Journalism: Winning the battle for attention

Last week, I had the honour to return to Sydney Australia for Digital Directions 11, a digital media conference sponsored by Fairfax Media and organised by the ever-wonderful XMediaLab team. I focused on the theme of the attention economy. It’s not a new idea. Umair Haque was talking about it in 2005, but if anything, the issue is more acute now than 6 years ago. Most media business models are based on scarcity. Across the English-speaking world, all but the largest cities are served by only one newspaper. Until cable and satellite, we had the choice of only a few television channels, and in those businesses, high capital costs usually led to monopolies. Digital media of all kinds has ended scarcity, and as Clay Shirky says:

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does

One of the troubling things has been is that news organisations have responded by creating ever more content. The thinking has been in digital media to create more content to hopefully attract a larger audience and have more content to put ads against. It hasn’t led to increased revenue. If anything, the excess inventory actually depressed digital returns during the recession.

The Associated Press also found in a study (A New Model for News PDF) that young audiences were turning off to news because they were overwhelmed with incremental updates:

The subjects were overloaded with facts and updates and were having trouble moving more deeply into the background and resolution of news stories.

Yet the response by news organisations has been to produce more content even as they have had to reduce staffing due to their economic problems. It’s like trying to save a drowning man by giving him a glass of water.

I argued that relationship and relevance are key to news organisations winning the battle for attention. Engaging audiences directly through social media journalism is one way that news organisations can increase loyalty. I also think that helping audiences discover content that is relevant and interesting to them is key to the future success of news organisations, and I think that they can do this both with semantic and location-based technologies. Success will come with smart, sharp content and real engagement by journalists.

Digital Directions 11: Josh Hatch of Sunlight Foundation

Josh Hatch, until recently an interactive director at and now with the Sunlight Foundation, talked about how the organisation loves data. The transparency organisation uses data to show context and relationships. He highlighted how much money Google gave to candidates. Sunlight’s Influence Explorer showed that contributions from the organisation’s employees, their family members, and its political action committee went overwhelmingly to Barack Obama.

Sunlight Foundation Influence Explorer Google

The Influence Explorer is also part of another tool that Sunlight has, Poligraft. It is an astoundingly interesting tool in terms of surfacing information about political contributions in the US. You can enter the URL of any political story or just the text, and Poligraft will analyse the story and show you the donors for every member of Congress mentioned in the story. They will highlight details about the donors, donations from organisations and US government agencies. It’s an amazingly powerful application, and I think that it points the way to easily add context to stories. It does rely on the gigabytes of data that the US government publishes, but it’s a great argument for government data publishing and a demonstration for how to use that data. Poligraft is powerful and it scales well.

Josh showed a huge range of data visualisations, and he’ll post the presentation online. I’ll link to it once he’s done.

Real-time search: The web at the speed of life

This is the presentation that I gave this week at the Nordic Supersearch 2010 conference in Oslo organised by the Norwegian Institute of Journalism. To help explain the presentation, I was looking at the crush of information that people are dealing with, the 5 exabytes of information that Eric Schmidt of Google says that we’re creating every two days.

I think search-based filters such as Google Realtime are only part of the answer. Many of the first generation real-time search engines help filter the firehouse of updates being pumped into Facebook and Twitter, but it’s often difficult to understand the provenance of the information that you’re looking at. More interestingly, I think we are now seeing new and better ways ways to filter for relevant information beyond the search box. Search has been the way for people to find information that is interesting and relevant, but I think real-time activity is providing new ways to deliver richer relevance.

I also agree with Mahendra Palsule that we’re moving from a numbers game to the challenge of delivering relevant information to audiences. In a lot of ways, simply driving traffic to a news site is not working. Often, as traffic increases, loyalty metrics decrease. Bounce rates go up. (Bounce rates are the percentage of visitors who spend less than 5 seconds on your site.) Time on site goes down. The number of single-page per visit visitors increase. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it is too often the case. For news organisations and other content producers, we need to find ways to increase loyalty and real engagement with our content and our journalists. I believe more social media can increase engagement, and I also believe that finding better ways to deliver relevant content to audiences is also key.

Google’s method of delivering relevance in the past was to determining the authority of content on the web by looking at the links to that content, but now we’re seeing other ways to filter for relevance. When you look how services such as filter content, we’re actually tapping into the collective attention of either our social networks or networks of influence in the case of lists of influential Twitter users. In addition to attention, we’re also starting to see location-based networks filter based on not only what is happening in real-time but also what we’re doing in real-space. We can deliver targeted advertising based on location, and for news organisations, there are huge opportunities to deliver highly targeted content.

Lastly, I think we’re finding new ways to capture mass activity by means of visualisation. Never before have we been able to tell a story in real-time as we can now. I gave the examples of the New York Times Twitter visualisation during the Super Bowl and also the UK Snow map.

I really do believe that with more content choices than the human brain can possibly cope with, intelligent filters delivering relevant information and services to people will be a huge opportunity. I think it’s one of the biggest challenges in terms of news organisations that in the battle for attention, we have to constantly be focused on relevance or become irrelevant. Certainly, any editor worth his or her salt knows (or thinks he or she knows) what his audience wants, but there are technology companies that are developing services that can help deliver a highly specialised stream of relevant information to people. As with so many issues in the 21st Century, it won’t be technology or editorial strategies alone that will deliver relevance or sustainable businesses for news organisations, it will the effective use of both.


