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Summary:

Despite the fact that they are in financial distress — or perhaps because of that distress — both the Boston Globe and the Washington Post are experimenting with some interesting new formats for finding and displaying the news.

There are a couple of different ways that newspapers and other media companies have chosen to respond to the inexorable decline of their former market dominance: one is to moan about how Google is stealing their content, and talk incessantly about the good old days, and the other is to try and adapt to the shifts going on around them — by experimenting to see what their readers respond to and learning from that. It’s refreshing to see at least a few newspapers choosing the latter path, including the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.

Neither newspaper is doing particularly well, in the larger scheme of things: the Globe was just sold to a local hedge-fund billionaire for $70 million — which means it has lost a staggering 90 percent of its former value in the last two decades. The Washington Post, meanwhile, was just acquired by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, after the paper’s former owners admitted that they couldn’t see a future in which they didn’t have to cut more staff and continue to lose money. Not a great environment for innovation, you might think — but you’d be wrong.

A Twitter-based local news aggregator

As Justin Ellis at the Nieman Journalism Lab notes in a recent post, the Boston Globe‘s in-house research lab has built what amounts to a Twitter-powered news aggregator called 61Fresh — a tool that pulls in tweets based on a number of factors, but most importantly whether the content comes from a number of sites and services of interest to Boston residents. The algorithm-driven experiment is designed to produce a kind of Techmeme-style news aggregator, but one based on geographic parameters rather than topic-specific ones.

Every 10 minutes, the algorithm goes searching for the most viral news items. And because it uses Twitter as its source material, it isn’t just a soul-less feed of the latest headlines, but a snapshot of what people in the community (or at least connected to that community, since some may be ex-residents) see as interesting content worth sharing — whether it’s about Tom Brady or a local fire.

boston globe - 61fresh

Is this going to somehow save the Globe by generating millions of dollars in revenue? Of course not. But it might help the company figure out how content works now, and how social sharing helps drive engagement, and that certainly couldn’t hurt as it tries to carve out a new path — not to mention that those working on it could develop new skills that might come in handy.

A visual interface for mobile news

Along the same lines, the Washington Post is experimenting with a visually-driven news interface called Topicly, which it launched this week: in a nutshell, it takes the top stories from the newspaper and sorts them based on the number of updates — and then displays them as a series of images tiled across a page, so that when readers click on a topic like “Chemical Weapons,” they get all of the stories the newspaper has written that related to that topic.

Cory Haik, senior director of digital news for the paper, told Ad Week she thought of the interface as a good way to present news for mobile users who don’t want to scroll through a lot of headlines, since it’s easy to see what the top stories are and what they are about (Circa, the San Francisco-based news startup, is also trying to rethink news for mobile). The new Post feature also has its own advertising format, which should make it easy to insert native ads into the stream as well.

washington post - topicly

Again, this probably isn’t going to make the difference between profitability and unprofitability for the Post, but it is a welcome sign of experimentation and a desire to learn how to present content differently for a mobile, digital audience. And to be fair to the Post, the paper has a long history of that sort of thing — from a Facebook news reader (which didn’t wind up working out) to its algorithmic news-recommendation app Trove and a socially-driven advertising unit.

Since no one really knows what the future of digital media looks like, it’s worth experimenting with as many new things as possible — in part because the next new thing always starts out looking like a toy. So kudos to the Post and the Globe for doing so, despite the gloom all around them.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly

  1. This seems to tinkering with delivery.
    I think newspapers have to think hard about
    what they offer.

    People can get the latest news from anywhere.

    Newspapers need to shift more into the area of entertainment
    and enlightenment.

    A collection of short stories from local authors might deliver more
    readers to their site than a news story about how many cats have gone
    missing in the last half hour or the latest update about Chemical Weapons.

    _____________

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    1. But who is going to tell us where the chemical weapons are? I hope not a fictional writer…

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  2. newspapers were the titans of old, and now they are just “normal”, no longer the mainstay of news stories basically, the end user has choice, freedom and access to free content, it’s like Skype, why would you use the phone when Skype can make the call for peanuts. the real issue for newspaper people, is quality of content and not the quantity of it. there is loads of stuff about, but we have one pair of eyes, so it’s really a quest to come up with the right mix and getting paid for it. in a nutshell, the industry as a whole is looking at the wrong end of the box if it is looking for a solution, that will in all probability save it from dissolution. I believe the problem is the same one that network carriers face in the near future, how do you get paid for passing on news

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  3. Mark Van Patten Tuesday, September 24, 2013

    The distribution method of newspapers is broken. Newspapers need to give all subscribers a printer and send data electronically to those printers. Gets rid of huge expenses connected with press and distribution.

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    1. @mark – a printer? I think people stopped things to read about 10 years ago

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      1. (tried to post from phone… so if this is repeat-apologies.)
        @Dan – shows a lack of understanding of the newspaper biz. Newspaper subscribers prefer print over digitial. Getting the news to them on a 24/7 cycle easily via an in-home printing press not only eliminates major costs, but also gives immediacy that is lacking via home delivery from carriers.

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  4. Stanley Krauter Tuesday, September 24, 2013

    Reporters need to start communicating like teachers instead of entertainers.

    The pre-crisis journalism on the housing bubble and subprime mortgage fraud was ignored by politicians because it was forgotten by voters as white noise. There have been many news reports about our tax laws since the 1986 reforms but nothing was done to stop Congress from giving a new tax deduction to every lobbyists on K St. Nothing was done before or after Attorney General Eric Holder said that some banks are too big to prosecute.

    All of these failures and many more should be blamed on how reporters communicate. By always writing about today’s most important facts, reporters are distracting voters from remembering and thinking about yesterday’s most important facts. This problem could be overcome if voters would just start taking notes when they read a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast. But that will never happen. And the problem could also be overcome if reporters would just publish an annual one week review of events and conditions like a teacher would for a summer class of students who failed their regular classes.

    It would be easy to make this remedial education course proftiable. Newspapers could even use it to increase the number of subscribers. The five to seven series of reports could also be republished as an ebook or print on demand paperback book so voters wouldn’t have to take notes. They could buy an annual photographic memory. And the annual series of reports would work like the report cards that teachers use for rewarding and punishing this students. I think voters would enjoy using a report card for rewarding and punishing their politicians. One day of the week could be used for a divide and conquer investigative journalism that would put every Congressional committee under permanent surveillance by news junkies and swing voters.

    But this proposal will never happen because reporters don’t really care that they are ineffective. Reporters just want to have fun by writing about today’s most important facts. Writing an annual one review of the year’s most important facts would be too boring.

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  5. Message from Ingram: Experiment away … but don’t put up a paywall to help pay for it.

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  6. The door is opening wider for more citizen journalist…and that is a good thing…

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  7. This article – and the comments – fail to even begin to address the macro structural issues. In a different era, blacksmiths could fret all they wanted about their business model, but they couldn’t fix it no matter how they tried.

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    1. Blacksmiths? how is this even relevant?
      Newspapers are a unique institution. There can be no comparisons to other businesses.

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      1. No comparison or other businesses? Really?

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  8. With about five stringers, a internet connection aimed at a small niche market, I could start a news service and run it from my kitchen table…and make money…

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