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Nieman Journalism Lab
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Papers: more creativity please

As many people probably know by now, Google came out with another of its Google Labs features on Monday: a Google News timeline view, which gives users the ability to see and scroll through headlines, photos and news excerpts by day/week/month/year. The sources of this data can also be customized to include not just traditional news sources but also Wikipedia, sports scores, blogs, etc. It’s a fascinating way of interpreting the news — not something that is likely going to replace a regular old Google News headline view, but an additional way of looking at things.

One question kept nagging at me as I was looking at this latest Google effort at delivering the news, and that was: Why couldn’t a news organization have done this? (I’m not the only one to wonder this). Why not a newspaper, or even a collective like Associated Press (which seems to prefer threats to creativity)? Isn’t delivering the news in creative and interesting ways that appeal to readers what we are supposed to be doing? Apparently not. Even the most progressive of newspaper sites still looks very much like a traditional newspaper — not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But is it too much to ask for a little variety? Why not have some alternative display possibilities available? Who knows, it might even con some people into reading more.

There are newspapers that get the creativity thing — and not only get it, but encourage it. The New York Times, for example, has a celebrated (and rightly so) group of journalist/geeks including Aron Pilhofer (@pilhofer on Twitter), Josh Harris (@harrisj), Derek Gottfrid (@derekg) and others who have put together some fantastic news feature/applications that combine data visualization and great usability. These run the gamut from interactive timelines for stories to displays that illustrate how many times particular words were used in speeches, and many more in between (including a different way to browse the paper called the Skimmer). They are also — along with The Guardian — well out in front of every other newspaper when it comes to providing access to their articles and other data through open APIs.

Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule (the Washington Post had an interesting open-source effort called Post Remix many years ago — when the ultra-creative Adrian Holovaty worked there — but none of the ideas went anywhere). If newspapers want to alter the balance of power with Google, which they routinely complain is stealing their livelihood, then they should put a little brain power to work and get more creative, instead of trying desperately to think of new ways to sell the same package of news everyone else has.

                                   
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Ann Marie Lipinski    July 24, 2014
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard wants to hear your idea for making journalism better. Come spend a few weeks working on it in Cambridge.
  • news man

    an australian news company did a similar timeline about two years ago, and it’s still on their site;

    http://mostpopular.ninemsn.com.au/

    maybe it’s just when google do it, people take more notice?

  • http://owenyoungman.com Owen Youngman

    actually, the LA Times did do something like this first. Here’s a random example.

    http://topics.latimes.com/entertainment/people/josh-brolin/2008-06

  • http://10000words.net Mark S. Luckie

    It’s kind of sad showing off innovative technologies over at 10,000 Words, knowing it will be years before most newsrooms adopt them, if at all. Even more disturbing is newspapers looking to other newspapers for inspiration… it’s like the blind leading the blind.

  • http://almightylink.ksablan.com/ Kevin Sablan

    I think Chris Brogan had it right when he talked about “The Beauty of Pirate Ships” and the need to take set a goal, fire, and throw away all excuses. Pirates did it. It was war, and they didn’t spend any time freting over infrastructure …

    “Can an enterprise do that? Can they lob themselves at targets without worrying about their infrastructure? Not sure. Look at all the burning debris in the ‘water’ of the last few months’ financial turmoil. Big companies are in the wreckage.”

    http://www.chrisbrogan.com/the-beauty-of-pirate-ships/

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  • http://www.mathewingram.com/ Mathew Ingram

    I agree, Mark — it’s a shame that many newspapers continue to think only of other papers when it comes to who their competition is and where they should look for ideas.

  • http://xark.typepad.com Dan Conover

    I wish it wasn’t this simple, but the truth is that the newsroom culture is, and has been for years, overtly hostile to the geek culture.

    There’s no logical reason that news companies can’t combine geek talent and journalism talent into something that is greater than the sum of its parts, yet it almost never happens. I suspect this has a great deal to do with the fact that, as a group, we journalists can be some of the most unpleasant people on the planet, and the geeks (who can work elsewhere) won’t put up with our shit for very long.

    If news companies want to progress and survive, they’re going to have to deal with the swaggering bullies, curmudgeons and beancounters they’ve placed in charge of their franchise. Newsrooms may have been conducive to creativity once, but that’s not what I’m hearing or seeing anymore.

    Bottom line? If you want good geek talent, you not only have to pay for it, you have to let it achieve things.

