Seven kinds of “new news” for the 21st century

I’d like to pose a challenge to the thousands of intelligent, dedicated people still working hard to serve their communities with the news and information they need.

I challenge you to rethink what your readers/users want.

Most news organizations are still using notions of news developed in the Dark Ages of the 19th and 20th centuries, when information was scarce. Back then, the few dozen news items contained in the paper were about all a person could get in a day, so people couldn’t be too picky. Now, thanks to the digital information revolution, those times are over. We live in a state of over-abundant and geometrically expanding information.

That’s not news to news people, of course. But too often they’ve interpreted this to mean that their work should be even more valuable than before. There’s a delusion that people are floundering in a sea of information they can’t process, needing our help to point out what’s important and provide trustworthy reporting on it.

But most people are doing just fine, thank you. When it comes to news, they know where to get what they want, and — yes — we’re one a bajillion places they get it. For market-based newspaper organizations, that’s enough to win us roughly 1/20th of the local digital traffic that both Facebook and Google get. As I’ve said before, that’s not enough to support a robust local media enterprise.

So, back to the challenge of rethinking local news. As the information available to a person goes from a dribble to a tsunami, the most important change is not, “Now I can get more news.” It’s “Now I can get more information about things that matter to me.” Google and Facebook are 20 times our size in our markets because they help people do exactly that.

We’re local information agents; we ought to be helping with that, too. But instead, we’re stuck on a definition of news that centers on information that’s important to everyone. We need to figure out how to become leaders on the frontier of personally relevant local information.

Not too long ago, on a slow afternoon at work, I was thinking about this for the zillionth time. My starting point was — as always — the fact that everybody lives in a place. Therefore, most of the things they do are centered in or around that place. So a big share of the information they want most often is local information about things that relate to their lives.

I decided to use myself as a test case for this theory. Standing at my whiteboard, I asked myself: “What information is there that I, as a person living here, would want or need on any given day? Local, time-sensitive information that — if someone were able to provide it — I would absolutely want to have it?”

Within about an hour, I had come up with seven categories and dozens of examples of each. Here they are:

1. What’s going to affect me?

For instance:

  • Events
  • Crime
  • Weather
  • Safety and welfare hazards
  • Traffic on my routes
  • New businesses near me
  • Changes in key services (e.g., trash collection, cable service, fire protection, water service)

2. What might be good opportunities for me?

For instance:

  • Things to do
  • Events
  • Seasonal activities
  • Cool bargains
  • Free stuff
  • Family stuff
  • New restaurants
  • Big hiring opportunities

3. What will people be talking about? (What do I need to know to avoid looking stupid?)

For instance:

  • Funny, odd, horrible or great things that happened
  • Local gossip and scandal
  • Major civic squabbles and controversies
  • “Gee whiz” local news (and very big non-local)
  • Big sports developments affecting local favorite teams
  • Anything causing people to say, “Did you hear?” or “Did you know?”
  • Local buzz on social networks

4. What are the cool, interesting, important or smart people in our community talking about and doing?

For instance:

  • What’s on their Facebook pages?
  • What are they tweeting about?
  • What things from the lists above are getting their attention?
  • What’s keeping them up at night?

5. What are the local knuckleheads, sociopaths and oddballs doing?

For instance:

  • Crime news and criminals
  • Interesting/odd police reports
  • Oddities that local people are doing or involved in

6. What do I need to defend myself against?

For instance:

  • Pending civic decisions that might affect me
  • Rate hikes
  • Traffic problems
  • Rezoning hearings near me
  • School policy changes

7. What discussions might I want to see or join?

For instance:

  • Facebook, Google+, Twitter
  • News discussion threads
  • Community discussion boards

If we could assemble a daily — or better still, real-time — feed of these kinds of information, we would draw a far larger and more engaged audience than we’re getting with the traditional definitions of news. If I could get this stuff on my smartphone throughout the day, I’d be checking it frequently.

But gathering these kinds of information would be a challenge, since only a few of them intersect with our traditional, “one-size-fits-all” definition of news. The rest would take new data-gathering and delivery approaches. And many of them would be different for every person in the community.

I’m not sure how to get this done. But if I were back in a newsroom leadership position today, I’d damn well be enlisting the creative geniuses on my staff to help figure it out.

One thing seems obvious: People in the community could be a great source for a lot of these things, because they are finding them out for themselves every day. So hooking ourselves into “the crowd” would be one of my primary strategies. That would call for a new kind of reporting, in which we would wire ourselves deeply into the huge networks of local people that already exist on Facebook and Twitter and be watching constantly to see what’s getting their attention.

Once I’d filled my whiteboard with this stuff, it occurred to me that these things are, in reality, the new definition of news. The old definition is part of it, but in the 21st century, each individual defines news for himself. It’s up to us to figure out what they want and need and find a way to supply it.

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Posted on February 13, 2013, in Audience, Disruption, Media business model and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Great read Steve. Could newly developing products (I’m thinking products like cXense or other software-like a Simpli.fi for content ) be the first steps in answering some, but not all, of those questions?

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    • cXense and Simpli.fi, for those not familiar with them, use “big data” approaches to gather information about what individuals (ip addresses, really) are looking at and searching for on the web. For sure, data like that could help inform us of the types of information we should be trying to gather. But even without advanced tools like these, I think people in newsrooms everywhere could take big steps in the right direction simply by doing what I did — thinking about what kinds of information they — and everyone else — wishes they had, day by day and hour by hour. It’s not rocket science.

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    • This might be an interesting delivery channel, but the first challenge is creating and/or finding the kinds of person-focused content I’m describing. As we start figuring that out, there will be quite a few ways to deliver it — even including print.

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  2. The Norwalk (Ohio) Reflector recently started a social media beat, partly due to your New News rants in the past. They call it Norwalk Viral and mark entries on their site with a Black Squirrel logo. Just getting started, but it speaks to what you suggest here, at least part of it. Here’s on example…http://www.norwalkreflector.com/article/norwalk-viral/2180441

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  3. With the level of customization already present in the digital world, I’m not sure how print will be able to compete in terms of customization. You still have one version of a product, updated once daily. I certainly do think that the questions you list represent the kind of mindset of newsrooms should have and then develop content around that.

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    • Jeff, it’s true, print is very limited for this kind of stuff. Even so, surely the people who prefer print would be glad to find more content in it that’s directly useful in their own lives.

      So let’s say a newsroom were to crank up the effort to gather more content useful to individuals. A critical part of this would be finding good ways to match it up with the interests of individuals, and that calls for digital distribution in various ways.

      But I’m confident, once a newsroom had this kind of information flowing, that they’d find a certain amount of it broadly useful enough to run in the paper. And that would be likely to increase the readers’ sense of the value of the paper — a very good thing.

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