Reimagining news for the web (Part 1)

I have spent the last year and a half playing with online media in various forms. I published my own content, helped large publications create content, and headed Product and Data Science for a startup that used data science to help media companies understand their content better. After all this, I have come to a disturbing conclusion - most traditional media companies do not get the web.

That is a strong statement to make, so I will try to substantiate it somewhat. This is the first post in a two-part series that talks about how we can reimagine media for the web. The first part of the post will outline what most traditional media companies are doing wrong, while the second part will talk about solutions that they can use.

  1. Most media companies have a one-size-fits-all approach to content, which does not work any more: Traditional companies are really good at creating content for the 'typical reader'. They hire a large number of reporters to write stories that would be of interest to the general public. However, changes in technology and user behaviour have made this approach ineffective. Users who are used to the Internet don't care for a one-size-fits-all approach any more. Instead, they want personalized content. A policy wonk might feel irritated by 'frivolous' celebrity news and actively ignore it, while a movie buff might do the same for 'boring' policy news. This change in user expectations means that users increasingly want content that is tailored to them, rather than being fed the same stuff as everyone else. However, most traditional companies have not yet figured out how they can use technology to personalize offerings. The home page of most traditional sites shows all users exactly the same thing, ignoring factors like their past browsing history and geographic location.

  2. Interactivity is a game-changer, but most media companies have failed to embrace it: The newspaper is dominated by concerns around column inches. Print writers are restrained by the size of the column space that their editors allot to them. But there are no such concerns in online media. This means that significantly more space can be allotted for tools like graphs, cartoons, GIFs and interactives on the web. While new media companies and companies in the west have realized this, Asia is still far behind. Graphs and interactives are a rarity, and even when they are present, they are often poorly done. Indeed, many urban Asians (the author included) get most of their news from Western sources like Vox, Quartz, FiveThirtyEight, BuzzFeed and the New York Times because what they have at home just doesn't seem good enough. A strong focus on interactives and graphic journalism can substantially improve the state of journalism in the region.

  3. Print companies are not in the habit of testing and measuring things, but the web is all about experiments: Experiments are tedious, difficult, and expensive for print companies. It is hard for them to measure how their audience reacts to different ways of doing things. But running experiments is incredibly easy and effective on the web! Publishers can experiment with different designs, headlines and images without much of a hassle, and can also see exactly what works and what doesn't. New media companies like BuzzFeed and Upworthy have made A/B testing and web analytics absolutely central to both their content strategy, and traditional companies should also do so soon.

  4. Print media companies do not adequately use technology to reduce turnaround time for their writers: In a world where getting content out first is imperative for getting pageviews, it is criminal to not invest tools that make it easy for writers to create with high quality content quickly. Yet, apart from some investments for financial reporters, most media companies have failed to invest adequately in research and analysis tools. While this works in the print world, where journalists often end up working until 1 or 2AM to write an analysis of a story that broke at noon, it doesn't work in the online world where content must be published within a few minutes of a major event. Investing in tools that automate research and analysis for 'repeating' issues like Elections, Sports, Social Problems (like crime and/or corruption) and Economic Data can help journalists reduce the time they spend on mind-numbing research and give them more time to focus on what they do best - creating a captivating story for the reader.

Traditional media companies have huge advantages that new media companies don't. They have immense outreach and distribution capabilities, a large network of experienced journalists, and relationships with government, business, and civil society that new companies cannot even begin to compete with. Yet, they seem to be losing the ground online. Addressing these issues might go a long way in helping them gain it back. The next post looks at some practical steps that they can take to do so.

Written on April 14, 2016