Untangling the Web: The Hollywood news site

Putting aside financial constraints, managerial concerns and resource distribution, what would the perfect news site in 2012 look like?

January 9, 2012 15:04
online news

online news_311. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

Every year in early January, there’s a sense of uncertainty, a pause, as though we’re slowly turning our necks around, starting to look into the future rather than back over the past year. A sense that the time to review, wrap up, and summarize has given way to a period of resolutions and of planning. To ponder what might be, rather than what has been.

With this in mind, I recently started thinking about the online journalism industry; about where it’s going and what 2012 will hold after such an eventful year for the global community. Stories will keep breaking and journalists will keep covering them, that’s for sure, but what will happen to the most popular and far-reaching news medium, the Internet?

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The future is digital, and it’s mobile. People are increasingly using computers, laptops, tablet computers and smartphones to get their news, and television, radio and print ratings are dropping.

So what does this mean? Where are we headed?

The primary theme seems to be that consumers are looking to get everything in the same place. That is to say, the Internet has morphed into the super-medium; an all-encompassing, one-stop information shop. People don’t go to the television to watch, the radio to listen and the newspaper to read anymore - instead, they’re watching clips, listening to music, radio and podcasts and reading news sites, all from their iPhones on the bus to work. So, for online news sources to satisfy the maximum amount of users, they have to provide the whole package, because otherwise the clicks will go elsewhere - and there are plenty of options these days.

A brief segue. Back in my youth movement days, teaching leadership skills to young, impressionable Zionist youth, we used to run an activity during which we’d task participants with planning their ideal educational program on a given topic, say the Six Day War. We’d tell them to pull out all the stops, all the barriers, to think of “the Hollywood activity.” They could bend the time-space continuum, bring people back from the dead, spend millions of dollars, whatever they wanted. Once they’d brainstormed creatively and without limitations, we’d start winding it back, challenging them to keep the flavor of their original idea but work out how to execute it in a realistic way; a photocopy would have to replace the original Declaration of Independence; rather than bringing Ben-Gurion back from the grave, stick cotton wool to a swimming cap, build an obstacle course instead of flying a planeload of children to see the Burma Road up close.

So, what’s the Hollywood scenario for the news site of 2012, given the indications about where online journalism is headed? Again - this is with unlimited resources, commercial considerations aside, and endless time.

There are two main elements to consider: What the site looks like and what’s on it. Or in other words, design and content.

The perfect news site would be intuitive and enjoyable to navigate, with a good balance between text and graphics, so the 21st century reader can skim over the homepage and pick out interesting stories to read. Clear icons and color schemes would highlight supplementary content, such as videos or picture galleries, for those that prefer pictures to words. The site would include an animated “ticker,” and a logically designed masthead so users can find what they’re looking for quickly and easily.

This ideal site would have its own streamlined mobile site with both a tablet and a smartphone version, which would load quickly on all devices from an iPhone to an Android tablet. It would also integrate the now-standard social media elements into the homepage and article pages, with a two-directional box showing recently “Liked” articles on Facebook, relevant Tweets, and posts from the news organization’s feeds on both platforms.

Now, all of these features, more or less, can be found on the world’s leading news sites. So what makes it stand out? The perfect 2012 site would be personalizable, so although two people might regularly check the same news source, the homepage they visit would not be identical. Two features would make this possible: the option for users to select the sections they see on the homepage, and a step up to the next level of social media integration.

First, the modules. Most major news outlets organize their homepage with the main stories at the top, then some form of categorization. On JPost.com, for example, there are some 15 main news and analysis pieces on the top section of the homepage, then different sections on the bottom half for features, Health & Science, Jewish World, Environment & Technology and Middle East. There is a also a section for stories from the Premium Zone, blogs, and Opinion pieces. These sections reflect what JPost.com’s editorial staff see as the most important, but they don’t necessarily cater to the needs and wants of every reader.

