Dear news media: Create news for people who have never read a newspaper

News in 2017 doesn’t need to follow the production cycle of news in 1987.

Hey, news industry, you’re doing it wrong.

As part of a USC Annenberg class looking at how to create new journalism products, I asked some of my fellow USC students what got in the way of their news consumption today. It was a pretty open question, but they had some common answers. Here’s a selection of some themes:

News sites aren’t clearly laid out, making it hard to find relevant articles. Advertising and non-important links are too prevalent:

“Whenever I try to search for anything that’s not immediately breaking, like if I wanted to learn more about Betsy DeVos, it’s hard to find backlog articles or archived pieces.”

Story length and format:

“I don’t find it super appealing all the time to sit down and read a huge article online, but you don’t get all the nuance from just a breaking news headline on Twitter. I wish there was some medium between the two.”
“I don’t like the news stories that are basically slideshows in the format of an Instagram video or something that is 30 seconds long and plays 5,000,000 times on Facebook. I feel like it just leaves out a lot of details and I almost instantly don’t trust those as much as a full news story I read.”
“I always fall for the clickbait, every time.”

Bias, bias, bias:

“Everything is editorialized to a degree.”
“I feel no fact coming on, I just feel a lot of hatred.”
“Everything is sensationalized and I’ve just kind of gone numb to it.”

These are problems that erode trust in young people and stop them from engaging with the news. The same young people who will be working, communicating, politically active news consumers for the next half-century or more.

For people like us, who didn’t grow up with newspapers and who have used the internet since we were toddlers, a lot of the conventions of news today don’t make sense. News in 2017 doesn’t need to follow the production cycle of news in 1987, and neither should it come in the same form. Adapting a newspaper for the modern web isn’t good enough for people who never read newspapers in the first place. We deserve something new.

Where do I start?

Take a look at this site. There’s a lot of great content. But where do I start if I don’t have all the time in the world and want to meaningfully engage with the news? Do I start with the topics at the top and work my way down? Do I start with one of the videos? Do I follow the size of the text from largest to smallest? There are just so many words on this page with no sense of order, it’s not clear what the news actually is.

This kind of layout is what we’d expect from a newspaper. But something created for a young and sophisticated audience needs better design, better visual hierarchy and more color. We grew up in the age of iPod ads, and for us, design matters.

And please, please, please, make it easy to search. Wikipedia is part of the fabric of our lives. We’re used to falling down holes into hours of learning about related topics. If you want to be able to compete with Wikipedia, you have to make acquiring knowledge just as easy. Give 👏 me 👏 context 👏.

Where’s the middle?

This tweet contains 12 words. The story it links to contains over 4,600.

Where’s the middle?

My understanding is that in the age of newspapers, news and features (or “enterprise” stories) were produced separately, leaving little space for the production of something in-between. This tweet and story are recent extreme examples, but they show how this divide persists in the internet age.

But it’s 2017 now. Who said we couldn’t have multiple versions of the same story? From as short as a 12-word tweet, to a 200-word brief, to an 800-word explainer, to a 2,000-word feature? Let the user consume your content on their terms.

And by the way, because one of the quotes above brought it up: produce a social video only if the format makes sense. Some stories work better in text than on video, and if you are producing content that’s not presented in the best way possible, users will notice: “This isn’t high-quality. Therefore this news organization isn’t high-quality.” None of us want that.

What’s missing?

Let’s take a look at the topics covered on a section of Vox’s homepage. We have stories about Obamacare, marijuana legalization, the transformation of the Democratic Party and multiple anti-Trump stories. None of these are explicitly biased, but as someone who has followed Vox since its launch in 2014, I’ve watched it become increasingly progressive.

(Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, describes Vox as an “opinion” website.)

For young people who are just trying to learn about the world around them — people who were previously uneducated about Medicaid or who owns which conglomerates or the history of elections — it’s important to provide information that is as complete as possible. And more importantly, it’s important to show diverse perspectives that are unlike those they already hold.

When we stumble across sites like this that don’t explain their editorial or political positions, two things can happen: We’ll either realize what’s happening and lose trust in all other news (“what else don’t I know about?”), or we’ll live our lives unaware of other perspectives. Neither is a good outcome.

So, modern news industry, you need to do two things: be objective when you can, and explain your bias when you can’t. It’s not hard to do, and if you’re transparent, people will trust you. It’s how all relationships work.

The old conventions don’t apply

OK, look: Breaking away from old conventions is hard. I get it. But it doesn’t make sense to force the norms of 50 years ago onto people whose parents weren’t even born then.

The internet changed everything. Now is the chance to develop journalism products for the future. Embrace it.

This post is part of a series by USC students looking at how product affects trust in news. Learn more.