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Dec. 12, 2014, 10:51 a.m.

Low effort, high reward: Defining quality in news has to value the user experience

Two decades into the web and nearly one into modern smartphones, we’re still figuring out what good digital news looks like. What will be the laid-back, low-effort experience that replaces TV news?

Editor’s note: The new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports is out and ready for you to read. I write a column for the print edition of the magazine; here’s mine from the new issue.

That’s a tweet written this October by Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s television critic. Her followers seemed to agree, handing over 110 favorites, Twitter’s currency of approval. And I confess her TV news habits mirror mine: Local TV news enters my family’s home only when we’ve forgotten to turn the set off after a sporting event, and the race for the remote is quick when we realize our mistake.

nieman-reports-fall-2014-coverStill, there’s something remarkable about a television critic not understanding the appeal of television. TV is Americans’ number one source of news, ranking ahead of all digital sources and well ahead of print and radio. Just under half of all American adults say they watch local TV news “regularly,” with many millions more tuning in now and then. (It’s hard not to think of another New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael, who semi-apocryphally said she couldn’t understand how Richard Nixon had been re-elected president when no one she knew had voted for him.)1

It’s also a useful reminder that journalists and their audiences often value different things in the news they consume. What Nussbaum considers unpleasant others will take as friendly and energetic. What she considers substantive and considered — say, a long New Yorker profile — others might take as dry and long-winded. And that gap applies both to the content of news and to the user experience it offers.

In Nussbaum’s case, a number of media tweeters tried to suggest why TV news might be appealing to so many. CNN’s Brian Stelter — who’s already gone digital-to-newspaper-to-TV in his young career — suggested a few: companionship, reassurance, ideological affiliation, community, entertainment. Recode’s Peter Kafka added habit to the list. I particularly liked the idea The New York Times’ Jeremy Zilar offered up: “simple delivery.” TV news is easy to access and easy to consume, packaged in a way that usually asks little of its audience. It’s not surprising that, in a world where people work hard all day, they’d opt for a low-effort, low-friction way to get their news.

It’s nothing new for the media habits of journalists and the rest of the country to diverge, of course. (Our culture industry generates an infinite supply of Mad Men recaps and Serial thinkpieces, even though the audiences for those shows would be a rounding error for, say, NCIS or The Big Bang Theory.) You could spin it as a matter of class, education, regionality — or just taste.

But it’s also a matter of how much work people are willing to do. For journalism, that manifests itself as the gap between those who actively seek out news and those happy to stumble upon whatever news finds them during the day.

The decline of the news middle class

Back when reading your local daily and watching TV news were truly mass-market activities — something hundreds of millions of Americans did every single day — the gap between the most and least informed was relatively small. Sure, some people read multiple newspapers and magazines, and some read none. But the broad middle class of news consumers — the middle 50 percent, say — had access to most of the same information.

Today — just as in other areas impacted by the rise of technology — the ends are diverging, and the middle is being stretched rather thin.

Are you an active, motivated news consumer? Congratulations: You have access to more information in more forms than ever before. Follow the right people on Twitter, set up the right Google alerts, track down the right niche news sources, and identify the best people on the beat, foreign and domestic — you’ll be miles ahead of anyone who was reading mainstream news before the web.

But not everyone wants to work for news. As old news habits fade, it’s unclear what is replacing them; news becomes something you might see occasionally in your social stream. When the Pew Research Center surveyed people last year about how they got news on Facebook, one response stood out: “If it wasn’t for Facebook news, I’d probably never really know what’s going on in the world because I don’t have time to keep up with the news on a bunch of different locations.”

It’s easy, in other words.

Growing past complexity

You could frame the big challenge for the next few years of digital news this way: How can we create a news user experience that’s as easy and friction-free as Facebook — but as good as the best a dedicated news power user could assemble?

Earlier this fall, I had the pleasure of serving on a panel discussing the state of journalism at the 45th reunion of the Harvard Class of 1969. Alongside three distinguished journalists from the class, I was the token young guy — a role I’m increasingly happy to play the closer I get to 40.

The tone of the discussion wasn’t a happy one: lots of talk about the closing of foreign bureaus, the decline of quality journalism, and how their local daily newspaper was a lot thinner than it used to be. Playing my role, I tried to highlight the positives of digital news, and for me, that meant talking about Twitter.

Twitter isn’t perfect, but it’s without a doubt my single best source of news. Spending time on Twitter is, for me, a mix of the best cocktail chatter and a personalized team of journalists tracking the topics I care about; the people and organizations I follow there are like an external reflection of what I’m interested in. You can dip in and out at will and know it’ll always show you an ongoing conversation among smart people about interesting things. It’s tremendously useful.

But after the panel, an alumna of that Harvard class came up to talk to me. She said she’d tried Twitter out and found it to be a confusing mess. Its odd constraints and peculiar jargon didn’t click for her. She couldn’t figure out how to find the right people to follow, or how to make sense of what was important and what wasn’t. She’d followed a few news sources she knew well, like The New York Times — but that meant she saw on Twitter what she was already getting elsewhere. The idea of a constantly moving stream of information was more terrifying than promising; she wanted summation and highlights and priority, not a neverending drip of tweets.

Hearing her complaints made me realize how much time I’d invested making Twitter work for me — literally years of follows and unfollows to get my Twitter stream just right—and how much time I still put in to keep up with that eternal stream of unprioritized tweets, some banal, some wonderful. She was willing to work for news, but she couldn’t see how Twitter would reward her effort. So she — a smart, educated, motivated news consumer who could have benefited from the riches of digital news — was left hoping her local daily didn’t shrink out of existence.

Twitter is perhaps an extreme example of a user experience filled with roadblocks — the company is well aware of how vexing it can be for newcomers — but the same ideas apply to all news organizations.

Does yours run a website that surrounds every news story with a dozen garish blinking ads? Or have an app that’s slow to load and clunky to use? Or a video player that forces you to watch an ad and then crashes? Are its big interactive graphics unusable on people’s phones? Is its social media presence robotic rather than engaging? Does it send breaking news notifications later than the competition? Is searching for a story from yesterday an exercise in frustration?

“Quality” isn’t just about how many foreign bureaus you have or how long your big features can run. It’s about every step of the process that moves from a reporter’s idea to a reader’s eyes. Too many news outlets make too many of those steps frustrating — and frustrated readers are all too happy to go back to playing Candy Crush.

So yes, TV news isn’t for me, or for Emily Nussbaum. But it is for many millions of Americans. What will be the easy, frictionless digital news experience those millions move toward? And how can we make sure that experience can bring the best of the web to people who aren’t interested in working for it?

Photo by Casey Bisson used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. Her exact quote: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” ↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Dec. 12, 2014, 10:51 a.m.
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