8 Digital Features Every Online Newspaper Should Have (Or At Least Experiment With)

June 17, 2015 • Digital News, Recent • by

Technology is pivotal in newspapers’ challenge to sustainability. The following is a list of features I’d like to see every digital newspaper experiment with. You will find neither absolute truths in this post, nor revolutionary innovations: these are just some simple hints on what I think could improve readers’ experience online, by exploiting the opportunities offered by technology. After you read it, I’d really like to know your opinions and ideas, even the weirdest ones — leave a comment to this post, if you want, or reach me on Twitter @valeriobassan.

1. Homepage customisation

via Vulcanpost

Mark wants to stay updated on international news, but he isn’t curious about what happens in his own town; Julie devours articles about innovation and technology, yet she doesn’t appreciate financial journalism; Laureen appreciates op-eds, still she’s not that much into science and sports. One thing we share, though, is that we all get through news in a very brief time: thus, we need to cut the “noise” as much as possible.

Why do we, as readers, have to put up daily with topics we’re not really interested in? Why do we have to assent to a suggested path instead of following our own personal preferences? The latter is what we already do, day after day, by curating our news feeds on Facebook and Twitter.

We live in the era of personalisation.

Online newspapers should offer audiences the possibility to customize their homepages, giving the readers the power to choose which topics, tags, sections, contents and authors they want to follow, and which ones they want to hide. In its mobile app, The Guardian is granting such a decisional power to its members.

Homepages are losing their relevance, we already know that: let’s give them one last chance to still be an important — and enjoyable — portal for users to access the news. The real challenge here? To provide a personalized reader experience without caging them in the “filter bubbles” we sometimes experience in our Facebook feeds, and at the same time without losing the editorial voice that makes the publication stand out.

2. Social newsboards

Good newspapers are usually communities who share the same interests, the same views about politics and society, the same cities or regions and/or the same age range. For all these reasons, newspapers must act more as social networks rather than merely as platforms for news production and distribution.

Personally, I would like to discover which other users are reading the same article that I’m reading, which ones liked it or disliked it, which ones would recommend it, what are their thoughts about it. I would like to receive article suggestions from other members, so why not create a self-organized and self-fostered ‘community of curators’? To achieve this, the traditional comment section is not enough.

Newspapers can and must become social platforms themselves.

Building a tangible community could improve the relevance of a news organization among its members. So yes, we need to reshape the way we discuss online — and I’m eager to see what will be the output of the Coral Project, an interesting joint effort between The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews- but we’ll also have to imagine new social layers of interaction and conjunction between the users.

3. ‘Snackable’ breaking news

Today, news consumption is a matter of seconds; it takes place predominantly on the move and on mobile. In this very fast and fragmented process, every minute spent reading information that I have already received is a waste of time: that’s why I’d like to see articles where the bits of news that I have not yet received are placed at the top of the screen, while the ones that lost their relevance to me are hidden, or shown at the bottom of the page.

Breaking news must be ‘snackable’, especially with unfolding stories:

newspapers should find a way to cut the noise
by showing only the relevant information to the users

(of course, the ones who agree to have their online behaviors tracked).

‘Snackable’ news is something that an app, Circa, has brilliantly experimented with in the last 2 years, unfortunately without finding an ultimate way to keep its business sustainable after the first rounds of investments. Obviously, news atomization can’t work with every content: sometimes I need to have a look at the bigger picture. I need context. That’s what Circa might somehow have lacked; and that’s why I’d like to see Anthony De Rosa’s app acquired by a big news organization. It can be a lot of fun.

4. Mood boards of articles

© Nicola Holtkamp [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Related posts aren’t always the best way to discover new articles. They hardly work, for a variety of reasons: sometimes they suggest articles that are too old, too repetitive, too far from our preferences or too topically unrelated from the content that we’re reading. If I worked in the IA division of a website, I would consider this a fail: in fact, every page that doesn’t bring another click into the counter of the site is considered a wasted opportunity.

Newspapers should come up with innovative ways of linking content and creating alternative relationships between articles. My two-cent guess? Mood boards of articles. I’d create playlists of articles that relate to each other not based on the topic, but on their narrative “mood”, or on the reaction they could provoke in the reader: amusement, rage, outrage, enthusiasm, compassion and so on. This would work better with longreads, or articles that have a “slower” approach to reading, contributing in creating an empathic connection with the readers.

