Digital news: a better format is possible

Here’s a Friday afternoon idea for you to chew over: How much different are digital news articles today from what they were twenty years ago? Or what print news articles were fifty years ago?

We get them faster, on screens, and with better visuals and video integration. The headlines are snazzier. But the core information being conveyed is still done in a written format that hasn’t changed much since the time when reading a daily printed newspaper (or weekly magazine) were the only options.

That format is so obvious we barely notice it: new information is packaged into an article that tells us what happened (who, what, where, etc.) and gives us just enough background and context to understand it. More thoughtful publications might give more/better background, but they’re all limited to a certain extent. When something new happens or new facts emerge, then another story gets written. Only in a very rapidly evolving situation, like an emergency, will a digital news outlet publish an update to an existing article every few hours; eventually that article stabilizes and they write a new one.

The persistence of this format seems like a big missed opportunity, if only because we don’t consume news the same way we did fifty years ago. Now, when we read a news story and want to know more, we don’t need to wait for the next article. Instead, we either go looking for another news story (for the latest) or we go to check wikipedia (for the history).

What if we combined both of those in the same digital format? A news/encyclopedia article, providing breaking news with substantive background and context on that news. It would show up in your news feed (or email inbox, or twitter alert, or wherever you currently get news) when there was a development, but instead of heading to a new article, you’d be sent back to essentially the same page, now with updates. You could expand and collapse sections as you want more background on the history, actors, context, geography.

And it could all be personalized: cookies used to ensure that you see the new aspects of a story first, because it knows how up-to-date you are. You wouldn’t have to skim an article for the new stuff, nor would you have to go somewhere else for the background. Like a personalized intelligence brief.

This would be more than just a format change. The role of journalists would shift, potentially freeing more time to seek and verify what’s new, with less time writing to explain what’s already understood.

It would also undermine the ad-driven business models that many news sites are desperately trying to maintain, because it wouldn’t be constantly driving readers to new articles. In contrast, a service like this might be valuable enough to secure subscriptions at sustainable levels.

Is this crazy? Is digital news is missing a big opportunity here?

 


Image: Double Octuple Printing Press (in the public domain).