Software is Eating the News: 2020 Report: Providing More Conversational Tools for Readers

I couldn’t agree more with the @NYTimes sentiment about the need to include its readers into their platform. One of the key opportunities is to provide tools for people to take action.

The New York Times Article “For the Wealthiest, a Private Tax System That Saves Them Billions” was a classic piece of investigative journalism that shined the light on the way the ultrarich maneuver the political and legal system to evade taxes.

The article enraged readers, generating 3525 comments on the NY Times site and presumably hundreds of reprints on other sites and tens of thousands of comments on Facebook and Twitter.

However, what was lacking were tools to help readers easily:

  1. Understand how their specific elected officials felt about the issue and their actions to date. Clarity is the first component to any quality conversation, so transforming the noise of national politics and policies into personalized information is a critical first step for news organizations to compete with Facebook and Google.

Essentially this involves two parts:

  • Finding your elected officials. This is a trivial technical problem that involves capturing your readers’ address information, geocoding it and then bumping it against a GIS-enabled service to identify the political districts they are in and their elected officials. A volunteer team of three built such a solution as an after hours public-service project here in Memphis seven-years ago but we had to shut it down due to work and family constraints.
  • Displaying their positions and/or votes on the issue. Journalists can simply send a survey to the impacted elected officials to get their responses, load them into a database and display them to the reader based on their address information. Many elected officials would love the opportunity to connect directly with their constituents and now instead of relying on just Twitter, Facebook and email, they can leverage the the news site.

2. Converse with the elected officials and give them feedback. Imagine if instead of people just posting a comment on your site and hoping something happens, they could actually communicate directly with their elected officials?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation makes it ridiculously easy to give feedback to your congressional representatives through site. And the code is all documented on GitHub so there is no excuse for news organizations to not provide these capabilities.

3. View how people felt about the issue by geography, party, race, gender, wealth, etc. so they could better understand how their countrymen feel. We all love polls because we want to know what other people are thinking. With a little imagination and modern technology the comments can be transformed into a well of insight and engagement.

Instead of just providing a blank text box, news organizations can embed a short survey to capture additional demographic data and ask very specific questions, in addition to giving readers a chance to give open-ended feedback.

Instead of just endless rows of comments, that information can be transformed into interactive analytics showing people’s sentiments by state, district, gender, race, wealth, political party along with comments. Imagine how addicting and insightful it would be to able to view sentiments on a map and then filter by different parameters — and drill down to see the actual comments.

Not only have you provided more value to your audience and provided them a reason to keep coming back, you have more valuable information about your audience for targeted advertising.

4. Collaborate online to drive change. In addition to enabling readers to reach out to their elected officials, enable them to share their comments with their friends via email, Facebook, etc.. and invite them to reach out to their elected officials. enables you to easily create petitions, but they aren’t tied to a specific story and the signers aren’t tied to a specific political district.

And these are just a few suggestions as to how to make readers a bigger part of your report.