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Damaged newspapers, damaged civic life: How the gutting of local newsrooms has led to a less-informed public
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May 29, 2013, 10 a.m.

Scott Lewis: Learning from social platforms to build a better news site

Voice of San Diego’s technology was built on a shoestring. Its CEO describes why he thought it was time to invest — and how they’re trying to learn from the places where news gets consumed online.

About four years ago, I nervously sat on a roundtable between Madeline Albright and Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation. Next to Ibarguen was Marissa Mayer, then an executive at Google. She was co-chair of a commission Knight put together to study the information needs of communities at the height of what seemed like a crisis for news and civics.

During the discussion, Mayer described her vision of a hyper-personalized news stream. News publishers, she said, needed to learn from what social media and YouTube were doing. Here’s how a writeup of the gathering later paraphrased her remarks about a new type of news publishing:

Users could get a constant stream of content based on their interests, on what is good for them or on the popular ethos. They could also introduce serendipity. These streams could be available by subscription. They could also involve hyper-personalized, well-targeted advertising that would be engaging.

While Mayer spoke, Ibarguen leaned over to me. He quietly said I should do that on the Voice of San Diego’s website. He would help if I gave it a go.

And that’s when I got the old same feeling I’ve gotten for years: dread. Once again, I would have to reveal how truly far behind on technology we were. We were almost imposters. Counterparts and leaders in our industry across the nation had called Voice of San Diego digital pioneers. Yet we knew next to nothing about technology and had put a paltry amount of resources into it.

Four years later, Mayer runs Yahoo and now Tumblr. I’d like to think she is heading furiously toward her vision of a hyper-personalized news and content experience. I’d like to think I finally am, too. I just couldn’t afford Tumblr. Or anything.

A mission to educate

Because of how Voice of San Diego started and how we’ve grown, we’ve never built up the kind of capital to make a major investment in technology. If we added resources, it was always writers. Then, the focus was on sustainability, and diversifying the money coming in to make the organization stronger and, frankly, to make payroll.

In fact, resource strain has defined us, and in some ways has been an asset. To do cool things, we needed partners. We created innovative relationships that became national standards. Our paucity obligated us to focus. A focused reporting staff distinguished Voice of San Diego for its investigative work.

Thrift, however, also pushed us to use an affordable content management system to run our website. It was Blox, the main product of the well-run, customer service-oriented TownNews.com in Moline, Ill.

I love TownNews.com. Without TownNews.com, we would not have achieved anything we did. The team there truly made the barrier to entry low and we turned the opportunity it provided us into a local institution. But we were only one of a couple of web-native clients for TownNews.com, which mainly services many hundreds of newspapers. Those newspaper publishers are still focused on one primary mission for their websites: Display daily posts and sell advertising next to them.

That’s not Voice of San Diego’s mission. Our mission is to help people get information. It is an educational mission. That’s why we have the nonprofit status we do.

If your job is to help people get educated, you can’t just display stories. Imagine a university that simply invited students into a room with huge posters and pictures and expected them to find everything they needed. Everywhere I look, news sites remain committed to simply displaying their stories and images. At the same time, social sites keep working on how to serve users.

And we’re watching social media eat news sites’ lunch. We’re gawking at an act of bullying taking place right before our eyes. When newspapers write about Mayer’s dream of well-targeted, engaging advertising and her visions for Tumblr, do they realize that’s money newspapers are not going to get?

Falling short

We’ve fallen many years behind social media platforms in serving users. Some news publishers have ceded the ground completely. They let Facebook run their social layer or rely on YouTube for their video sharing.

I’ve been watching this develop for years. Two years ago, I was positively despondent. I went so far as to dream that Facebook itself would create a content management system for news publishers. I’d be the first to sign up.

How far are we from actual Facebook or Tumblr-based news organization? Are you a news publisher? Ask yourself what your CMS does that Tumblr doesn’t. Mayer’s vision of a hyper-personalized news stream isn’t just something she thinks should happen. It is something that will happen. Are news organizations going to be a part of it?

If so, we have to stop working solely to display our content well and start working to serve our users well. Those are not mutually exclusive, but they are different.

Let me rephrase: If we think our community is going to pay for our services (as many, including Voice of San Diego, The New York Times, and Andrew Sullivan do), then we absolutely have to learn how to serve users.

It doesn’t mean that we compete with social media platforms. That ship has sailed. But social is as much about a way of doing things as it is a technology. Social platforms, for instance, have taught us a few things that users now expect. Here are three:

  • You should expect to be notified if something you “follow” is updated.
  • Anyone should be allowed to submit content. It should be easy to do and its success is dependent on the community.
  • You should be able to relentlessly tailor your feed of information, bringing it closer and closer to what Mayer might call a “hyper-personalized” experience.

So you can see why I was despondent. I was nowhere near being able to be part of this. The best I could hope for was to continue displaying content. Then maybe I could master social media, somehow weaving it all together to serve our users and build a loyal, grateful community.

Making the switch

This is where I was last year when I met Kelly Abbott, who runs Realtidbits, a company that provides the commenting and social layer for sites like ESPN, Cleveland.com, the Irish Times and even Lady Gaga. Abbott went from not knowing about us to one of our most loyal readers and donating members. And then he decided he wanted to help more.

He recommended we switch content management systems. The thought made me nauseous. Anyone who knows CMS transitions knows why. But Abbott persisted. He had the same vision I did and he wanted to tackle it. Voice of San Diego was lucky enough to be a part of a great discussion in this country about the future of local news. We had an obligation to bring our technology up to speed.

Abbott created what he called an “engineer-free zone” for me. We would first solve basic website frustrations I had about mobile, search engine optimization, and commenting. But then we would dream. What would I create if I could?

I wanted to switch from an effort to display content well to one focused on serving users. Sure, our stories, photographs, and images needed to look good but my mission was to get people educated and to raise money to make the service stronger. A local foundation, Price Charities, came aboard to help us with the initiative. Then, we brought along another partner: Idea Melt, a company working to help publishers “imagine and thread beautiful, holistic, and engaging social experiences for your community.” And we chose to switch to WordPress.

Finally, last week we launched. Our stories and images look better. Our search engine indexing is much improved and our mobile experience is improved with a new responsive design. We also added three new features.

  • Notifications: Users can now follow storylines, or “narratives,” on the site. If there’s a new update, they don’t need to search for a section heading, they should see a notification.
  • Peer-to-peer and reader-to-author following: They can also follow individual writers, or even their peers.
  • The Plaza: Here, users can submit text, photos, links or video and their peers can vote on it to buoy it above other submissions. Yes, it’s a lot like Reddit.

All of these features need work and we’re moving furiously on a massive to-do list. But I look at everything with different eyes now. Soon, we’ll begin building our membership system into the site. Our 1,600 members will be able to check their status, learn about events they might want to attend, and get special alerts.

What we have is a new future. We can spend it constantly evolving to serve the community more in line with our mission and our business model.

We’re a long way from the vision Mayer described. But at least we started walking.

Scott Lewis is the CEO of Voice of San Diego. You can reach him at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or on Twitter at @vosdscott.

POSTED     May 29, 2013, 10 a.m.
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