Posts about signals

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. 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.