5. Text-streaming technologies

While some of the devices we get the news from are becoming increasingly smaller, websites are getting more and more responsive (mobile-friendly is now a big “plus” in Google’s ranking). Yes, but how are we going to convey words when smartwatches, Glasses and other wearables will be as widespread as smartphones are today?

To present textual content on such tiny screens will be one of the biggest challenges in the years to come, and all publishers must try to understand how to overcome it.

A possible solution is represented by text-streaming technologies: Spritz, a service already installed by default in the official Huffington Post iOS app, is maybe the most renowned of them. This software streams text on the screen one word at a time, without forcing us to move our eyes from one term to another — which, Spritz says, is the biggest effort we make in reading. It frees us from the need to physically interact with the screen using our fingers, and it gives us the possibility to change the frequency of the streaming. A very easy technology to use, and a very effective one, especially in news articles with a less narrative structure: try it for yourself.

6. Embeddable articles

As a general rule, journalistic content becomes more valuable as long as it gains a wider distribution, and thus reaches a bigger audience. So, If videos and sometimes podcasts and maps — are able to ‘travel’ freely from one site to another through embedding, why shouldn’t the same opportunity be granted to articles? Clearly, we first have to find a way to keep our textual content profitable outside the boundaries of our websiteJeff Jarvis suggests a model of what he calls “reverse syndication”:

«Instead of selling my content to you, what say I give it to you for free? Better yet, I pay you to publish it on your site. The condition: I get to put my ad on the content. I will pay you a share of what I earn from that ad based on how much audience you bring me. That model values the creation of the audience».

However, there are other reasons why our content can gain value while traveling around the web: Vox has recently unveiled a new feature that allows other media companies to embed their “card stacks” for free. Those card stacks are collections of fact-checked information on a variety of topics, from Vaccines to Net Neutrality, and they represent an interesting and easy way for publishers to add context and explanations around a story, without having to do all the work in-house.

The cards, although fully browsable in the embedded modality, contain several links pointing to other Vox stories, and place a big Vox logo in front of the readers. This is advertising, and brand positioning, too. We still have to figure out new ways to make actual money out of this, but I forecast a bright future for content embedding, whatever type of content we are talking about.

Read more about Jarvis’ Reverse Syndication model here:

7. Geo-based push notifications

Unless you’re an ectoplasm or a spiritual entity, you *are* somewhere. That means, journalistically speaking, that you probably have a genuine interest in what happens around you: in the town where you live, for example, or in the country that you’re visiting at a given moment.

That’s why local news has been invented, and that’s why it is important for newspapers to find a way to keep readers updated about what is going on around them.

We already have a great feature that works perfectly on mobile: push notifications.

I use them a lot through apps, from Vice News to The Guardian, from Business Insider to Circa. They’re great, but sometimes I run into notifications that don’t really speak to me — the well-built Guardian app, for instance, sometimes sends me alerts about UK politics that I don’t really care about.

What if I could decide to receive geo-targeted notifications instead? If we give readers the power to get notifications about stories that only take place in their areas, we surely improve their experience with our product, increasing the chances of them clicking on the notification and reading the entire article. This literally means “going where the readers are”.

8. Sharelines and Highlights

© photosteve101 [CC BY 2.0]

When it comes to social sharing, some news websites (like BuzzFeed or Upworthy) experiment with different titles and image previews of the same article, to see which one works better on Facebook and Twitter. A similar online behavior has somehow spread among the users, who often extrapolate quotes from the articles to enrich their shared posts, or adapt titles to better clarify the reason why they are sharing that article. This is why, in my opinion, newspapers should build better tools to allow readers to present the content they are willing to share in the way that they are willing to share it.

In its latest redesign, the Los Angeles Times implemented an interesting feature called Sharelines, “short pre-written social posts embedded within articles that can be shared to social networks in a couple of clicks”, alternative versions of that article’s title. This plugin also appeared on the pages of Mashable, Forbes and other news outlets, and you now can install it on your website with less than 20 dollars. This can be a way to reach the goal.

Another sharing customisation option is the “highlight”, a feature that allows the reader to highlight (or underline) a quote in the piece and makes it straightway shareable. From what I know, this feature was first experimented by Quartz in 2014; it has now become a prominent feature on Medium, which pledges to create, through highlights, “a new, lightweight way for readers and writers to connect”. Will highlights and sharelines become widespread in online newspapers? I don’t know. But I’d like to see sharing experiences improved with new tools and ideas.

homepage pic credit: Esther Vargas, Flickr CC

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