Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Worldwide, news publishers face a “platform reset”
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Connecting the dots

“We have some serious firepower to throw at problems — and far too often, we have no idea if those problems already have good solutions.”

One of the most popular new games of 2013 was an addictive mobile app called Dots: A Game About Connecting from Betaworks. It’s deceptively simple: a white board full of evenly spaced colored dots worth points when connected in a short amount of time. You can play instantly without reading the rules, or you can get immersive and obsessively strategic. You can play against yourself or against an expanding universe. You can play for free or you can buy ways to improve your game — but the choice is up to each player: earn your way to advancement or pay for it.

staci-d. kramerThe game launched on iOS in May and had a million users within days. Now also on Android, it passed 15 million installs in November. By early fall, it had been played a billion times.

For the media in 2014, connecting the dots has to be more than a game. We have to connect the fragments of information that flood the zone daily. We have to connect with our communities. We have to connect with each other.

Connecting information

We have never had this much access to information or so much ability to discover, create, and share. Making it meaningful, discoverable, and truly accessible is simultaneously the media’s toughest challenge and greatest opportunity. I can hear at least one of you now pointing out that the toughest challenge is making it pay. Fair point, but unless we can do those three things, we can’t do that either.

In 2014, connecting the information dots:

  • will take an even greater emphasis on finding compelling ways to pull together information and tell stories. Call it Snow Fall, call it listicles, call it anything you want as long there’s not more style than substance.
  • means making the most of what we already have. The Village Voice did that recently with “Read the ‘Stomach-Churning’ Sexual Assault Accusations Against R. Kelly in Full”; not pretty, but the way the story was told by Jessica Harper in a strong interview with music journalist Jim DeRogatis, combined with access to the documents, made a widely discussed package readers won’t soon forget.
  • means more single-topic or immersive niche coverage. At the same time, it also means not ignoring the need for some of that news and information to move outside the niche to the general news flow.
  • will require better navigation and personalization for users.

Connecting with our communities

We’ve also never had a time in the modern news era when it was so easy to connect with our users or to create communities that stretch beyond physical proximity. When we can have or facilitate real conversations, it raises the value of what we do. When we get useful feedback, it makes what we do better.

That same ease of connection comes with a heavy price when it’s used to spread vitriol instead of honest debate. When people who brag about being great husbands/wives/students or good fill-in-the-religion have zero compunction tossing personal insults at strangers or casting slurs that would get them punched at a bar, trying to carry on that conversation can be exhausting, draining, and frustrating.

This isn’t a new problem, but the same rise of social media that gives us more ways to reach out and be reached also makes it easier to spread the worst.

A number of news organizations have shut the doors to comments, citing limited resources, poor tools, or low returns on the investment. Understandable. Unfortunate. Open mic is too costly when it creates an environment no one wants to share; shutting off the valve either takes the steam out completely or sends it another location. Journalism can’t afford either of those options.

On the plus side, we have Nick Denton, who sees connecting the people who come to Gawker Media as the publishing company’s future. His version of that future is the discussion platform Kinja, which gives users their own blogs and the same tools of engagement as Gawker’s editors to create and manage discussions. True, Gawker discussions aren’t for the faint-hearted, but the communities and the sites are usually in sync.

We can’t legislate civility. We can’t force people to comment. But in 2014, we need more Dentons looking for a solution and fewer shut-off valves.

Connecting with each other

Sometimes the wheel needs to be reinvented. Sometimes the inability to communicate or the comfort of living in a bubble means the wheel will be reinvented constantly by lots of different people, whether it needs it or not. Sometimes attacking the same problem separately (as individuals, teams, or groups) results in major improvements — and sometimes it’s simply a waste of time and resources.

After watching or being part of discussions at ONA’s recent conference and News Foo to create journalism tools for breaking news, I left convinced that we have some serious firepower to throw at problems — and that, far too often, we have no idea if those problems already have good solutions in play elsewhere that could be used, adapted or improved upon.

In 2014, we can do a better job of connecting with each other, sharing the tools that are out there and working on the problems yet to be solved in ways that make the most of our limited resources.

Staci D. Kramer is the former editor of paidContent and now blogs at Trust But Verify.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20