Smart filters on the rise

“The old challenge was often phrased as getting it first or getting it right, but in the knowledge-first era journalists face a new mandate — getting it to make sense.”

There have been more than a few stories about the resurgence of email newsletters, explainers, and niche networks. What these products have in common is the ability to turn information into understanding.

millie-tranIf in 2009 we were urged to jump into the stream, and in 2013 to reconsider that leap, then this is the year that we finally fight the flow of the stream, take stock and start making smart filters. In 2015, several trends will converge to push these types of products ahead: refocusing on the reader, the migration of readers to mobile, publishers’ increasing desire for control in reaching their audience, and yes, continued rebellion against the stream.

Turning information into understanding will go beyond just connecting the dots. This is about trusted filters identifying the “right” new information, surfacing significance, and making relevant connections to existing knowledge based on the specific audience. If information is made up of facts and stories, then understanding is the connection between those facts and stories — it’s identifying your audience and knowing how information relates to their world and their life.

What was once the “filter bubble” gave way to smart and sophisticated filters that we trust to navigate the web on our busy and distracted behalf. Newsletters, explainers, and niche networks all do this: They filter the infinite web through a lens we choose and trust.

The best journalism has always created knowledge and surfaced significance through powerful storytelling and depth of reporting. The change here is the scale of information with which audiences are faced, making context and understanding more important than ever. The old challenge was often phrased as getting it first or getting it right, but in the knowledge-first era journalists face a new mandate — getting it to make sense.

The key is that people aren’t just looking for information — they’re looking to understand. And understanding comes from seeing the significance and relevance of information and news. The difference between seeking information and seeking knowledge is that the latter helps someone live her life and empowers her to make informed decisions — to not just know, but to understand.

“Everyone is dealing with this huge firehose of information and content,” NYT Now editor Cliff Levy told Jihii Jolly in the Columbia Journalism Review. “It’s really important for people to find someone they can rely on who can tell them, ‘These are the things you should pay attention to.'”

Email newsletters as editorial products are specifically suited to this transformation of information into understanding. They have a built-in (and widely available) distribution system, are tied to an individual reader, and look great on mobile. B2B companies and marketing types long figured out the value of email and news organizations are smart to catch on. A newsletter can become a daily habit, just as the morning newspaper was for many, and create loyal readers.

I spent the last year obsessively following news about the news and the business of journalism — reading, sifting, making sense of what was going on in media, and then putting all of that together in the American Press Institute’s Need to Know newsletter. The most important lesson I learned is that identifying your audience and their needs is critical. There’s an increasing demand for products that act as a trusted filter, but also contextualizes from a point of view.

Millie Tran is a writer at the American Press Institute.