On the 2012 Hollywood site, registered readers would choose from a list of topics, and have the option to pick which modules appear on the homepage and where. Users could also elect to have SMS, email or smartphone alerts when new stories are posted about their categories of interest, or pieces from their favorite journalists.

This function would work to the advantage of readers, reporters and editors alike. From the consumer side of things, the benefits are the most obvious - see more of what you like and less of what you dislike. For reporters, stories would get maximum exposure, and section editors would be able to focus on filling their respective sections with the best content.

The second personalization feature which would bring the news site forward is extended social media integration, with the standard talkback system integrated with popular social networking sites. This would mean that rather than the discourse on a given piece taking place both on the original article and on Facebook walls, Twitter feeds and blogs, the dialogue would be merged together in one location. The fact that there are already smartphone and tablet apps, such as Flipboard, which aim to similarly integrate mainstream and social media is testament to the thesis that this is where the industry is headed.

The personalized homepage would showcase a box which displays stories that each user’s social media contacts have shared, posted or commented on. This integrated system would mean that rather than jumping back and forth between endless browser tabs and windows, readers could update themselves with the news and interact with it simultaneously.

Naturally, the most eye-pleasing site which provides the perfect user experience is worth very little if the content isn’t up to par, and that means the whole package - text, graphics and video. On the Hollywood site, breaking news or hard news alone wouldn’t be enough - a good new source’s job isn’t done once the reader reads the facts, but rather when they understand them. Analysis and sidebar pieces, factboxes and timelines, would make sense of today’s news for the user, and put it into context and perspective.

The content would be written clearly and edited succinctly. Voices would be varied - opinion pieces would span the political spectrum, men and women would be equally represented, as well as different races and religions. News pieces, however, would betray no such biases, and ethical journalistic practices would be rigidly adhered to.

On top of this grade A content, which again can arguably be found on the leading news sites today, the advanced social media features would also give users a new way to influence content. The Hollywood news site would not only allow readers to easily comment and give feedback, but also to post leads and photos, videos and reader submissions in a special user input section.

This forum on the site would need to be regularly moderated and verified. Editors would post relevant supplementary content which readers had submitted, and reporters would follow up on leads and potentially write stories based on them. The change in the flow of message-sending that the advent of social media has brought about, then - from top to bottom to multi-directional - would be properly utilized in the online media arena.

Then, with the perfect site with its new sections designed, how would it be updated? Would writers file and editors furiously upload summaries of every report found on every media source or reader tip? Would a team be working around the clock? Would the site work in cooperation with a print edition or a television station?

And this is where the barriers start coming in to the Hollywood scenario. The ideal news site wouldn’t post every report that Internet editors came across or readers sent in, but perhaps it would have enough staff to at least look into most of them. Round-the-clock updating is a must for a serious news site in 2012, and this requires considerable staff and equipment. And indeed, if a site is to be able to look into breaking news stories at any time of day, it needs journalists reporting directly to the Internet desk.

So, why aren’t you looking at this imaginary future site now? Because for better or worse, this is the real world. There’s no pausing the commercial constraints - news organizations, papers, sites, TV channels are dropping like flies, and as a result resources are limited. JPost.com’s recent redesign, for example, addressed some, but certainly not all of these issues, and still more are on a long list of updates to be made.

An unfortunate reality is advertising, in all of its different forms, but this is the payoff for news organizations providing their product - content - for free. Considering the state of the industry, with many news organizations being forced to cut costs to stay afloat, this is better for the user and for the site. And considering the spectrum of available options, the consensus is that all but the most loyal readers will simply go elsewhere if asked to cough up dough for news.

When we start bringing in the conditions, the financial constraints and the managerial nightmares, certain elements have to fall to the wayside, but this doesn’t negate the need to think big, to picture how it could be, and where the industry is likely heading, and keep striving to put together a product which gets the news to the people, which is the bottom line, after all. It’s up to the industry to think of the Hollywood scenario and then work out ways to make it possible; it won’t be long until everyone is getting their news online, and if news sites are to retain their impact and credibility, creative solutions are a must.

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