Thursday, March 05, 2009

Stick-figuring out the new news

Just back from a stimulating two-day conference deconstructing journalism in the hopes of saving it by making the news more relevant to modern, time-constrained consumers.

The conference, which was attended by an ecumenical group of folks from the newspaper, magazine, television and academic worlds, was held at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Organized by my friend Larry Dailey, the media-technology guru at the university, the event was facilitated by IDEO, the international design firm that has reconceived everything from kidney-transport systems to how elementary students are educated.

The big eye-opener at the conference, especially for us print types, is the need to use fewer words, provide more graphics, cultivate the social aspects of the web and leverage mobile technology more assiduously than we do today. For an example of streamlined presentation already in production, see Short Form Blog.

No one at the meeting, including me, regards the adoption of new ways of telling stories as a repudiation of traditional in-depth, investigative and long-form journalism. But we have to do something more than harrumph a lot to lure a generation of lite-readers back to the news.

In keeping with those observations, here is a summary of the proceedings, with the figures in stick and the words kept to the haiku minimum of 17 syllables per verse. The approach may be light-hearted but the message is dead serious.

Be interactive.
Use fewer words, more graphics.
Make it graze-able.

Leverage the crowd.
Be lively, viral and fun.
Pay back the user.

Be iPhone-worthy.
Embrace small screens, build many apps.
GPS them all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The poems have nothing to do with a haiku. Haiku is a form of poetry expressing awe about the nature (with a few other rules, 5-7-5 is optional). A poetry that does not express awe about the nature cannot be a haiku, no matter how hard the popular culture tries to bastardize this beautiful and unique form of poetry.

2:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the small-screen model to be personally undesirable and professionally debilitating to comprehensive journalism. I read newspapers because they provide more than silent sound bites. I want an order of magnitude more screen real estate than an Iphone in order to enjoy the strengths of newspaper journalism.

4:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i usually enjpy your stuff but this leftme cold and confused. haven't you been urging papers to do exactly these things for a while now? what is so eye opening to saying we need fewer words and more pictures, wasn't that usatoday's approach even in print? i'm honestly beginning to wonder if the link is the problem. people for years have just read the headline and moved on, now they just need to read a link and move on, i don't see how enabling the behavior helps. plus, these shorter, graphic heavy pieces don't seem like the kind of thing that will really be able to help people see a big picture or understand the complicated moving parts of a public figure abusing power. i don't see a lot of investigative reporting happening in 150 characters or less.

5:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, I really enjoy your blog and read it faithfully, but I was frankly astounded when I read today's piece and you said the real revelation for those in print is that we had to use "fewer words and more graphics." Lordy, if I had a buck for every time I've heard that at some meeting over the last 30 years I'd have enough to bail out every newspaper in the United States, with enough left over to buy a whole box of Ding Dongs. I don't think that is the key. In my newspaper group I've seen some of my fellow editors almost turn their front pages into picture pages with a few "refers" to the inside and every iteration in-between. If, in fact "using fewer words" is the answer, then that isn't an answer for an industry which depends on people reading words. That seems like an epitaph. Maybe what we're seeing is the change of newspapers from a mass medium into a targeted one for people who actually like to read words. There are people like that out there. There's already an industry out there that uses few words and mostly graphics. It is called "television."

5:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the intention to dumb down the news to a grade school level and target it to short attention spans?

6:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here are my five ways newspapers must change. Oh, and BTW, I'm saying more of a focus on content. I think the very notion of focusing more on graphics and less on content goes against all the available research on what news consumers actually take advantage of when visiting news Web sites. Published research indicates many of them could care less about graphics.

6:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those "lite readers" are the product of the dumbing down of our society over many years. How are you going to reduce the pressing issues of the day down to a graph and a caption? What's more, how do you make them even give a shit?

These "lite readers" consume material that entertains and provides instant gratification. They are clueless about how the current economic crisis came about and don't even have much of an opinion about what, or even if, we should do anything to get out of it. They are waiting for someone else to fix their world. They are not "lite readers". They are lazy, apathetic, and self-absorbed.

These "lite readers" are not consumers of journalism, long form or otherwise.

But, we reap what we have sown. Generations of support for public policy and politicians who put equality of outcome and feel-good social engineering above the three R's, personal achievement and individual responsibility, have left us with a country full of "lite readers" who don't give a flying fuck about much of anything. They aren't going to pay for watchdog, world affairs, national or even local journalism, no matter the form or method of delivery.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Donna Trussell said...

Maija is correct. The 17-syllable rule was based on a misunderstanding of the Japanese language. Now a haiku is 10 to 14 syllables, but the subject matter is the same as ever: nature, seasons, a surprising last line and often a sense of wistfulness.

However, I liked your haiku anyway.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a design editor at a newspaper, I care about design. I care about graphics and photos. I care more about content.