Visualisation for news and community discovery

I think that visualisations and interface innovation hold great untapped potential for journalism, not only helping journalists and audiences to see trends and understand complex sets of data but also as a tool that will dramatically improve news site usability. The last few years have seen a lot of innovation in visualising data with the advent of mash-ups and easier visualisation tools from Google, Many Eyes from IBM, etc., but there has been too little interface innovation for news websites.

By and large, news websites still reflect their print heritage. They make the classic mistake of rigidly reflecting their own structure while ignoring the semantic connections that cross desks and departments. Most news web site interfaces obscure the vast amounts of information we produce as journalists. Good interfaces go beyond design and search to issues of information architecture, user experience and discovery.

I believe that interface innovation can unlock the power of technologies, helping them break out of a small group of technically adept early adopters to a much wider audience. The Windows-Icon-Mouse-Pointer interface helped open up computers to a much wider audience than when command line interfaces were dominant. The graphical web browser helped unleash the power of the world wide web. In 1990, when I first used the internet, I had to learn arcane Unix commands to even read my e-mail. In August 1993, I used the seminal web browser Mosaic for the first time in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois, where I was studying journalism and where that groundbreaking browser was created. I instantly realised that the web browser would become a point-and-click window to a world of information, communications and connection.

I’ve been interested in interface innovation since the late 1990s when I first saw the Visual Thesaurus from a company then called Plumb Design, now called Thinkmap which showed the connections between related words. The company did even more impressive work for Sony Music and EMPLive, an online exhibition for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. In many ways, the work was way ahead of its time and sometimes ahead of the capability of the internet. The projects used advanced interface concepts more often found in CD-ROM projects of the day than the internet. One of the things that impressed me about especially the EMPLive project was that it allowed virtual visitors to the navigate the music collection a number of ways, whether they were interested in time, genre or a particular artist. The presentation also showed relationships between elements in the collection. I like Robin Good’s description on the Master New Media blog of Plumb Design’s work:

The original goal at Plumb Design was to create dynamic interfaces to information systems that reveal interrelationships often obscured by conventional methods of navigation and information display.

In many ways, Plumb Design showed what was possible with data, semantic analysis and rich interfaces more than a decade ago.

While interface innovation has not been an area of focus for most news sites, thankfully we’re seeing some tentative steps forward after a crash period of stagnation. Slate has launched a service called News Dots. Chris Wilson describes it like this:

Like Kevin Bacon’s co-stars, topics in the news are all connected by degrees of separation. To examine how every story fits together, News Dots visualizes the most recent topics in the news as a giant social network. Subjects—represented by the circles below—are connected to one another if they appear together in at least two stories, and the size of the dot is proportional to the total number of times the subject is mentioned.

Like EMPLive and the Visual Thesaurus, News Dots helps show the interconnection between stories. The feature uses Calais, “a service from Thompson Reuters that automatically “tags” content with all the important keywords: people, places, companies, topics, and so forth”. Slate has built its own visualisation tool using the open-source ActionScript library called Flare.
Slate's News Dot project
It’s a good first stab, but Slate admits that it is a work in progress. I like that the visualisation clearly links to articles and sourcing information. I like that the dots are colour-coded to show whether the dot represents a person, place, group, company or ‘other’. I think there might be a possibility to better show the correlation between the tags, but as I said, this is a good launch with a lot of possibility for improvement and experimentation.

Another project that I think shows the potential of improved interfaces is the Washington Post’s visual commenting system called WebCom. As Patrick Thornton explains, it is a visual representation of comments n the site. As new comments are posted the web expands. Those comments rated highly by other commenters or those that spur the most responses appear larger in the web. The web not only allows for navigation and discovery, but users can comment directly from within the visual web interface.

Thornton says:

The commenting system was built in two weeks by two developers at A front-end developer worked on the user interface, while a back-end developer created the database and commenting framework in Django. Because the user interface was built in one language — Flash’s ActionScript 3 — and the back-end in another, the Post can take this technology and put it on different parts of with different user interfaces.

Wow, that’s impressive in terms of turnaround time. Django is quickly becoming an essential tool for the rapid development of journalism projects.

Thornton points out that it doesn’t work on mobile browsers or older computers. I might quibble with the focus on most popular comments or comments that spur the most response; comments that draw the most responses can often be the most inflammatory or intemperate. Likewise, popularity often becomes self-reinforcing, especially when it drives discoverability as it does in an interface like this. I would suggest that a slider that weights other factors might be useful. A simple search or tagging system might help commenters to find threads in the discussion that interest them. Again, this is a good first attempt and, with the development time only taking a few weeks, it shows how rapidly innovations like this can built and tested in the real world.

It’s exciting to see these kinds of developments. News organisations are struggling during the Great Recession, but often these times of crisis spur us to try things that we might otherwise think too risky. Whatever the motivation, it’s good to see this kind of innovation. If this can happen during the worst downturn in memory, just think what we can do when the recession eases.