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April 13, 2011, noon

Gateway and takeaway: Why Quickish wants to cut the clutter and help readers get to the good stuff

It can be tough for a verbose writer to embrace the short form.

This is important, because in doing an email interview with Dan Shanoff about Quickish — his new site that offers (near)-instant analysis and news on sports — it quickly became clear the man is a lover of words. Shanoff burned through more than 3,000 words about Quickish, which finds its focus through short, deliberate analysis and lots of links. (Full transcript here.)

But most Quickish posts are at tweet length or not much longer — and that restraint makes it as much a conduit for news as it is a case study in why short- and long-form writing aren’t mutually exclusive. What both share, and what Quickish trades in, is “the takeaway,” as in the essential point of a story/event/game/trend, or the answer to the question all readers ask: “Why am I reading this?” It’s that need for understanding, combined with the accelerated pace of media, that Shanoff sees that as the underpinning behind news consumption and its the guiding principal of Quickish.

“The best reporters and pundits know that the real traction isn’t the commodified tidbit of breaking news — this person was traded, this person threw a key interception, this person said something provocative — but the entirely valuable (and hard-to-copy) piece of insight that helps us understand a story better,” Shanoff told me. “This new competition — not for the scoop, but for the fast take — forces everyone to raise their level of instant analysis to cut through the clutter. That the noise level might be raised by everyone rushing to say something is ok — as long as you have reliable filters (like Quickish hopes to be) set up to cancel out the crap.”

If we were to build a periodic table for new media, the elements that make Quickish work would be speed, accessibility, and brevity — all in the service of making sense of a news story. Quickish is what happens when you try to take a coherent focus on those events that everyone is tweeting about — it’s March Madness, the Oscars, the Super Bowl, or election night, but all the time. Quickish embraces the alternate-channel ethos that has developed around how we experience events and is built around that. A reader can get what everyone is talking about, but with the added bonus of context and insight, and they could follow it wholesale or dip in as needed.

“Once you recognize the ascendancy of short-form content — and, by the way, that doesn’t preclude longer-form content (at all!) — the next thing you build on top of that is a system to help people keep up with all that great content, to cut through the increasingly endless clutter that keeps you from seeing the really good stuff,” he wrote.

“And so depending on what the biggest topics are, to the widest possible audience, Quickish editors are looking for the most interesting short-form analysis or conversation about that topic — it doesn’t have to be part of a full-blown column; it could be a killer ‘money quote’ of a short blog post or a Tweet or a message board post or video; we’re source-agnostic. It could be from a ‘national’ outlet or a local/topical reporter or blogger with particular expertise,” he wrote.

This would be a good time to mention that in many ways what Shanoff is talking about is not new in journalism, we’ve come to talk about aggregation a lot in terms of the future of news (apologies to Mr. Keller). There is no doubt that what Quickish provides falls neatly into the category of aggregation. It’s Techmeme or Mediagazer, but for sports. Shanoff, though, is not a big fan of the “A” word.

“Why I wince at ‘aggregation’ is that it doesn’t necessarily distinguish between ‘dumb’ aggregation of automated, algorithm-based systems (that inevitably fail some critical test of judgment) and the ‘smart’ selective, qualified recommendation that comes from an editor (whether that editor is Quickish or a newspaper/magazine editor or someone smart you follow on Twitter or a blogger or anyone else who actively applies judgment whether something is worthwhile or not). Everything on Quickish has been recommended with intention; to me, that’s much more active — and valuable — than a system built on more passively ‘aggregating.'”

If Shanoff has his way the site would be powered primarily off recommendations from readers. News sites large and small typically have some call out for tips, but Quickish seems to have tip-based updates baked in thanks to its Twitter-like nature. Credit for stories or takes gets a nod similar to retweets or hat/tips, and that’s something that Shanoff said is a result of Quickish relying on Twitter as a source, but also wanting a more transparent interaction with readers. It also tracks with another basic idea behind Quickish: The link as the most powerful asset connected to a story or post.

This also tends to build strong connections with readers who can feel a buy-in by contributing to a site. What you end up with — hopefully — is a recommendation-go-round, where stories and links get tipped to your site from readers, readers direct their friends to the site, and the process repeats in perpetuity.

“It is a long-standing tenet of online journalism that you want to encourage readers to make just ‘one more click’ within your site after the page they land on. With Quickish, we are thrilled if that ‘one more click’ is to some great piece of longform journalism that we have recommended. Because if you appreciate that experience as a reader, you are much more likely to give us another try tomorrow or when the next big news happens; isn’t that much more valuable than gaming them into sticking around? Here is a fascinating and powerful stat we have never made public: Quickish readers actively click through to one of our recommended links on nearly half of all total visits. Every other visit results in the reader clicking on a Quickish recommendation,” he wrote.

Considering all of this, Shanoff said the site’s design, minimal and stripped down, is closely attuned to the the content it provides and the expectations of the audience. Shanoff recognizes that readers are coming into news from various destination and on different devices, and that feeds an immediate expectation, it’s the “Why am I reading this” question all over again. Shanoff said for many publishers the focus is less on utility and more on squeezing the most value out of visits to a site. His take: “Don’t be greedy.”

There are two ways to try to engage people: You can try to force them — blitz or confuse or harangue them, in many cases — to try to keep clicking. Is that increase from 1.5 page views per visit to 2.0 really worth it if the reaction from the reader is, “Wow, that really wasted my time.” How is that kind of publisher cynicism a way to create a meaningful relationship with a reader?

The other way is to make the experience so simple, so self-evidently useful, so valuable, so easy that the reader might only give you (in Quickish’s case) that one page per visit for now, but they will come back every day… or a couple times a day… or tell their friends… or trust your recommendations… and ultimately have a deeper relationship with you when you introduce new products and features.

POSTED     April 13, 2011, noon
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