We can as an industry use short forms to give readers an entertaining impression about what's in the news that day. We can also use those short forms to lure some readers into reading longer in-depth pieces online.

We need to feed both interests.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, thanks for posting about ShortFormBlog! I've put a lot of work into it and right now it feels like I'm working 100 hours a week between this and my day job. But it's so worth it.

Second of all, I found your stick figures to be right on point. I'm of the opinion that nobody's gotten it right yet. I haven't, either. The New York Times, in my opinion, is the key model for the front page of a newspaper Web site, but when it comes to things like social interaction, they drop the ball.

I like to refer to it as the "walled garden" syndrome. Every news organization thinks can control how their news is distributed and discussed. You can't anymore. Stop pretending and go with the flow.

I started SFB in part because I had this idea of doing an iPhone-specific newspaper. I didn't have the resources for that, so I created my site. But I think that's where things are headed.

You know what experiment you guys should be keeping an eye on? Hot Dish. And while the focus of the journalism isn't necessarily objective (nor does it try to be), this is where news organizations should be headed in terms of its organization and dissemination.

The stick figures are right. (Nice drawing abilities, Alan!) To the commenters who disagree, don't be afraid of them. They didn't do anything to you.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The future of journalism is...CODDLING!

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Alan, I think you accidentally posted one of your 1996 entries to the front page.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And this from someone who has his blog configured so that I can't just read it on the fly in Google Reader...I HAVE to go to his blog to read his entries. I understand the reasoning behind that, but sometimes you do just want to read something quickly. Alan, you need to start drinking your own kool-aid.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with many other commentators. This post was very inconsistent with this blog's usual message and tone. What was new at this conference?

If that short form blog is the future, then I want nothing to do with it.

I love the printed word. Given the choice, I took the Wall Street Journal (pre Murdoch buyout) over USA Today because I like journalism. Tell me a story. Don't show me a picture.

I wish I had the time for the Economist. I read and write a lot for work, which did not leave a lot of time for the newspaper. But I still read the Times and Post everyday along with Portfolio. Yes, I enjoy a good story. Short Form Blog represents everything that is wrong with the American public.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bevo, may I venture to say that you're not going to change to the American public? Because that's a lot of people.

Damning the American public is kind of unfair. It seems to be putting the blame on everyone else for not being like you. I'd rather accept that there's people who like to read long articles and people who don't. And both need to be serviced.

Because ultimately, not everyone is going to be a fan of every form of media. And that's OK. I'd rather have people who disliked what I'm doing with my site and had criticism than people completely unengaged.

There have been lots of people who have written me letters of appreciation for my site. But there have been just as many who have taken me to task. But you know, with disruptive mediums, that's what they're going to do. Disrupt your opinion on what media should be.

So, bevo, I'm sorry you don't like my site. But that's OK. You seem like a cool enough guy and you're part of the reason the WSJ still has a big readership. I'm betting my eggs on the people who don't read the WSJ. And I'd rather not please everyone, because that's why many newspapers aren't very good.

Your proprietor of everything that is wrong with the American public,
Ernie Smith

12:02 PM  
Blogger tgd said...

Alan Flaherty -

Content should take the form of its container. No one is going to read long-form journalism on an iPhone. They will, however, use a searchable database of events and places when they're out and about.

To Bevo: Ink on paper has its uses. So does the web. So does mobile. They're often different uses (just as photos, graphics and text all have different narrative strengths in our existing medium).

So the message - particularly for some of the anonymous posters who can best be summed up as "harrump!" is this: If we're going to survive, we have to be useful to the audience. That means doing different things on different platforms - not clinging solely to print techniques that appeal to an ever-shrinking audience.

What we were in the '70s and '80s was wonderful. But we were the only game in town. We aren't any more - and we're in our current pickle no because we've "dumbed down," but because we've failed to acknowledge that our audiences are swimming in information, and ours doesn't fit their needs very well anymore.



1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again, journalists miss the real issue.

It's not about presentation, it's about content.

Deliver news that is factual and unbiased, and people will read it. Today's newspapers run opinion pieces as news, and consumers are sick of it.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You word types have always wanted to rule the roost: hence, your unspoken mantra "words always have been, presently are and and always will be more important than images, period." perhaps, particularly in these difficult times, we might want to consider how visual communication has always been about both words and images, working together, to communicate more than either can individually. it's time to work together, gang, unless we wanna walk the gang-plank, forever, together.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Banjo Jones said...

does "use fewer words" strike anyone else as Orwellian -- "destructive to the welfare of a free society" (thanks, Wikipedia)

7:21 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

i think pioneering newer formats like iphones and amazon's kindle would be a wise move for newspapers. actively embracing mobile technology might put us ahead of the curve on at least one front. i think there's a lot of possibility there - the small space doesn't need to mean vacuous content. with a small screen, a bare-bones story (not tons of bells and whistles) could shine and provide information on the go.

i am always amazed by comments about the current generation becoming lazy, illiterate, [insert any other negative quality]. if such commenters were so well-read and astute, i would think they would realize every preceding generation has uttered the same lamentations many times over.

people want news and information just as much as ever, if not more. it takes creativity to keep up with the current formats and techonologies, but if we act like we are being forced to cater to morons, we'll be treated in kind.

