Blog Post

Note to media: Serve your users, not your platform

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

old newspapers

Everyone in the media industry seems to be trying to find a magic recipe for digital success, whether it’s a paywall or an iPad app or an outsourced news-aggregation service like Journatic. But it’s worth remembering that the simple things matter as well — such as giving readers something that serves their needs, even if it doesn’t fit your traditional business model or the way you think about your platform. A great example is a news service called Evening Edition, which some web designers came up with as a side project and launched on Monday. The idea behind it is so simple that it seems almost unworthy of notice, but that simplicity is also part of its power, and something more mainstream media outlets could arguably learn from.

As Read/Write Web notes in its report on the launch, the concept for Evening Edition came out of a comment from former New York Times designer Khoi Vinh about how studies of iPad usage showed readers looking for news in the evening hours rather than the daytime. Jim Ray of web-design shop Mule Design took that idea of an “evening edition” — something that many newspapers used to have back in the glory days of the medium — and worked with fellow designer Mike Monteiro to put together the service in a little over a week. It was launched on Monday with funding sponsorship from the non-profit agency behind the magazine Mother Jones.

Simplicity can be a powerful attraction

Evening Edition couldn’t really be any simpler: an editor, Anna Rascouët-Paz (who also works for Annual Reviews, a non-profit publisher of academic journals) puts together a single page of news — a half-dozen important stories about a variety of topics from politics to business — which gets published online every day at 5 p.m. As Jon Mitchell at Read/Write Web points out, there is no RSS feed, no live updates, no streaming videos or any other features, just half a dozen news items that summarize an important issue and contain multiple links to background or related information from other media outlets. As Ray says in a blog post about the service:

[W]e’re all constantly awash in a torrent of news-like “updates”, in between fake celebrity death tweets, divorce notices on Facebook and new-puppy tumblrs. How is anyone supposed to sift through all of that to get to the important stuff?

Of course, sifting through vast quantities of information in order to show people the important stuff is what newspapers are supposed to do, but many newspaper websites and even mobile apps still shovel an enormous amount of content at users with very little filtering, as other web designers like Andy Rutledge have noted when looking at offerings like the New York Times website. Why do they do this? Because they have hundreds of reporters and editors whose job it is to pump out thousands of articles a day for the print edition, and the website gets all of that and more.

It’s a supply-oriented approach to information, rather than a demand-oriented one. In effect, a newspaper website says to a reader: “Here’s all the things we came up with today, which you may or may not be interested in.” Something like Evening Edition, however, says: “We know that you are busy, and overwhelmed with information, and we want to help you — here’s what you need to know.”

Distill and simplify, or competitors like Twitter will

Evening Edition isn’t alone in trying to simplify and distill the oceans of information that flow past us every day. That was also the point behind services like Summify and — both of whom have said they found a surprisingly intense interest in their daily email newsletters with a selection of the day’s top stories. Twitter bought Summify in January, and is now sending out similar weekly emails, as part of its growing attempts to filter and “curate” content for readers. As I’ve tried to point out in the past, the danger for traditional media companies is that if Twitter and others (including Facebook) manage to do this better, they will inevitably gain the upper hand with time-pressed and attention-deprived readers.

This need also explains much of the success of outlets like the Huffington Post (s aol), which routinely gets accused of “over-aggregation” for summarizing or excerpting news stories from mainstream outlets like the New York Times. The painful reality many traditional media players don’t want to consider is that their readers don’t want all of their carefully researched and painstakingly edited stories — they may only want a brief summary or excerpt, which the Huffington Post and Google News (s goog) and other aggregators are more than happy to provide. Rupert Murdoch and former NYT executive editor Bill Keller may call it theft, but readers probably just think of it as useful.

News-recommendation services like Prismatic and Flipboard and Zite are playing a similar kind of game, although they still provide far more information than many readers may want or need. The compelling part of Evening Edition is that it is so simple and so stripped down — and yet, there is a surprising amount of depth even in the short items that it includes in its daily roundup, thanks to the work of Anna Rascouët-Paz. Is it the future of digital media, or a magic recipe for success? Hardly. But it still contains lessons that larger media outlets might want to consider, such as serving their readers’ needs instead of their own.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Shironeko Euro

11 Responses to “Note to media: Serve your users, not your platform”

  1. Greg Ivanov

    Mathew, I think that’s a great example. I’ve always thought that a sense of completion, a product that’s finite, is a hugely importnat psychological effect when it comes to media consumption. I actually believe that’s *part* of the reason why people pay for content online – it’s kind of a pre-commitment that says ‘I’ve chosen what I want to read, and since I’ve paid for it I’ll actually make sure I read it’. It might sound funny, but I genuinely think people are/will be prepared to pay for content online as a proxy for some sort of peace of mind. Print, I think, always worked along the same lines:

    And yet, there is still a long way to go to even fully embracing the psychological aspect of media consumption online, beyond, as you say, business models and platforms.

