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June 17, 2014, 11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Jeff Israely: Entertain or inform? Save readers’ time or spend it?

Our startup correspondent, building Worldcrunch in Paris, says it comes down to content strategy: “One fundamental question for the news industry is: What content — both old and new — should it fight to own, and what should it just let go?”

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a former Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, has launched a news startup called Worldcrunch. For the past four years, he’s been describing and commenting on the process here at Nieman Lab. Read his past installments here.

“I want that horoscope for our website! The future of journalism is at stake.”

Of course I’m kidding. Right?

First, two steps back. Much has been said about how the Internet eliminates virtually all barriers to both the substance and form of information that can be produced. Written news, for example, used to be limited to something called an article, produced by professional reporters and editors paid by a publisher. Now it might arrive in the form of a Facebook update, a blog post, a factchecking riff, or a string of tweets from just about anyone. Posted is the new published.

Still, even in these everything-has-changed times, I’ll cite two examples (past and present) as reminders that a continuum still exists:

— From 1996: The Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography from the Oklahoma City bombing went to what today would be called a work of citizen journalism or user-generated content.

— From 2014: One of the sexy topics of the month both on- and offline is a 700-page hardcover book. It’s hard to imagine Thomas Piketty launching his groundbreaking research on economic inequality on a blog post.

But these are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. Indeed, the digital food chain is busy dining on Picketty’s 20 years of research with listicles and nutshells.

Yes, the revolution is upon us: Universal access to the means of information distribution not only creates more information, but also accelerates the creation of new tools and types of information production…which inevitably further multiply the information bound for distribution. Is the circle virtuous? Maybe, hopefully. What we know for sure is that we’ve got lots and lots of stuff!

As much as I’ve resisted the word, to understand what we are faced with, we really do have to call it content. Videos, Vines, photos, Instagrams, data viz, Storifies — the craft of storytelling deconstructed forever and ever. At the same time, all that content coming in so many forms must also be distributed on multiplying platforms. We not only want good content — we want shareable content. Is that Facebook-friendly? Mobile-ready? The medium is the message at 145 m.p.h. on a curvy highway — and this convertible has no seat belts.

Still, as editor of a lean (global) news site, my first job each day is to make the kind of calm choices that editors have always made: which story, what mix of topics, the tone, getting it right, making it sing. But it’s also a dizzying question of choosing between all the many emerging forms of content. We must weigh what is the best mix to keep the site interesting, dynamic, useful — what stories are best done this way or that way. And costs are always part of the equation.

Often the starting point is deciding what not to do. How far do you stray from what makes you special? What are the risks of getting distracted by creating other content? By chasing clicks? Or that new supposed holy grail of audience engagement?

The by-now old new media axiom to “do what you do best and aggregate the rest” is a good starting point. But aggregate what…and how? The best of it really shouldn’t be called aggregation but rather smart analysis — dot-connecting of a story or stories that others have reported and written. But much of aggregation (even that posing as analysis) is junk. Web pages upon web pages that are sneakily derivative, badly sourced, thoughtless, or just plain copied and pasted — mindlessly embedded.

In a Nieman Lab piece in February, Cory Haik described an experiment that her digital team at the Washington Post did with Snapchat and Super Bowl ads. Neither the Snapchat experiment itself, nor the choice to consider the ads worthy of coverage, shocked me per se. Instead there was this prelude: “Like many news sites, we’d posted all the night’s ads ahead of the game…and those had done well for us traffic-wise.”

It’s well understood that there’s no traffic like cheap traffic, even if in this case everyone does the exact same thing, and it adds nothing either to the Internet as a whole or to the role of the individual news organization. In some twisted way, it is new media’s inside-out version of every old-school newspaper sending its own reporter to cover the same game. Cheaper to produce, sure, but there are other costs.

Today’s limited resources and continued attachment to eyeballs means that such a page of a dozen embedded videos is a foregone conclusion, but it is also worth asking whether The Washington Post is imagining a future where it does not feel obliged to post all the Super Bowl ads on its website every single year? (Unless they were to get paid for it! But that’s another story.)

For better or worse, Worldcrunch in its current form is spared this particular dilemma, since we’re never going to match bigger players on the same aggregated content. Nonetheless, with the same access to all that is findable online, we have similar choices to make all the time about how to deploy our limited crew.

Beyond our particular shortcut to covering the world (translating top journalism), we also have the possibility to do all sorts of content. The twentysomethings on our team have a range of talents that is really quite staggering. Julie can translate political stories and art pieces from Italian and Spanish. She is also our de facto social media editor who knows how to talk to Twitter and find cute animals on the Internet. Bertrand is our de facto photo editor, but can also translate from French and read German. He is both our best proofreader and best Photoshopper, and has done this, which is really the Internet at its best.

So how do we decide what Bertrand and Julie do each day? Well, yes, they do a bit of everything. But they do more of some things than others, according to some amorphous idea that we have about what Worldcrunch is and can become.

I have half a big idea forming about the creation of content. Leaving both economics and editorializing aside, we can divide content along two intersecting axes that divide its intended aims: Axis 1: the aim of entertaining or informing; Axis 2: the aim of saving or sucking the end user’s time.

Any single piece of content is plotted somewhere on this graph: a 900-word reported article, a political cartoon, a Ken Burns miniseries, a bullet-point explainer, a BuzzFeed quiz. Ideally, all available tools are used to produce the right mix to inform and entertain, respecting the user’s time and attention, to serve the goals of the various news organizations — responding to both the public interest and the public’s interests.

Personally, as a digital information consumer, I would want a smart 1,500-word article on Picketty’s findings (I’m not going to read the book!) and to select the three best Super Bowl ads (though if you give me more, I might watch them all, and resent you for it).

Whether your target is people’s advertising-driving eyeballs or their credit card numbers, any news outfit cannot forget that keeping people clicking or “engaged” (time sucked?) is actually not enough. You have to get them to come back — to count on you.

This leads us back to that horoscope. It’s a real thing — the work of a popular new Italian astrologer who is building a devoted readership in print and online. Both Julie and Bertrand think translating it into English each week is about the worst idea I’ve come up with, like, ever. I guess it’s just a question of taste, probably of age, and of the right mix for our site — and the right use of our limited time.

My fellow editor and Gen-Xer Liz has my back. Neither one of us is following the stars, but we’re drawn to the idea because it reminds us of something we once knew in the newspaper world. Yes, that continuum does exist. Newspapers have always been filled with plenty of content that is not journalism — crosswords (the original thinking-person’s time-suck!), advice columns, TV listings — that fit in with the broader mix of reliable voices and regular habits.

One fundamental question for the news industry is: What content — both old and new — should it fight to own, and what should it just let go?

In my little corner here at Worldcrunch, I’m going to bet on an Italian astrologer to help draw in some new universally-minded readers. It’s a once-a-week habit, a quick read tucked away where people from all over the world can find it, follow it, share it, skip it. Also, unlike so much of the other unverified information circulating on the Internet, there is no risk of someone mistaking it for news coverage. It’s always a good sign when you can give something a name: It ain’t just content, my friends — that’s a horoscope.

Photo of newspaper horoscope by Morgan used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 17, 2014, 11 a.m.
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