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How do we create a need for news?

Many commentators worry that we’re segregating ourselves in ideological bubbles, exposed only to the views of those who think the same way we do. There’s something in that concern. But for 96 per cent of these web surfers the bubble that mattered wasn’t liberal or conservative, it was: “Don’t bother with the news.”

Product developers like to use ‘personas’ — archetypes that embody a set of goals and behaviours — to better understand the customers they are designing for. In digital news companies, designers might differentiate between the following personas:

💁: “I need to stay on top of what’s happening in the world”

🕴️: “I need to research a particular issue for work”

👨: “I need to know what’s trending”

But while these statements may represent different customer segments, they also share the common feature of expressing a curiosity about the world. 💁, 🕴 and 👨️ all belong in the 4 per cent of people who ‘bother with the news’.

The entire business and practice of journalism is built on the foundational assumption that people come to us with a need to be informed. Thompson Reuters brands itself as ‘The Answer Company’. The Economist is for “the globally curious”. The New York Times has staked its future on being “an authoritative, clarifying and vital destination” for its readers.

There’s nothing wrong with catering to a target market; it makes good business sense to do so. And 4 per cent of the online world is more than enough potential paying customers to sustain a good number of profitable newsrooms.

But few, if any, of us became journalists to write for 4 per cent of the world. To the extent that journalism has a civic as well as a commercial imperative, being irrelevant to 96 per cent of the population ought to be seen as an urgent crisis.

Especially when our failure to help people meaningfully and substantively engage with the world is leading to issues like propaganda, hate speech, fake news, and biased content, as Danah Boyd pointed out in Did Media Literacy Backfire.

So even though there is still so much more we can do to better serve people who need and seek out the news, we must also try a different approach. One that asks:

“How do we create a need for news?”

There are no easy solutions, but we as news media can start by focusing on how we can equip people to ask the right questions, rather than just feeding them what we think are the right answers.

Instead of trying to make it effortless for people to understand a complex and chaotic world, we can strive to make it inviting for them to explore that world, and reflect upon it.

This is not the general direction that our community of digital journalists, data visualisation experts in newsrooms, and journo-coders is heading in. Instead, a consensus is forming around the belief that simplicity, relevance, and directed storytelling works (and by implication: complexity, serendipity and exploration don’t work in news).

The New York Times’s Archie Tse encapsulated this thinking in his Rules for Visual Storytelling (2016 edition):

The roots of this thinking goes back at least a decade, to Bret Victor’s canonical Magic Ink paper. There, he suggests that information software design should be approached primarily as graphic design and consequently, that interaction should be minimised, if not entirely eliminated.

The foremost concern should be appearance — what and how information is presented. The designer should ask: What is relevant information? What questions will the viewer ask? What situations will she want to compare? What decision is she trying to make? How can the data be presented most effectively? How can the visual vocabulary and techniques of graphic design be employed to direct the user’s eyes to the solution? The designer must start by considering what the software looks like, because the user is using it to learn, and she learns by looking at it.

Magic Ink
Bret Victor

These are good design principles that we follow at the Financial Times. But problems arise when everyone takes the easy way out — choosing only to ask readers to scroll, for example, instead of trying to make something “spectacular” happen. Or, when we design only for 💁, 🕴 and 👨️ because we pretend to know what their needs are, and because we know that they will bother with the news.

Too often, we fail to imagine that ‘the viewer’ could be motivated by anything other than self-interest:

If we’re really really honest about ourselves, what’s the one thing that’s endlessly fascinating to us and we could talk about forever?

Right. Ourselves.

Narcissism is a powerful motivator, but it isn’t the only one. And when it becomes the main driver behind the design of our entire media landscape, from data-driven stories to social media, it creates undesired side effects. News stories, after all, don’t just teach their readers about how the world is changing. In aggregate, the media environment they create also conditions how people interact with the world and what they expect of it.

People have become overly critical of journalists for the same reason that they’re overly critical of government. They’re critical of journalists for giving them exactly what they want — stories tailored to them, pared down, pre-chewed and dressed up with pretty pictures — and then they say the media isn’t informing us enough.

Why Americans have come to worship their own ignorance
Tom Nichols, interviewed by Brian Bethune

If we design news stories solely for narcissists, how can we be surprised to discover a world lacking in empathy and curiosity?

I am lucky enough to have a chance to explore these issues on the inaugural FT-Nikkei fellowship programme. I will be in San Francisco until May 30 for the fellowship, and will be chronicling what I learn on this blog. To summarise, these are the questions I will be exploring:

→ Fellowship Section