The future of journalism: feast or fast food?

The internet has changed the way people consume news. They no longer feast on a newspaper or the evening news bulletin, but tend to snack on news throughout the day.

This change has been prompted by the sheer volume of devices, channels and brands competing for our attention. The challenge for news organisations is to adapt to the evolving habits of their readers.

In newspapers articles are presented in a context. They come with a rating of importance (page one versus page 23, size of headline, position on page), they are categorised by section and there may be related coverage alongside or they may be part of an ongoing series.

Online that’s not the case. More often than not, online articles are read in isolation. People follow a link — from a search engine, a blog or a tweet — and navigate straight to the article. Once they have read it they often disappear, unless they see something else on the site that grabs their attention. This is a bit like grabbing a snack rather than sitting down to a full meal. Nowadays, the opportunity is always there for people to look at an article on impulse, while at work or on their mobile phones.

Some have described this as breaking down news to its ‘atomic level of consumption”. It’s an interesting way to put it, not least because when you see something broken down to its most basic components it’s only natural to think about how the parts might be reassembled.

I’m confident that news organisations will find ways of serving up our news diet in ways that will appeal to individual desires and needs. News is about to become more personalised. Just as my ideal meal is going to be different from yours, the same is true for news. Whereas I might be happy with just a two-paragraph summary, you might want a six-page feature. Or, rather than stories in written form, you might prefer to see them in the form of photos with captions that you can click on for more information.

Even for the same person, the ideal news package can change. If I have a holiday to Seville planned, I’m interested in hearing about upcoming events there. After that, I’ll just find it irritating to see what I missed.

Similarly, when I’m scanning the news on the bus in the morning on my mobile, I want just the top stories that get straight to the point. When I’m relaxing on the sofa at home with my iPad, I want to read features and trust in serendipity that an article on a seemingly random topic might prove fascinating.

We’re still at the beginning of experimenting with such tailoring. But the early signs are promising. For instance, the iPad application Flipboard combines links shared by friends on Facebook and Twitter with your choice of curated news topics. It’s all displayed in a magazine-like fashion, with photographs and virtual pages. It’s a long way from being perfect, but it gives a glimpse of how social connections can help craft a personal news package.

It’s already possible to train algorithms to predict things you might like. It could learn from the articles you read, as opposed to those you skip. It could learn from the ratings you give to its suggestions, or through answers to quizzes, to see what your interests are. All with your permission, of course.

Hunch takes predicting tastes further. Hunch is a tool to ‘personalise the internet” and aims to provide recommendations on thousands of topics. It begins with some entertaining and addictive quizzes, then starts predicting things. You have the fun of seeing what it guesses about your tastes, and soon it is predicting even obscure things with astonishing accuracy.

A related change will be in the conventions and structure of storytelling. In the digital world coverage can be much faster. Online articles can be published as soon as news becomes available, then corrected and extended on the fly.

On the web there is no need to worry about column length or airtime. The only limitation is people’s attention. So far, news organisations have found it difficult to hold readers’ attention online. On an average day newspaper subscribers in the United States spend about 25 minutes reading their print copies, but the average web user spends only about 70 seconds a day at newspaper websites. Talk about a light snack!

If news organisations get their personalisation right they will have something incredibly powerful for advertisers. If you know someone well enough to personalise their news you’re likely to be able to take a good guess about the kind of advertising that will appeal.

Of course, there are challenges involved. It’s vital that privacy be respected. It will require new processes and new tools. It will mean a new kind of relationship between news organisations and their readers. But it should be possible.

Peter Barron is Google’s director of external relations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This is an edited extract from his essay in Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age. Next week there will be a roundtable conference with Google media strategists and South African media owners and editors about the future of journalism

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