Remixing news: A river runs through it

News organizations spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort deciding what “leads” — what goes on the front page; what goes in the newscast at the top of the hour; what’s important. This is how professional news organizations deploy the minds and time of some of their best-paid and most experienced employees: They sit down at daily meetings and argue this stuff out; sometimes they agonize over it.

In the era of scarce column-inches and broadcast time this made a lot of sense. But that era is fading. With the Web reshuffling how the most avid users of news get their information, editors’ roles are changing — not vanishing, but definitely being challenged.

These thoughts are occasioned by Dave Winer’s new experiments remixing the New York Times. A while back he offered us the Times River — a simple reverse-chronological list of “head-and-deck” links from the newspaper’s RSS feed that is perfect for scanning on mobile devices or just checking in to see what the latest Times stories are. In his latest rethinking of the flow of Times headlines, Winer has built an outline-style interface to the same set of headlines, built around the Times’ own keywords.

These pages are notable for their simplicity. There are no distracting ads, no complex navigational tools, no typographical elegance or design flourishes. It’s just the text and you. A part of me looks at this and thinks, “How crude.” Another part of me looks at it and sees the same spare utility as the original Google home page — and wonders if, a handful of years from now, I’m going to prefer keeping up with my Times this way over continuing to kill trees with my lifelong (but now imperiled) newspaper consumption habit.

Years ago, during the dotcom mania, as Salon’s home page got more and more festooned with stuff that Salon was playing around with to try to increase revenue, a software developer did something similar with our news flow — he “screen-scraped” our headlines and presented them in an ultra-simple list form. (His script still appears to be running but it no longer works properly — Salon’s home page has been redesigned a bunch of times since then.) This was a kind of proto-Salon River. Use of it never spread beyond a tiny handful of geeks. If it had — if hordes of Salon users essentially defected and said they preferred that version of our home page to our own — it would have presented us with a business dilemma.

But I think the real resistance to this new vision for news delivery will be less on the business end (business tends to extract some kind of value anywhere large numbers of people can be congregated) than in the newsroom itself. Because the whole “river of news” approach, like the “newest posts on top” design of all blogs, takes a big bite out of the editor’s job. The reader who looks at Times River and says “this is how I want my news” is a reader who is saying to the Times editors, “Don’t waste all that time figuring out what to tell me you think is important.”

As Winer put it, “They [editors] have a very powerful internal gravity driven by a philosophy that their job is to arrange our thinking.”

I think that there are still plenty of readers who like what editorial judgment adds to the arrangement of the news. Of course, they don’t always agree with it, and many like to argue with it. But they want their quick scans of the news to be ordered by something besides chronology, so they choose a publication to make a deal with, saying, in effect, “I’m giving you my attention and you tell me what you think is important. If I disagree often enough I’ll move on, but in the meantime, tell me what you think matters.”

The real question over the next decade or so will be, how many of those readers are there? Is it the vast majority — which is what most editors believe? Or is it a shrinking tribe of news consumers who grew up under the old dispensation?

Although most professional editors will immediately dismiss the scenario, I think it’s quite possible that the “editors’ cut” of the news will dwindle in importance until we hit some threshold where the majority of users decide they don’t want their thinking “arranged” for them.

At that point, the “river” will roll right across the front page. And some editors may need to find other outlets for their talents.
[tags] future of news, editors, dave winer, river of news, times river, new york times[/tags]

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  1. I’d imagine that “ordering our thinking” is going to be something that we have many options for. River of news chronological is one, editors “cut” is another. Digg-style voting is a third and Winer’s outline-by-keywords is a fourth, ZDNet style “columnist’s picks” are a fifth.

    Really smart media companies will realize that it’s not that we want no ordering, but that different readers want different ones. They’ll support the multiplicity; not only providing several themselves, but also an API for third-parties who want to invent new ones. Think “most-read by demographic category”; “most-blogged by people in your blogroll”; “voted funniest by CollegeHumor readers” etc.

  2. I’m with Phil. “Multiple views into content” is a typical Web idea, isn’t it? Here’s what I’d like to see for my NY Times online:

    >Editor’s Choice
    >”Digg” — that is, in order of popularity via a Digg-like system
    >”Recommended for you” — that is, a Firefly-like system presenting stories likely to be of interest to me based on my previous habits
    >Latest — chronological order

    I probably go to 3 on that list first, then 1 to see what they think is important, maybe 2 to see what the unwashed masses think, maybe 4 if I’m looking for something recent.

    Forget about “International, Business,” all those things–instead, free tag the stories, and let me click on a tag, showing stories tagged that way from most recent down.

    As it is, I find the Times site pretty much unreadable–I still prefer the print version. But probably only because they haven’t actually embraced the Web yet.

  3. I still want to know what the editors think, but there are simpler ways to do it. In Salon’s letters to the editor, the “editor’s choice” posts are marked with a star. Maybe that’s enough?

  4. For different sorts of news, I want different mixes. Is that unusual? I need, for professional purposes, to keep a close idea on arcane or niche businesses like religion. I also want some old-fashioned, high-powered editor making their own mix of stuff which is important but I didn’t know I would benefit form knowing.

  5. i’ve been using winer’s nytimesriver on my iphone screen for weeks now, and it’s far and away the best interface when you’re reading on a mobile device.

    which is the point: it’s all about context. it’s not either/or, and it’s not just different readers wanting different things. sometimes it’s the same reader wanting different things at different times, in different situations.

    we encounter news stories in far more environments than just on the printed page now. honestly, despite still being a subscriber, i mostly read the times these days on the bus on the way to work in the morning, standing cramped next to a bunch of strangers, all on my iphone (while listening to music, too; handy little device!)

    i love editorial choice about placement as much if not more than the next guy, and when i sit down with the times on a sunday morning there’s nothing better than having the order and placement of the stories i read decided in part by someone for me. and i still get some of that via the river — it’s just a different type of editorial judgment, a little less structured, a little more automated.

    they’ll all figure it out eventually, i’m sure. meanwhile, scott, think you can get someone at salon to provide a salonriver? ’cause i can’t read salon on my iphone full size, alas; too much work!

  6. Glad to listen in on the conversation – I personally think the world and the internet is a big place and there will be an opportunity for both models to work. The river approach is the newer of the two so it will garner more attention and cause a debate, which I think is great but I am all for letting the people decide.


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