Merging Old and New: Context, Scale and Journalism as a Product


Image credit:

—By Joe Cardillo

At the Compass, we’ve been talking a lot about transparency lately.

It’s a core part of our mission and something we gave a lot of thought to when planning our first major project, a searchable database + original reporting on officer-involved shootings in Albuquerque.

Transparency fits squarely into long-standing conversations about what journalism is supposed to be, and who it is supposed to serve—for example, the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code.

But we’ve also been exploring deeper questions around how journalism can or should reveal its own structure—particularly at the local / regional level—and what it means when someone says “I read / view the news.”

When I joined the team in July we were already talking candidly about ways to explore how people actually consume and use information they get from news organizations, and our Managing Editor, Margaret Wright, asked similarly pointed questions in last week’s introduction to this blog:

Qs from radius

Some of those questions have been asked before, but we’re thinking about it a little bit differently than most news orgs. It’s not simply about having people up-vote, share or like content. Instead it’s about really digging into how people view and use “The News” as a product.

In other words, we want to understand not just the relationship people have to our content but also how audiences are actually experiencing and interacting with “The News” as a medium itself—something we haven’t seen much of in New Mexico and that seems to be lacking elsewhere, too.

There are a few reasons for this. One of the most interesting is that nonprofit and for-profit journalism orgs both seem to have absorbed messaging from the tech industry, investors, and Wall Street that focuses on a central question of “does this scale?”

Of course, scale matters. But if journalism assumes a particular value to its audience that turns out not to be true, it quickly becomes difficult to identify the problem based on viewers subscribing or unsubscribing, or how many people do or don’t share a particular piece of content. (Interesting corollary: a Pew Research Center study this week found that visitors referred to news sites by social channels like Facebook actually spent less time and viewed fewer pages than direct visitors to a site).

Another problem is that much of what journalism presents as “The News” is actually fragmented facts that are nearly impossible to understand without context.

Alain de Botton points to this in his thought provoking The News: A User’s Manual

“The problem with facts is that there is nowadays no shortage of sound examples. The issue is not that we need more of them, but that we don’t know what to do with the ones we have.

Every news day unleashes another flood: we learn that Standard & Poor’s is reviewing the nation’s credit rating, that there has been an extension to the government spending bill, that voting boundaries have been submitted to a committee, and that plans for a natural-gas pipeline have begun to be drawn up. But what do these things actually mean?”

You can see what de Botton is talking about when you look at a major national news organization like CNN:

Image credit: screenshot from homepage 9/23/14.

Screenshot from homepage 9/23/14

The Latest News might be exactly what’s happening around the world right now, but it is hard to know what it might mean or what one should do with the information. Nor does it provide an indication of what facts it might be omitting or which ones need more context (visual, written, blueprint, in-person).

So, how are we approaching presentation and product at the New Mexico Compass?

We’re currently engaged in a few things that we think will help us better understand how people across the state view and use “The News” as a product, among them:

  • We’re curious to know, who owns the product? And what’s the public perception of how that ownership affects both content and presentation? We’re in the process of compiling (we think) the first “media ownership report” for New Mexico, including demographic breakdowns.
  • News orgs don’t typically do a lot of customer development. We were recently accepted into the Fall 2014 Creative Startups Accelerator, and I’ll be working with our Managing Editor Margaret Wright to dig into first person accounts—and eventually, quantitative research—to find out how people are actually using (or not using) various news sources. We’ll be using lean methodology and the MVP model, and we’re willing to do things that don’t scale so we can learn what truly matters to our audience.
  • We’re surveying and will be using UX / UI user behaviors and SEO research to find out not just what people are looking at but also give some context to why and how they view content on our site.

Underlying all of this, we’re thinking about how people discover and come back to information that matters to them, particularly when it comes to multimedia and interactive content.

So far we’ve heard from many different camps that local / regional news orgs aren’t providing information they need in formats that make sense to them. We’re determined to learn more and make the Compass a news org that matters to the community and that is a model for other local / regional journalists.

And yes, we plan to make it scalable too.

  • purejuice

    Interesting, thank you. Could you talk a little more about what “does it scale” means for digital journalism? What is the msg online journos have absorbed about it? Thx.

    • Joe Cardillo

      Good question. I think there are a couple of major things going on – one is in regards to revenue models based on ads & sponsored content. Sites like Vox Media and Buzzfeed are receiving a ton of cash from the venture capital world – for ex. Buzzfeed is at just under $100mil in private equity as of last month. They may have sections dedicated to longform or other admirable editorial content / storytelling, but they’re making their money off of linkbait traffic (aka, little effort in, high monetization out). I’d argue that’s neither sustainable over time as a business nor good for journalism…since part of the problem the news is supposed to solve is how humans discover information they can use to shape their overall perspective and daily lives.

      The other factor is that these experiments are chewing up and spitting out good journalists. If a story doesn’t get massive traffic, is it still a story or worth covering? The answer is clearly yes, but “does it scale” often translates (sadly) into the least amount of effort put in to get the most return. The cost is high, particularly for local/regional news orgs. In some ways it’s really a larger question of how to scale the human experience, which the web is *maybe* successful at in the low single digits percentage wise. No social network or news org even comes close currently to representing the discovery process that humans have innately. Welcome to shoot me a note at joe (at) nmcompass (dot) com to chat more.

      • purejuice

        Thank you, I get the linkbait issue, and the no-content journalism issue, and the burnout issue. Still not quite getting what “does it scale” means for digi journalism. Does it mean, how little time/effort can be put into vast clix stories?

        • Joe Cardillo

          Yes – in a general context for technology products asking if something scales means, for ex. if you doubled demand would you be able to quickly handle it without having to double the amount of manual work. So an example would be Air BnB, where the platform / automation should be able to handle 10x or 100x growth in new listings or reservations without hiring 10x or 100x employees to handle that growth. The difficulty in journalism / news with this idea is that no one is yet sure if the core product is content, or the platform to deliver that content…or hybrid. The latter is an easier problem to scale, but solid, well researched journalism isn’t. Hybrid will probably be the solution but it’s not being done well yet.