Editors don’t know what’s important to me. Or you. Or anyone besides themselves, unfortunately.
We, as readers, have always curated our news, and chosen what we wanted to read. Before news went digital, we’d flick through a paper till we found something that piqued our interest, and then read that. It’s rare that a reader would ever read everything from front to back, as the editors intended – it just doesn’t work like that.
For a printed edition, editors have to try their utmost to put the “most important” stories on the front page, and then work back, but it’s really just guess work on their part. It’s an important part of an editorial role, but it’s still just a guess and even if it’s a good guess, the outcome can never be right for all the the paper’s readers simultaneously.
People have different interests, and it’s time news organisations recognised that and actively responded.
Since digital news became the norm, tailored content has become reasonable; a news experience personalised to a specific reader. So, when you visit a news site, regardless of whether you go to the homepage or to an article, you’d see something different to me, based on your interests, previous activity and so on. And I would see something different.
But who should see what? Jonathan Stray proposes three answers:
“You should see a story if:
- 1. You specifically go looking for it.
- 2. It affects you or any of your communities.
- 3. There is something you might be able to do about it.
Interest, effects, agency. These are three ways that a story might intersect with you, and they are reasons you might need to see it.”
Stray admits that his theory doesn’t quite work out; what about the need to see items of news that fall outside your recognised areas of interest – those that have a historical importance, for example. I won’t go into the details of how we might set up an algorithm and what factors we should consider here, but would recommend Stray’s piece if you’re interested.
My point is more that publishers are, on the whole, refusing to recognise this reader requirement.
Increasingly we’re seeing that people get their news from Twitter, for better or worse. Why? Because it’s a news experience they have complete control over. You follow those people and accounts that tweet things of interest to you, and build up a stream of relevant and interesting content over time that is completely unique to you; why wouldn’t you want to consume news from such a personalised and uniquely tailored point of contact?
And off the back of this carefully hand-crafted news experience that you’ve inadvertently taken hours to construct, many third parties are making successful apps that better harness your tailored news experience. Summify (now acquired by Twitter) sent you a set amount of popular stories based on what those you follow had been tweeting for the last 24 hours.
Zite and Flipboard similarly create personalised digital magazines based on your interests. Each edition is different and unique to the reader, and involves news from an amalgamation of different content sources and publishers. To prove the value readers see in these apps and experiences, we can turn to the sums of money being thrown around. Flipboard was valued in 2011 at $200 million, and Zite was acquired earlier this year by CNN for a cool $20-$25 million. It’s a rapidly expanding and lucrative space to play in, clearly.
But what have we seen from the publishers themselves thus far? I’d argue very little. Readers are clearly crying out for personalised experiences, with more and more traffic hitting just one article on news websites, and bounce rates on the rise as readers drop directly in and out of a single article from their Twitter stream. A standardised and static news site, just isn’t working for the majority of online readers – especially the homepage, which is often being skipped out altogether.
Still, some forms of personalised news from publishers do exist. As mentioned above, CNN acquired Zite for in excess of $20 million, claiming that they’d be putting yet more money into the team.
A little closer to home, the Olympics is providing the opportunity for experimentation. The Times homepage (free to access) allows you to open or close their live “hub” on the homepage and determine whether you want to be bombarded with sporting updates or not. Not everyone is going Olympic mad, and recognising that is the first step to a personalised experience. The Guardian also offers a similar hide/show option, as was used when covering the royal wedding in 2011.
But this isn’t ground-breaking. The BBC have taken their tailoring one step further, allowing readers to “favourite” teams, athletes and sports for a personalised Olympic consumption experience. Primarily, a feed of latest news for your 5 selected favourites appears at the top of every page (but can be hidden). The experience then gets richer when you travel to the “Favourites” section, where you’ll find the entire page populated by content that you’ve specifically requested.
It’s clever, but I just don’t understand why it’s taken the Olympics to eek out tailored content experiences from the publishers themselves. Yes, these things require developer power and thought, but the incentive and demand is clearly there given the high valuations of third party apps exploiting the gap in the market.
You could also argue that social Facebook readers are providing a tailored experience, offering articles based on what’s popular with your friends. It seems logical to assume you’ll have similar interests to your friends, but it turns out a lot of my Facebook friends just read crap. So do yours, I imagine. A more personal experience is needed, and publishers should be striving to deliver it.
Creating a tailored news environment would mean that publishers can begin to claim back more homepage traffic, and cut out third party apps. News orgs should start offering the news that the reader wants to read, more easily, and reap the benefits of greater site interaction: a more engaged readership, greater click-throughs, increased advertising consumption and revenues, lower bounce rates, and a higher rate of return visits. A tailored experience is also one I’d more readily pay for.
Can you think of a good personalised news experience? Don’t think tailoring content is a good idea? Comment or tweet @wannabehacks.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look