to live in my own bubble. There’s nothing wrong with using bookmarks and favorites and other ways of getting news, actually going to web sites (mixed with TV and print, etc).

    And I don’t understand people who say “I get all my news from Twitter.” Does Twitter have a news division? You’re getting links on Twitter to news stories, news stories done by The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and Fox News and your local paper and columnists and bloggers. Get rid of traditional media and suddenly your social media feeds will be filled with cat photos and pics of what your friends had for dinner. But at least it will be convenient and “efficient.”

  • medo

    I think you are wrong in this pattern:

    “Journalists tend to find problems and stop there, complaining.”

    They are actually doing what they are trained to do: http://www.tamo7.com/help
    thnx alot

  • Harry Jamesbr

    making a artefact like Circa even bigger isn’t the problem, mensagens para celular | Torpedos sms de amor IMHO. the
    problems are 1) accepting humans to use a account artefact in the
    aboriginal abode and 2) developing habits about application such a
    artefact consistently.

  • http://hartman.org.il/ Alan Abbey

    Along with subscribing to newsletters and tip sheets relevant to my professional and personal interests, I find that Twitter and Facebook, even though they are already “tuned” by my selecting people and institutions that interest me, or whom I know, also have become important sources of my “Daily Me.” (I know, that term has been bandied about for decades.) Tw & FB add an element of randomness and serendipity to my reading, but I am sure that I miss items that I would enjoy, because they have slipped down the queue before I even get to them. That’s why I still turn to powerful journalistic brands that I trust – NYT, the New Yorker, and the like – with the hope of getting sucked into something I never would have imagined enjoying. The classic case for me is the great New Yorker writer John McPhee, whose books on oranges and birch bark canoes would never have made it into even my most adventurous feeds. I don’t know that technology can ever address the human desire for randomness and serendipity; I don’t know that it ever should, and I don’t necessarily worry that it won’t or can’t.

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  • http://jonathanstray.com Jonathan Stray

    For whatever it’s worth, I’ve been considering the mechanics (and editorial principles) of personalized news filters for some time. Here’s some of my work on the topic.

    Who should see what when? Three principles for personalized news: interest, effects, agency.
    http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/07/who-should-see-what-when-three-principles-for-personalized-news/

    Is there actually a filter bubble? If so, how could we get out of it?
    http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/07/are-we-stuck-in-filter-bubbles-here-are-five-potential-paths-out/

    Algorithmic, social, and hyrbrid filtering system design and analysis: Links to a reading list and recorded lectures from my computational journalism course
    http://courses.jmsc.hku.hk/jmsc6041spring2013/2013/01/23/lecture-3-algorithmic-filters/
    http://courses.jmsc.hku.hk/jmsc6041spring2013/2013/01/27/lecture-4-social-and-hybrid-filters/

  • Victor Khiz

    As a blogger I generally read news witht the mindset of searching for something to write about.. So while personalized news can be a good thing, I find that reading things I dont normally read makes me more creative in my writing and thinking process. I think all bloggers can use personalized news feeds to a certain extent. From a bloggers perspective: http://bit​.ly/19mDNg​L

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  • http://www.theclippingpathindia.com/ Clipping Path

    Daniel Is right on this. ” Journalists find problems, stop, and report on it.”

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