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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard’s big scoop getting buried quick

We’ve written several posts recently about, the online replacement for the closed Ann Arbor News. It’s got an interesting and unusual presentation style — by default, stories appear on the front page in strict chronological order. The newest story pushes down all that came before it, a la Twitter or your Facebook news feed.

That’s an interesting idea — moving editorial control from the hands of editors to pure Father Time. But sometimes it runs smack into the realities of the news cycle. has a really big story today: Reporter Dave Birkett uncovered a business connection between the University of Michigan’s football coach Rich Rodriguez and a booster banned from another college football program.

Big news in the university’s home town. But the story’s now two hours old. So the front page of looks like this:

Because of that pure chronology, the big scoop has already been passed as the lead story by a meeting preview and word of a book-tour stop by the author of something called The Alphabet of Manliness. And every new story will knock it down one more peg. Someone looking at the site’s front page tonight might not even notice it, clinging to the bottom of the page.

Experimentation’s great, and finding the right balance between recency, importance, and interestingness is a challenge for any news site. But sometimes you need a little editorial control to make sure the big stuff gets noticed.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Ian Duncan

    Even if they just did something like the styling of the adverts they could stick to the pure chronological approach but give big stories a little bit extra prominence wherever they end up on the page.

  • Patrick Donnelly

    They’ve got to find a way to update the story hourly, even if the new info seems relatively inconsequential. Failing that, a static Top Story box would do the trick, with the rest of the feed changing chronologically.

  • Ben Cohen

    Given this post, I went back and read over my interview with Tony Dearing, chief content officer of We did talk about how the site would differentiate between major scoops and stories about book tours, so I thought it was worth reiterating his response: “As we got closer to the launch, we realized that if there was going to be a launch, there were going to be some things that we wanted that would come a few weeks after launch instead of on launch. We certainly want and are planning for when you get the big story and want major display and screaming headline and links and sidebars and dominant art — there will be things that we want to treat that way. That capability is being finished now and will be available shortly. We’re hoping it’s available before the first big story like that.” Well, maybe the next one.

  • Kevin Sablan

    That “balance between recency, importance, and interestingness” is nearly unachievable, especially since a veteran in need of financial assistance might find the meeting preview more important than the “big story.” One person’s big story is another person’s clutter.

    Some services, sites and networks can make it easier for people to find the news and information that they find important, but I think it will be long time before most people find, learn to use, and join those networks.

    The popular TechMeme site uses an algorithm to find, aggregate and rank technology news. But even founder Gabe Rivera understands that pure automation “doesn’t quite work.” As a matter of fact, they hired a human editor last year and recently posted another opening for an editorial position.

    The balance that you identify is a holy grail for both news sites (content creators, aggregators and networks) and the individuals they serve. Sites must listen and learn from the actions of their users, and then apply that knowledge to deliver news that its audience will find recent, important and interesting.

  • jwoodruff

    click “most popular” instead of the chronological “today” view.

    Problem solved.

    Am I missing something?

  • Joshua Benton

    Hey jwoodruff: Of course you can do that. But what percentage of readers do? I’d wager single digits. The front page is the default state of a web site to the vast, vast majority of its readers.

  • Purple Rose

    Speaking as a local reader of Ann, the “River of News” is NOT enough. Sure, a “breaking news” at the top would be nice, but more–I want it to look more like a newspaper–a la NYT, Free Press–NOT because I am “uncomfortable” with Facebook or the river type format, but because you can see more on the page. What you fail to mention, Josh, is that they have chosen a single column format and large print. It’s their choice, but it limits them to very few stories on the front page. Try to get to a “politics” story and it’s at least 3 clicks away. Also–Tony Dearing keeps promising “more is coming soon” but the fact is they launched very prematurely, and you really only get one chance to make a first impression. The first impression they have made in Ann Arbor, is not good.
    Oh, and one more thing. They don’t have enough journalists (except maybe in sports) to do good journalistic work. The stories are short “news updates,” very little investigation. Even in a recent story about the death of a former mayor, the writer says that the mayor’s son said the mayor was elected in year X. I take from this that she didn’t have time to independently verify the information.

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  • John Zhu

    I wrote about my thoughts on the subject a few months back when NYT launched its river of news. Basically, my feeling is that the river of news works great for two types of news consumers/situations:

    1. If you want to consume EVERYTHING.
    2. If you want the latest on a particular topic that’s getting frequent updates (a 9/11 or Michael Jackson-type news story).

    Outside of that, I feel like a river of news alone does little for the typical news consumer and that curation is very much necessary and desired.

    You can read more of my thoughts on this at

  • A reader of

    One thought on the “river” theme. I can’t help but think it’s a way to disguise the fact that there’s not much reporting coming out of the website.

    If you were to just click on the “news” tab on the homepage, for instance, you’d see the same stories late into the morning as you did the night before.

    So instead, the site throws a lot of stuff — news stories, sports features, a local person’s recap of a local baker appearing on TV show on cakes, no seriously — up on its home page’s “river of news” scroll.

    No item has any more importance than the other. A story on big cuts to human services in the city is just as prominent on the “river” as a food blogger’s Labor Day recipies.

    I don’t have a lot of time to poke through the corners of the site when I’m at work, so I just don’t find this compelling in trying to find what’s going on in the city.

    I can only think this difficulty is by design because there’s simply less news content.

    Very disappointed.

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