The next arms race in digital publishing will be over explanatory power

And other musings on the market value of information experiences

News is a competitive business. As in any business, a proposition should be a function of what your audience wants and what the market isn’t providing. Supply and demand.

Uniqueness may be necessary in news most of all. The events are generally there to be reported for everyone. The arms war is over treatment.

Good things happen to businesses when they find something that no one else is doing that users want. This happens quite uncommonly, because there are fairly well established methods for determining user needs. For example, asking them. Low hanging fruit is soon picked, and often the business must content itself with a modest slice.

Really good things happen to businesses when they find something that no one else is doing that users want and don’t yet know they want.

Prior to 2010 I didn’t often hear my grandmother complaining about the lack of a portable 9.7" touchscreen. She seemed to get by just fine looking up her recipes in books, calling her grandson on her phone and relaxing on the couch with the TV.

But boy, she likes that iPad.

Why Articles Should Be Icebergs

Rolf Dobelli wrote back in April ‘13 that:

“News is bad for you, and giving it up will make you happier.”

His argument centers around the notion that news merely enumerates the surface level events that are the symptoms of underlying trends. In this way it does not provide real understanding of the problems that we come across in our lives.

“Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that — because you consumed it — allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.”

What is it that users want that drives us to make news this way? In product design we talk a lot about user stories and personas. When I think of the kind of news Rolf is talking about I end up with a character like this:

I want to relax for a few minutes by reading something entertaining.
(It’s four thirty, the office is dead, the fluorescent lighting in my cubicle is making me feel queasy and I have a suspicion lunch may be recurring on me…)

Or maybe it’s:

I just want to catch up on any big stuff over the last few hours.
(Being informed is a big deal for me. Also, listen, I like to not look stupid at dinner parties.)

Contrast with Rolf Dobelli’s motivation for reading news:

I want to deeply understand the issues that are relevant to my life so that I can make qualitatively better life choices.

Sanguine.

The thing is, I don’t think he’s alone.


Toward Hypertext

The best thing for a business may be to find is something that users don’t yet know they want, but a decent second best is something they don’t know how much they want. People may not be cruising the information superhighway in order to make better life decisions, but they do come to be informed. For some reading the Guardian is an act of social conscience. Today the state of the nation in that respect is poor, but over the next few years we’ll see this need catered too better and better.

What if you were just better at explaining things than the other guy?

If news reporting is the lens through which most of us perceive current events, it’s an opaque one. How many digital publishers really leverage the new mediums they have at their disposal?

How many link to research? How many make day to day use of charts and infographics? How many draw timelines of their reporting on a story? How many share any of the information gathered in the writing of the article? How many prominently highlight expert reaction? How many handpick further reading from the web at large?

We can always point to instances of these activities, but they are exceptions in an ocean of flat, dumb text.

We write about laws which we don’t explain or link to. We write about politicians and players you have to paste into Wikipedia to learn anything about. We repeat the same paragraphs in piece after piece.

Our information experiences aren’t optimised to be understood quickly or to be understood deeply. They inhabit the peculiar middle ground that is print’s legacy.

We all suffer for this. Despite the Internet, if you can’t learn something from a Wikipedia page or a YouTube video today you’re still going to need to buy a book. Failing that, the quality of your conversations will be bound by the information level of the available media. Fewer well informed conversations means less competition amongst ideas. Less competition makes for worse ideas.

What if there were a place which created information experiences with enough explanatory power that they left you qualitatively better informed than had you visited a different place?

I’d visit.

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