Reinventing how we read: A necessary obsession

Credit: Viktor Koen

I just got word from the news room in Medellín that we are taking steps toward reinventing Colombia Reports. The main focus is a new platform, a new design, more targeted access, and of course, more strategic advertising.

The changes stirred up some old memories. I picked up a copy of The Economist back in 2011 when I was living in New York City. There was a special report on the news industry called Bulletins from the future. I read through it in one sitting. And then I decided that this is a world I want to be a part of. News in the 21st century, I realized, is brave, chaotic, creative, and totally uncharted.

What’s interesting is that now, 2 years later, I’m not only a part of a news organization, but I’m witness to the chaotic pressures that are shaping new media. Even though it can be exhausting, there’s a thrilling world that’s confused, disorganized, and ripe for change. I can’t think of any better way to spend a life than on the inside.

Here are some thoughts on and notes on the news industry.

The dynamic between readers and journalists is shaping a new landscape, and it is more “chaotic, participatory, and social” than ever before, says The Economist.

For consumers, the internet has made the news a far more participatory and social experience. Non-journalists are acting as sources for a growing number of news organisations, either by volunteering information directly or by posting comments, pictures or video that can be picked up and republished. Journalists initially saw this as a threat but are coming to appreciate its benefits, though not without much heart-searching. Some organisations have enlisted volunteers to gather or sift data, creating new kinds of “crowdsourced” journalism. Readers can also share stories with their friends, and the most popular stories cause a flood of traffic as recommendations ripple across social networks. Referrals from social networks are now the fastest-growing source of traffic for many news websites. Readers are being woven into the increasingly complex news ecosystem as sources, participants and distributors. “They don’t just consume news, they share it, develop it, add to it—it’s a very dynamic relationship with news,” says Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, a news website in the vanguard of integrating news with social media.

There is much to admire in the new landscape. I think immediately of voice. I think of opinion and how decisions are formed. Instead of a uni-directional voice from a  Mr. Opinionator to His Audience, new media lets the audience engage in the debate and shape the discussion. That is what democracy needs. But new media is a double edged sword. This little bit points out the scary edge rather plainly:

But [the old model] has come unstuck in the internet era as readers have shifted their attention to other media, quickly followed by advertisers. “The audience is bigger than ever, if you include all platforms,” says Larry Kilman of the World Association of Newspapers. “It’s not an audience problem—it’s a revenue problem.” News providers throughout the rich world are urgently casting around for new models.

A radically new organization of the game seems to be at the heart of drawing an answer through this problem. But how? The special report goes on to point out some hopeful models around the world. Here is what’s been happening at two agencies – one in Brazil, the other in France.

Correio da Bahia, a Brazilian paper that underwent this treatment, has been reorganised into four sections, offering a news summary, “More”, “Life” and “Sport”. Similarly, Libération, a French newspaper, stopped trying to provide comprehensive coverage of sport, leaving that to specialist sports papers, sales of which are booming in many European countries. After the redesign the circulations of both newspapers increased. But so far American newspapers have shown no interest in trying anything like this, says Mr Señor.

In 2011, it might have been true that US papers hadn’t caught on. But since then, things have changed. One innovative publication that decided to kill the old model and try something new is Quartz. They’re self-described as “a nerdy bunch,” experimental, and “wholly focused on digital storytelling”. Quartz is a web-friendly publication that reports on business with a global audience in mind. But instead of the traditional row of sections like Politics, Business, Sports, Quartz does “obsessions”.

Journalists in most news organizations have fixed “beats”: bond markets, personal technology, international trade, and so on. At Quartz we organize ourselves around the seismic shifts that are changing the shape of the global economy. We call these topics our “obsessions”.

Here’s what I think Quartz has nailed: they’re responding to the overwhelming complexity that is shaking up the world in the 21st century. How? By finding it, declaring it a “phenomenon” and then following it like a beat. No reader will ever thank a journalist more than when the writer makes a the complicated easy to understand. Here’s one example (one, in fact, that resonates with what we’re talking about here) of how Quartz thinks about their “obsessions”.

The Mobile Web
The web was born on desktop computers in Western countries. But by May 2012 a tenth of the world’s web traffic was on mobile phones—and it’s the so-called “developing” world that is leading the charge, with more than half of web use in some countries coming over mobile. How will this disrupt existing internet giants? Who are the rising stars in emerging markets? How is the shift to mobile affecting the internet’s design and business models? And how will the next billion people get online?

Yeah, so how will the next 1 billion people get online? How will they use the web to consume information? How much will it cost readers to read? How is the culprit. Thankfully Quartz is on it.

I think The Economist’s 2011 report is just as relevant now as it was then. The lens proposed by The Economist is sharper than ever for looking at what has happened in the last two years. And if new media is lucky, the obsessive ways of people at news organizations like Quartz will shed some light on where digital is going. And how to make it pay for strong reportage.

Read more about The Economist’s 2011 Special Report at this LINK

Read more about Quartz at this LINK

One thought on “Reinventing how we read: A necessary obsession

  1. Wes, I have enjoyed your last few posts so much! You are clearly developing your own voice, following your passions and nurturing a growing awareness of the world around you. I am proud to call you my friend.

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