10:26 PM  
Blogger Rufus said...

Ahem. I read the WSJ because it is densely packed with lot of words, crafted together to tell a more complete story. I read The Economist for the same reason. I need context and lots of it. A lot of words says someone has put a lot of thought into something and has the depth and intelligence to build an argument that is worth enough to commit to ink.

There are far too many "experts" who know everything because they can read a headline or a blog post slapped out there like a monkey flinging poo. Like a buffet like at a Golden Corral, "who cares if the food is good, just eat lots of it." And every time you do, you get indigestion and gas.

But I'm a dying demographic. By the time we figure out that it is the really smart people who hold a culture together, we will be destroyed as a culture by no other invader than our own apathy and sloth.

4:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like what the Gannettoids say in USA Today training school.

Fortunately out here on the web, where what's left of the newspapers will be like it or not, there are endless possibilities to capture narrowly defined audiences.

Not such good news for an industry that used to do a good job of casting its net for the whole wide reading public.

But those days are gone. Eventually Gannett, Hearst and the rest will come to see that.

Those online publications that do a great job of providing in-depth news and investigative reporting will attract an intelligent, affluent audience that appreciates such efforts.

Those online publications that provide lots of video and gee-whiz graphics and big type will attract whomever it is the enjoys/requires such aids to critical thinking. Probably this group will be more likely to fall for "punch-the-monkey" web ads and thus may make for a fine demographic if what you are going for is all bottom line, no real public influence.

But truth be told, the all-video-and-graphics crowd is spending most of its time on the cell phone and related gizmos, so to make money with them, publishers need to get involved in related A.D.D.-producing pursuits. Related web ventures would include the likes of Twitter.

Just my coupla cents, naturally.

5:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I scan the headlines on google news and turn to newspapers to read in depth. And that's what I want to see - more information not more pictures! On that note, I don't prefer the videos either. I'm a news junkie and check the breaking headlines news times a day. Dpending on where I am, I may not want to turn on the sound. Plus if I have a sketchy connection, it's annoying to try watching a video stop and start. I much prefer the text stories. Newspapers keep trying to gain a younger audience with this nonsense. They need to focus on the group that wants to read their news and then deliver the best content possible. So what if that audience is 40+ years old? The AARP magazine is targeted to an even older group and their readers love it. We will need to wait and see how this downturn in our eceomy affects the mindset of the media buyers. The buzz is already spreading on Media Post that the buyers are taking a look at which concumers have the money to spend and how to reach them. They figuring out that it's the 40+ audience. People in that age group who were part of their online media consumer focus groups told them that they start their day by reading the newspaper and then go to TV or online. The media buying world is waking up and they don't like what they're hearing. It may not be posh or novel, but if they want to get their clients's product/service in front of an audience that has money to buy in this economy, they need to advertise in newspapers.

1:56 PM  
Blogger rknil said...

"Once again, journalists miss the real issue.

It's not about presentation, it's about content."

Summarized well.

Yet we have non-journalists like Ernie Smith who keep insisting they have the solution, even though nothing they have done has ever attracted readers for any length of time. Only the world of journalism continues to give credibility to people who have never edited or written in their entire lives and whose contributions are mainly to publications that have failed.

Of course, Ernie, like most designers, relies on anonymous commenters to come in and post personal attacks as a "response" to any criticism whatsoever. His response here is more of the same: Anyone who disagrees is somehow "afraid," even though he offers little of substance or fact.

It's yet another reason why no one should pay any attention to anything designers claim to offer. They have brought nothing but failure to their workplaces. They are responsible for the dumbing-down of newsrooms that is referenced in previous posts.

Finally, relying on drawing of stick figures to provide the news is asinine at best and absolutely hilarious. I can always count on the wonks of the non-journalism world to provide extreme examples of how the editing and publishing industry has been overtaken by people who have no clue.

"We aren't any more - and we're in our current pickle no because we've "dumbed down,""

Nope, it's because we've dumbed down. You simply don't want to admit it because you're likely part of the dumbing down.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Robert, I edit and rewrite the contents of every single link I post and every fact box I write. It's just not your style of editing. I've posted hundreds of posts on my site thus far. So I'd hope that I'm good at editing.

Do not for a second think that just because I design means I don't edit. They're not mutually exclusive. I've done just as much editing as you have. I just don't have to make a big deal about it.

11:14 AM  

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