Radical Caring for Online News: A Call to Confront Two Disappointing Decades of Stagnation

I’ve worked in the web since the summer of 2000, when I was paid $400 to build a site for a local farm (RIP, Microsoft FrontPage). Fast forward two decades to 2020, and I’m still waiting for online news to break free of stagnation and innovate to improve its delivery and experience for the good of its content and our lives as readers.

Back then, I obsessed over the early days of online news, as I built a website for my school newspaper while obsessively watching how msnbc.com, Slate.com, and other early digital sites invented a new medium of storytelling and communication. Since then, I’ve had a blog in the early days of that format, helped other bloggers launch and grow their sites, written for various publications, and for the past fifteen years have worked in the agency space, for the last 7+ made my living helping publishers of all shapes and sizes (and many others plan) and go to market with a wide range of digital experiences.

Sadly, nearly two decades later, I think online news is still a vastly under utilized communication medium. Put more directly, I think online news and storytelling has broadly failed to live up to its potential, and has spent the past two decades in a state of stagnation, missed opportunity, and ultimately disappointment.

This post isn’t about some of the tropes like “news sites are all click-bait” or “why is news biased” — those are well-trodden to the point of cliche. I’m talking about some less obvious and much more fundamental missed opportunities for an entire medium.

When people love something and see its innate potential, they want the best for it. Fewer people are willing to give “tough love” to someone or something to help it reach its potential. I don’t want online news to exist simply as a utility. I want it to be additive to the experience of our lives.

In 2001, I was inspired by many exciting and emerging examples of how things might play out. The aforementioned slate.com was publishing the intelligence and perspective of a smart magazine at the pace of a website (and doing it with personality); meanwhile, strategists like hypergene were publishing novel ideas of how to “Amazon the news” ls for how news could be created and consumed on the new medium of the web (yes, that screenshot is effectively what Amazon product pages looked like in 2001) and helping to chart new experiences and mode.

In Hypergene’s view at the time, individual stories would be atomic elements (much like products on an e-commerce site) that served as the nucleus for a wide range of related metadata such as stats, related upcoming events, and related content. Those same stories would be linked together by themes in ways more novel and useful than what we know today as categories or tags; perhaps most importantly, stories could be chained together to help viewers understand a broader and deeper context around a particular larger view.

While some of the concepts suggested in that single Hypergene example linked above have been realized — and other novel ideas have found there way into digital news here and there — I’m still shocked and disappointed at the broad and persistent lack of “me-tooism” and sheer lack of innovation in online news across the board.

Here are my three chief complaints, along with ideas on how to improve each:

News Section Front UX is far too bound to literal interpretations of its forefather, the printed newspaper.

While I understood and agreed with early online news designs in the early 2000’s that literally copied the design patterns of its printed newspaper counterparts, I fully expected those design patterns to evolve as publishers came to unburden themselves from the past and understand how best to present news online.

Instead, two decades later, we’re still largely dealing with the same design patterns, which to me don’t amount to much more than a confusing mash of content presented with little to no visual hierarchy — particularly past the “top story”, most sites simply resort to large “link dumps” that offer visitors nothing other than “Hey, just look around for yourself” as a navigation paradigm. As an example, check out the homepage of cnn.com and tell me that you find this a pleasing, engaging experience as a reader:

There’s a bit of an exception for nytimes.com, which intentionally and more literally copies the printed paper metaphor, though ironically they do it with more white space and readability than any competitor I’ve found.

How could this experience be improved?

  • News sites should be far more willing to experiment with both alternative layouts and navigational experiences. For example, publishers could be far more opinionated about content hierarchy at the risk of not being all things to all people; navigation could be far more interactive and context-sensitive; section fronts could and should function as “related” satellites with more individuality. In a well-designed home, the kitchen and bedroom serve different functions yet still share a unifying aesthetic.
  • Publisher’s digital product teams should empower if not outright direct their UX and technical teams to experiment with new paradigms rather than enabling navel-gazing focus on technical tooling, leading or allowing them to lapse into copying other sites, or simply forcing their teams be “always be playing catch-up” and therefore unable to innovate. That said, that last item is used far more as an excuse than most would like to admit: most true innovators don’t need significant resources and in fact are often marked by how much they do can do creatively with little at hand.

News sites miss significant opportunities to provide true context and narrative

Nearly as soon as the notion of the flat HTML-based website graduated to the database-powered CMS (content management system) paradigm where all content is comprised of discrete elements (title, content, author, links, categories, dates, etc), news sites should’ve expanded exponentially in terms of their presentation, organization, filtering, and most importantly, relationships between content by theme, category, topic, people, and infinite other connections.