  2. fgoodwin

    Yes it’s an interesting experiment but no different than every other aggregator in its essence: it depends on other legitimate news reporting operations.

    It gathers a half dozen or so of the “most important” news stories of the day. In other words, it doesn’t write them. Which means it wouldn’t exist but for the existence of news articles that it can curate and summarize. Yes, NYT or WSJ could write a similar webpage, curating their own articles.

    I’m not sure how that would help stem revenue & readership losses but at least they’d be tipping their hat to the “new media” who can’t seem to do any wrong, at least in the eyes of the other new media . . .

  3. Ron Wodaski

    The problem here is that no one can distill anything for me that will fit my needs. I will always wonder what else was going on. What I would like is a tool that would let me do my own distillation – maybe learn from my reading habits (without a whole bunch of ratings; just watch how much time I spend on stuff). But I’m an old long-form foggie anyway; not sure I represent much of an audience with respect to numbers. In the end, I want to things: to be surprised by the unexpected, and to have access to enough information about whatever it is to actually learn something.

  4. Better yet, try publishing just six stories an evening on GigaOm….then watch your readership numbers. And as a niche publication your mandate is a lot less narrow than a newspaper’s and you still won’t be able to do it. If this is a good lesson for newspapers why isn’t it one for your website?

    • The idea isn’t for newspapers to only publish six stories a day — it’s to think of smart ways to curate and filter what is produced for time-pressed readers. And we are always trying to think of ways to do that.

  5. Dan Holden

    You hooked me with your first paragraph and then dropped me when i realized this was just another news aggregation pitch. Even worse, it’s just five stories that trip the interest of one person. If you’re going to “give the reader something that serves their needs” beyond just being available at 5pm, why not study the user’s social graph and give them information that fits their individual profiles and interests?

  6. Mr. Ingram, as an experiment, take the NY Times, print or Web, go through all the sections and pick out the six stories that should be published. You’ll run into a problem very quickly….which readers are you looking to serve: political junkies, education hawks, tabloid addicts, sports fans, etc. Other than the NYT and WSJ, most newspapers understand that for most of their readers they are not cover to cover reads anymore, if they ever really were. The audiences are segmented and buy the paper for specific reasons. A huge chunk of readers only buy the paper for the sports section…so if on a given day sports news doesn’t rank into the top six Evening Edition-style stories, that paper would lose a quarter of their readership. Another chunk wants their local report, another wants business news and another wants coupons….they are all served. If you have the magic answer for which audiences a newspaper should dump and on which days, please share it. A newspaper has a broad mandate…they are community publications meant to reflect communities, not niche markets where readers are happy to spend their day absorbing Apple/Google news and nothing else. They are also for-profit companies, something left out of your equation. Evening Edition can do what it does because A) it’s sponsored and B) no advertisers. I’m not saying this model can’t work in some form….essentially Evening Edition is a digital version of the print publication news digest, The Week, so there may very well be a market for it. But whatever mission this site decides it needs to fulfill is very different than the one most newspapers must.

    • That’s a fair point, Diar — and I’m not suggesting newspapers have to copy the format exactly. Although why couldn’t they provide similar roundups for different topics? In any case, my point was just to think about what that kind of format or offering provides for readers, and then figure out how to make use of it — not to suggest that it’s a solution for all of the newspaper industry’s problems. Thanks for the comment though.

      • Gotcha. You can probably guess I’m a traditional print reporter (staying anonymous as to avoid speaking for my publication). I agree a different approach is needed, and many have been tried by us over the years, most with minimal success, but the ready-made solutions websites regularly offer for our woes wouldn’t do the trick either because the mandates are different. And many of the online properties that are taking a stab at covering communities in some of the manners you suggest are falling flat on their faces. They can publish fewer stories and less wordy snippets quick, sure, but then to get the full story out they’re doing 20 more bite-sized follow-ups (as to offer the appearance of your minimalist approach). It’s funny to watch a story with six, seven “updates” at the bottom of it. That said, I’d read Evening Edition if it had an RSS feed.