Readers Want Context and Organization, Not Just 'Content'

from the web-as-afterthought dept

I wrote last fall that the New York Times was finally starting to get the web, and I think the Washington Post is in the same category of taking the web a lot more seriously than it did a few years ago. But although the biggest newspapers are now taking the challenge seriously, they still have work to do. Case in point: the Washington, DC, area had a big storm a while back, and Scott Karp went to the Washington Post website expecting (reasonably enough) to find information about it. Unfortunately, despite being a DC-based publication, the Post‘s home page had very little information about the storm. Indeed, the home page wouldn’t have mentioned it at all if there didn’t happen to be a story on the most-read articles list. Unfortunately it was a formulaic story from the print edition that was great for a non-Washingtonian who doesn’t know anything about the storm, but it’s not terribly useful to a Washingtonian who can see the storm happening outside his window. What locals need is detailed, real-time information. After seeing nothing relevant on the WaPo’s website, he went over to Google, typed in “power outages in northern virginia,” and the first hit was a page from Dominion Electric showing power outages around its service region. Karp went back to the Post‘s website, and after more searching finally found a blog focusing on DC area weather?precisely the sort of thing that the Post ought to be making more prominently displayed during major weather events.

I think there are a couple of lessons to be learned from this. First, as Mike has said before, good content is often less important than useful services like organizing and filtering information. The Post had the content Karp wanted — an up-to-date blog and links to useful resources — but because its website was poorly organized, he wasn’t able to find it easily. Some newspapers claim that Google lives parasitically off of other content producers, but I think this is a good illustration of why that’s not true; there was plenty of content out there, but without Google, Karp might not have been able to find it. The other problem is that for all of the Post‘s progress it still seems to regard itself largely as a newspaper that happens to publish its articles on the web, rather than a general media company that happens to publish a paper edition. Sometimes a traditional newspaper article is the best way to cover a story, but often (as in this case) it’s not. The Post, like a lot newspaper outlets, still seems to put too much emphasis on its print content, even in circumstances were a shorter, timelier, and more densely-linked story would be more useful to readers.

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Comments on “Readers Want Context and Organization, Not Just 'Content'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Small but important distinction

It’s just a money grab, nothing more.

True, but still … more cooperation between various groups would go a long way to supporting substantive, quality content creation (in this case, journalism). They can’t do the work for free, after all. Yes, part of it is them developing better business models, but success in this area helps everyone. I think that’s why Google sees it as an ethical obligation to help newspapers succeed.

We should all approach topics like this in that way, IMHO. How can I help needed services (e.g., quality journalism) to emerge and/or adapt given the changing markets? Part of that is not letting everything fail due to slow change. Most systems ARE slow to change.

I think Google’s state approach (giving newspapers a shoulder to lean on as they hobble into the new markets) is very responsible and necessary.

The public should support and help this change, too. The press is currently not free (as in *libre*), and the quality is lacking. How can we help change that? Not how can we condemn, undermine, and destroy them because of that failing.

Just my two cents.

Jonny Storm says:

Assist big media? Absolutely not.

The approach of trying to help all manner of disparate media outlets may have been a noble approach a few years ago, but I believe we’re past that now. Most communities are far more capable of efficiently spreading local news than any national news center or local, six ‘o clock report can.

What we chiefly need is a grassroots-level portal capable of delivering news created by the people, for the people. If a free, community-maintained outlet is introduced, one that everyone in the community is aware of and can easily access, what chance for survival will a third-party news provider that can’t keep up have? By trying to help them stay afloat, we’re merely holding ourselves back.

Where there is a community, there are people capable of relating current events to others, and with today’s technology, everyone can report on breaking news in near-real time, all with their own unique perspective.

Why do we continue to waste our time on these slow, outdated monstrosities? They don’t provide reporting integrity; accredited reporters and self-regulated communities provide reporting integrity. We need to start focusing on the people and the events, not the organizations trying to force-feed us their brands and assurances.

Motown says:

You're Both Right

It seems to me that both AC and JS have a point. Thanks to the Internet and the myriads of content producting tools available, almost anyone can record and/or distribute newsworthy information. So, a good deal of relavent local news can be disseminated by the “community” as JS suggests. However, his model breaks down when it gets to the “community-maintained outlet”. How would such an outlet be created, funded, and (most importantly) managed? Although he didn’t state it, I strongly suspect that JS would be opposed to a government mandated or maintained system (can you say, ‘state-run media’). Then there’s the ‘in-depth’ investigation that some stories require. It’s hare to imagine a Watergate or Valarie Plaine expose being handled successfully by a local plumber/investigative reporter with a digital camera and an inquisitive mind. That type of reporting requires the resources and (unfortunately) high level connections that the average joe just doesn’t possess, but that the ‘big media’ owned newspapers does. That’s where the ‘cooperation’ AC espoused comes in. Of course, JC would argue (with some measure of truth) that the big media companies are just as untrustworthy as ‘state-run media’. That’s where big (and small) media watcher sites like Techdirt come in. They can act as a group of referees to help keep big media (relatively) honest.

Jonny Storm says:

Re: You're Both Right

Good points, all. It’s true that having a small, dedicated, well-backed group of investigative reporters tackling a story can yield huge benefits when geographical bounds are much wider (or non-existent). Truer still is the fact that creating, funding, and managing such an outlet as I have described raises big questions.

However, it is my sincere hope that such a community outlet will be capable of manifesting and maintaining itself through the contributions of dedicated individuals and interested groups. Besides, creating it is not all that difficult: the technology (and most of the code) is already there. I’ve begun putting the pieces together for a project in my area, and, save for some minor considerations that won’t come up until later on, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult.

As for getting my outlet off the ground, funding has to come out of my own pocket, the pockets of everyone else who is dedicating their time and knowledge, charitable contributions–and managing such a beast will take many man-hours contributed by various, skilled individuals–but there are open projects like this all over the Internet. It’s in this context that I find the idea most feasible.


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