Instead, an overwhelming percentage of digital news articles still exist in an exceedingly simple “title – content” paradigm, with the only hints of metadata “embedded” directly within the “content blob”. WordPress, the world’s most popular CMS (and equally if not more popular within the digital news space) has taken steps in that direction with its “block editor” but I’d still love to see even bolder “breaking” of the title-content model in favor of discrete “chunks” of content.

Perhaps worse, most digital news sites have half-hearted attempts at “related content” that are dumb at best, with base-level technology powering the related content and motives often aligned to increasing traffic over providing meaningful context to readers.

How could this experience be improved?

This type of flexibility could’ve created sites where individual articles could be chained together to chart and tell an entire higher-level narrative of a story in a much more connected manner, with added context provided by not just the chaining of the stories themselves but in terms of related metadata such as relevant dates, links, related stories, and added info such as Wikipedia links and much more.

Imagine being able to follow the entire arc of a story like the rise of COVID-19, or a favorite team’s season, or anything else imaginable, with a news site providing both the atomic elements (stories), as well as the big picture connections that tie each story together into an overall narrative. Add in adjacent data and related links, and you can imagine a world in which readers can zoom in or out of a story fluidly and at their own discretion, able to grok the information they’re seeking at whatever level that makes sense.

Coming late to a story that is confusing or fascinating? Roll back to previous articles or use helpful pointers from the news site to help you find which key stories or related elements can help you catch up. Already a big fan, and just need today’s development? Let valuable, non-invasive personalization (see below) help you pick up where you left off.

Yes, there are sites like Vox that aim to “explain the news” with small nuggets of text or articles that provide a dumbed-down summary of a given topic; that is still only a single “slice of time” perspective and doesn’t at all draw on the amazing cache of discrete chunks of content already available to news producers who simply need to have the vision to build out these larger narratives for readers. Worse, there are zero meaningful innovations in the presentation of current-day “explainers”, leaving much on the table in terms of opportunities to engage visitors.

News organizations could even add in commentary and talking heads at the “narrative” layer, delivering “value added” perspective for their own anchors, shows, and related brands.

The Hypergene paper I mentioned above lays this out more eloquently in 2001 than news sites are doing today; other organizations such as Intercom’s four-year-old Why Cards are The Future of the Web article have also described a similar vision wherein content is unmoored from its surprisingly static state as an “article” and freed to be mixed more dynamically while still retaining clear connections to a human-relevant source.

While Intercom’s 2016 article was right about the modular / component-based nature that many CMS tools are moving in, it still envisions a world out-of-reach for most news sites whose atomic element is “the article” by itself without much content other than a generic category like “Sports”, “Business”, or “Arts”.

The concept of “Personalization” is a nearly complete failure.

If you’d watched the recently-concluded third season of HBO’s Westworld, you might be terrified about a near-future where a single company knows everything about you and can use that information in coordinated, scary ways.

If that worries you, trust me, publishers are light years away from the sophistication and coordination needed to realize that type of dystopian future. Most of what passes for “personalization” today amounts to either a basic amount of reshuffling of articles on a page if you’re logged in, or worse, is delivered only via advertisements that rely on extensive, sluggish connections to third-party services like Facebook that are already under regulatory and market pressure to remove the foundational elements of their system as online privacy becomes increasingly valuable to consumers and regulators.

So, instead of personalization that delivers both the content you like today combined with what you might be interested in tomorrow, you now receive personalization in the form of an increasingly supply of “trackers” that slow down the performance of sites while doing little more than collecting your personal data to be sold and delivering targeted advertisements to you.

If that’s not explicitly clear: Yes, web publishers wasted a generation of potentially valuable innovation around “personalization” on trying to show you better ads, only to slow down sites and self-sabotage the market in the process. And as anybody who has bought a bed or refrigerator only to be shown ads for that same product for months already knows: the system didn’t even work. Now it’s being torn apart from the inside by tech companies like Apple and Google’s Chrome, who are clamping down on the same technology that enabled that type of cross-site tracking and ad personalization to begin with.

So instead of utilizing the explosive growth of technology to at least partly reward readers with tailored experiences that could adapt as the relationship between publisher and reader deepened, publishers now rely on account creation and login, a process that has innate friction and yet still manages to provide little to no value.

How could this experience be improved?

Assuming its not too late, publishers could do a number of things to try and reverse the tide of failed personalization:

  • Band together to demand better, performance-centric standards from ad partners (before regulators dismantle much of the power under the entire online advertising ecosystem itself);
  • Given how much of digital media has a “follow the leader” mentality, more middle and even smaller-scale publishers should be willing to make experimentation more a part of corporate digital media culture, at least trying to build meaningful engagement with visitors via engaging content and reduced ad units starts to gain momentum and convince risk-averse publishers that it can bear fruit with patience (and that there isn’t much alternative);
  • Speaking of, be willing to experiment with some of the increasingly lower-cost, lower-bar subscription and engagement platforms such as Pico and others that are starting to commoditize subscription tools and genuinely give more willing publishers some powerful tools;
  • Start doing more giving to readers in terms of value-adds to daily life (not in the form of “freebies”, but meaningful and in-depth news content) and less taking (cut Taboola, janky/slow ad units, and intrusive app modals) so that reader trust starts to turn more fully in their favor;
  • In line with the above, be willing to deliver “personalization at scale” by going deeper into local / regional / niche-specific news and competing less on commodity and click-bait;
  • Use the aforementioned rise in affordable, powerful reader engagement tools and platforms to examine audience data and shift to a “responding to reader interest” model rather than a “we know what’s best” or “navel-gazing” approach to covering topics.

