Assume knowledge: lose readers

I recently came across this excellent piece written a few years ago, An Antidote for Web Overload.

The author talks at length about needing a “decoder ring” for journalism, and how journalism needs to endeavour to provide more context, and more distilation. He talks about a bet made between blog evangelist Dave Winer and Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations for The New York Times Company, in 2002:

Winer had made a bet with Nisenholtz that for most of the top five news stories of 2007, blogs would outrank The New York Times on Google. When Winer and Nisenholtz reconvened to settle the bet in 2008, they unearthed a surprise. By the terms of the bet, Winer had won, but the real news was the site that trounced both the Times and the blogosphere — Wikipedia.

The lesson is fascinating. After the buzz of a story has subsided, readers were going to Wikipedia rather than the primary news sources. They wanted context, but they weren’t getting it from the mainstream media.

Two years later, the point still stands – readers are overloaded with news, and under-served with context.

And there’s a broader point, too, something that has been nagging me for a while. Newspapers assume too much knowledge on the part of their readers. Ultimately, this is an alienating factor, and those who fail to address it will lose huge numbers of new readers (read: customers). I’ve felt this recently, on a personal level. I’ve gamely read flurries of pieces about the Greek crisis and the debt ceiling debate, most of which assumed that I understood the context. I didn’t. And I’m sure I’m not alone. I desperately wanted a four-paragraph explainer somewhere to get me on my way, but I couldn’t find one. I ended up on Wikipedia.

I’m not suggesting that newspapers need to become Wikipedia, because we’ve got Wikipedia for that. But I am suggesting that they need to learn from it. Too much content is created in the image of its creators, rather than in the image of those who will consume it. This needs to change. I’m not suggesting that news should be turned in to one big Idiot’s Guide to the World, but a few little bits of context would go a long way.

Some examples of excellent practice:

• Larry’s Elliot’s brilliant family analogies about the Greek crisis was a great example of a story being “decoded” on a article level.

• The NYT’s topics pages are a good example on a structural level (almost like a NYT wiki page).

• The NYT also have a superb word definition feature – double-click on any word on their site, and a little “?” appears, linking you to a definition of the word on answers.com. This is superb practice: do not “dumb down” content to appeal to the masses, simply make it easier for the to understand.

If anyone is doubting the power of providing context, have a look at this video on the credit crunch. It’s two years old, and has had 2.6 million views. It still gets 4-5,000 views a week. And it’s on the credit crunch, for God’s sake! Its long tail is testament to is lack of assumed knowledge. Newspapers should take note.

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One response to “Assume knowledge: lose readers

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