  • Patrick

    Maybe it’s because most journalists – even the new ones – are living in an ink-stained past of Woodward, etc., a culture massively reinforced by most j-schools today.

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk Kevin Anderson

    Matthew,

    Ironically, a newspaper has done a time-line navigation of their content, El Comercio in Peru. They launched a version of it in 2007. The time slider was a bit slow to load, but the current version on the home page is quite quick.

    I agree that the level of creativity needs to increase, but I think one thing holding them back is the Web 0.5 content management systems that many newspapers use. They are clumsy, monolithic systems that get in the way of tapping network effects. They not only get in the way of developers, but they also get in the way of journalists.

    However, I would say that there has been a change in the last few years that we now have editors asking for new web and interactive features instead of those initiatives being driven primarily from outside the newsroom. The recession is causing some journalists to revert back to ‘the internet is the enemy’ thinking, but I do think (maybe I should say hope) that we’ve turned a corner.

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  • http://robbmontgomery.com Robb Montgomery

    The comments are as revealing as the article!
    Maters not who did it first. What matters is who does it best.

    My nomination for most innovative, user-centered news reader from the future is . . . . Spectra.

    Not surprisingly, it was not developed by a newspaper.
    Editors don’t think in terms of unbundling and letting users re-bundle content like this. Developers do.

    LINK
    http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i//msnbc/Components/spectra/spectra.html

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  • ldi

    Google is in the best place for designing and adopting news innovation: maybe the value of the service is interesting if you can read more newspapers, not one

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  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for all the comments — and to Robb and Kevin and Owen and newsman for pointing out other experiments in the area of timelines. And I would agree with Kevin that one of the things that has been holding newspapers back is the antiquated and inflexible content-management systems they use, although I would argue that there is also a significant cultural problem in many newsrooms as well.

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  • http://www.john-zhu.com/blog John Zhu

    Perhaps it’s not that there isn’t creativity at newspapers, but rather that the creativity exists in a different arena than it does at Google or other tech companies because of their different focuses.

    For Google, this news timeline thing is right in its comfort zone/focus: Index, organize, and deliver existing content; whereas for newspapers, their comfort zone/focus has always been content creation, with a little bit of delivery thrown in. Those focuses are in the blood and culture of these respective companies. Take either one out of its comfort zone and put it in a different arena, and it’ll likely struggle. “Geek talents” at newspapers probably feel a little (or perhaps a lot) like visual designers at Google:

    http://stopdesign.com/archive/2009/03/20/goodbye-google.html

    So if you pit a content-creation company that’s trying to do tech stuff as well against a tech company on what is essentially a tech problem, my money would be on the tech company every time.

    While newspapers definitely need to be much more tech-minded than in the past, not being in a world of infinite resources, I don’t know if their future lies in them becoming capable of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Google on technological innovation. Perhaps it’s about taking being more adept at taking the innovations that come out of the tech sector and using them to allow you to better excel at what you are good at, like how blogging software allowed millions of content creators to disseminate their content. Those content creators didn’t arrive at that point by becoming developers and programmers. They did it by employing the tools created by developers and programmers.

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  • http://blog.thescoop.org Derek Willis

    I think it’s inaccurate to say that the work that Adrian started at washingtonpost.com didn’t go anywhere. There’s a long list of projects that WPNI has produced, many of which are detailed here:

    http://push.cx/2009/washington-post-update

    Among the recent efforts there, I really enjoy the political appointments database:

    http://projects.washingtonpost.com/2009/federal-appointments/

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/ Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, Derek.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that the Washington Post hasn’t done anything creative in terms of displaying content by any means — I was thinking specifically of the tag-cloud view of headlines and some of the other interface projects that I remember being part of the original Remix effort. I probably could have phrased that part a little better.

    And thanks for including that link to some of the projects that Peter has been involved in. It is a great list.

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  • http://www.rgdirect.com Scott

    London Free Press (er, London Ontario that is) has begun to expand their news into other areas.

    Two more interesting things they’ve done:

    -Allowed people to turn their voice-mail comments about stories in the LFP and turn them into podcasts with LFP staff commentary.

    -Begun to do video news coverage of things too small for our local stations to bother with (yet big enough to be interesting)

    A presentation by Steve Groves (director of Internet media) on it can be found here: http://prezi.com/54980/

    http://www.lfpress.com/

    I’m going to send this post back in Steve’s direction. The LFP might use some of Google’s ideas…