Conclusion

To be clear, online news is by no means dead, though it is by-and-large in zombie mode, with a stunning and embarrassing lack of creativity, innovation, and excitement around the content, and more pressingly, the mode of delivery of that content, from the overall structure of news websites to the individual experience of articles to how they are tied together with the richness, context, and history that news organizations are uniquely suited to deliver.

With a fascinating series of recent events providing rich soil for major media, niche publications, and citizen journalists alike, there should be no better time for digital media to rise to the occasion with experiences that equal the importance of its content. As admirable as this new age of both quantity and depth of journalism is, online news needs to get down from its capital-J Journalism high-horse and play significant catch-up if it wants to continue to be a relevant institution not just in American life, but in American lives.

Why the Bangor Daily News “ad frame” is bad for you, and what to do about it

Links should be free- and users are worth more than a few cents each. Why “ad frames” are bad business for news.

My local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, has made some admirable improvements to its otherwise lackluster website over the past few months. To their credit, they’ve slowly integrated topic and people-based cross-links throughout their site, created “topic-centric” destination sections on health, sports, and politics, and appear to be slowly migrating their site from a vertical platform CMS to the world-class WordPress CMS.

An example of the ad frame used on the Bangor Daily News website (click image for full view)

 

Want an easy way to remove the BDN’s “ad frame” bar?

Firefox and Chrome users, install this Greasemonkey script I made. It will load the links to the sites as they intended, cutting out the BDN’s ad frame.

Install Zap BDN Frames

Firefox users need Greasemonkey first

All the goodwill engendered by those steps threatens to be undone with their most unethical and annoying update: A persistent top frame that sticks you with a BDN-hosted ad — even when you’ve clicked off their site to visit other links. (Here’s an example of the “ad frame” in action– what you’d see after clicking a link from the BDN website). Worse, the BDN ad frame give users no way to remove the frame- a feature that even the universally-derided “Diggbar” offered before being shut down due to overwhelming criticism.

Read More

Welcome to The Maine Edge

Welcome to a new alternative weekly publication in my local area: it’s called The Maine Edge, and it covers arts, technology, sports and more in Bangor, surrounding communities, and nationwide. I like the upbeat, positive tone and the coverage seems to be pretty competitive in terms of not just trodding the same ground as our major daily.

And in this week’s issue, they’ve got a nice article explaining podcasting written by Justin Russell. If you’re looking for Maine-centric podcasts– and come on, who isn’t– there are a couple out there besides Maine Impact, the one I co-host with Lance Dutson (we’re currently on hiatus, btw). Here is just a sample; for more, search the iTunes podcast directory for “Maine”:

  1. Maine Democrats podcast, from Maine Democrats.org
  2. Maine Things Considered, Maine Public Radio (link points to iTunes Music Store)
  3. Maine PodCache, Maine Geocaching Association (link points to iTunes Music Store)

Reading Bill Simmons

If you care even in the slightest for either sports and/or magazine writing, you should be reading ESPN’s Bill Simmons now more than ever.

After a couple shaky months (a career so prolific, yet so organic, creates natural ups and downs), Simmons has been on fire lately, with two excellent mailbag columns and two other uncharacteristically short pieces of late- one on former Red Sox great Fred Lynn, and the other a hilarious and on-point review of Seabiscut.

For those who aren’t familiar (though he’s in ESPN The Magazine, on ESPN The Web site, and a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live), Simmons is the former “”Boston Sports Guy”” who self-published a large volume of columns and daily links for the die-hard Boston sports fans first on his own site, and later at Boston’s CitySearch Web site.

Simmons’ columns are some of the best- and most original- examples of American sportswriting anywhere, despite his now-classic rough-edge, college-guy writing style. An unchallenged expert on sports history, sports movies, television, and most of the rest of pop culture, he combines each of these elements into long-form first-person narratives. His best quality, despite all of his other talents, has always been the palpabable passion for all things sports that he delivers at times cleverly, wisely, and reverently.

There are people who still love sports for the drama, for the game, and for its better characters- and not all of them are middle age balding men in sports coats and toupees. There is at least one great fan who came of age with us, saw the things we saw, and remembers the things we do.

I am very grateful he has chosen to write most of them down.