Updated February 25 2016 from a March 2011 post.
I was asked recently by Steffen Konrath at News 3.0 via Twitter. What I are you looking for in a news consumer user experience? Here is my answer.
Liquid Newsroom context
I am an avid tearer and categorizer of paper-based media (true in 2011, but I have mostly migrated to digital content these days – 2016). I read voraciously, tear out articles and keep them in file folders by category. On active projects, I capture web pages and PDFs to Evernote using the same categories, cross-referenced to projects. Not everything is available to me on the web, not even from the magazines I subscribe to physically, so sometimes I resort to inserting scans so I have everything in one place. When time is a constraint, which it usually is, I end up with scans or pictures, and Evernote, not to mention mind maps and notes that are all acting as input to research and to my final product.
I know there is a better way, so here is my specification for my news consuming experience:
A single content consolidator. I want a way to capture a trusted source, where I define trust, into a single consolidator. Ideally, the consolidator uses a visual metaphor to represent categories. The consolidator should pick up content and categorize it as soon as it is released. I want this consolidator to be client-based, but I also want it cloud replicated, and I want it available on all of my platforms. I want one place to go for what I am interested in. Once I start building my library, it becomes a combination of what I have actively entered and tagged, and what the system has included based on what is already there. I should be able to differentiate what curated from content collected via automation.
A single consumer subscription model. I want every subscription I pay for, virtual or physical, available to me in all media that I choose to collect in, at the same release time.
Standards. Individual articles, regardless of how they are displayed, should have a single standard for a container. If I drag an article into my consolidator, that drag, like an RSS-feed, should not differ from publisher-to-publisher. How the publisher flows that container into some larger container, like a magazine, is up to them. But at the point I engage with a specific piece of micro-content and put it into my consolidator, it should revert to a standard content definition, including metadata (author, publication date, topic, sources, bias, etc.) and associated mark-ups like headings and links.
Referencing. Ideally, the system will generate references for places where I use the content, and these references should be both internal and external. If I am writing a paper, I should be able to create a footnote that can be exposed externally when I publish (and be checked for the validity of the link and allow for repairs) and give me an internal reference so I can see the context when I want to, regardless of the state of the original source material.
Visual drag-and-drop, e.g., pick up a source, along with all of its metadata, and drag it onto a category one or more categories of my choosing. This could be done with some kind of application development derived browser, but I like mind mapping, so why not a visual representation of my concept map where new content is absorbed by the visual clue that represents the idea.
The business model
Once this type of system is available, I can see the evolution of value-based pricing, and more targeted advertising (not that I’m a big advocate of advertising, but I do recognize who butter’s the web’s bread). My actions to subscribe to categorized content streams would be visible to publishers so they could suggest content to me that meets my increasingly vivid profile of content consumption. Not only will the categories be visible, but my timeline of interests as well. Publishers would be able to see what is trending for an individual.
Let me contrast this with the iPad. I have several independent sources. The Economist. Flipbook. New Scientist. Various magazines in Zinio. And then there are the RSS feeds (which given that standard, can feed into many other containers). And that is just to name a few. Outside, in most cases, the ability to e-mail a link or a page to myself, these sources all have their own data model. None of them offers a long term way of categorizing the content I want to retain. In some cases, I can bookmark content I want to keep, but it remains within the app, and the gotcha is when I need to synthesize an idea, I have to go across all the apps, hoping I catch all of my bookmarks and notes.
Trust, influence, and reputation. I think this approach would also create a more meaningful way to gauge trust, influence, and reputation. If I consider Klout [a now-defunct social media scoring system], my score would not be made up of people following me on Twitter, Facebook , or LinkedIn, but people who referenced a single blog entry in another blog entry. The services for the consolidator could include exposure of data from which companies like Klout could derive trust relationships (e.g., people frequently quoted on this topic are collected by these people who seem to be credible curators of the topic.). Trust will be defined in the eye of the consumer. The influence will be a combination of semantic modeling of concepts combined with the reach of the content creator (influence mostly meaningful in the context of a topic for which one is said to be influential) and reputation can be arrived at using repeat referencing, a noticeable lack of “un-following” and other traits.
Copyright Protection and Rights Management. I haven’t mentioned copyright. I don’t think it is relevant. I am a consumer. If I buy something once, I should have the right to use it in any form that it is packaged in (that includes the digital package that contains the metadata associated with a quote or even an entire article). I believe that about music, video, and news. I say use, not redistribute or sell. Given this is news, I should be able to access the digital version of a magazine I subscribe to, or get an audio version or embed it into my personal reference library. Rights management should be so light and passive so I don’t know it’s there, and it should be so non-restrictive. Only in the most dire cases, should rights management limit my ability to work with the content. If I reference an outside article, the objects that I embed should be able to test if the reader has rights to the same object and allow or disallow them reading it. If they don’t have access, a hint, and reference to the original content should be substituted. Much content is already freely available, so new models of compensation, recognition, and revenue sharing, driven by trust, influence, and reputation may (should) emerge.
Attention Management. Finally, all of the analytical capabilities should not be lost on me, the consumer. I should be able to learn about what I’m interested in, how diverse my sources are, and even receive suggestions about sources or pieces of content that I should pay attention to. The system should build a rich profile that could then be used to inform my writing and research projects. As I peruse one source, the system could suggest other things I might want to read. I would see the analytics going well beyond any human tagging to make sense of my content and find relationships passively as it digests my collection. We see hints of this with Evernote popping up related personal notes content when Google returns a search.
Why magazines will still have value: We aren’t always on. We want to learn and we learn by browsing. We make relationship discoveries and add to our conceptual breadth by engaging with content that isn’t about what we are interested in. In fact, we find new interests by being exposed to new things. So magazines, or other content consolidators, will still have an editorial role and higher purpose, to expose people to new things.
Of course, many magazines have become very specialized, so they are already hyper-focus on an audience, which then leads to a hyper-focus of the ad sales team, which is more likely to sell an ad based on a clear market value proposition (e.g., we know these people are likely to buy your stuff) than a more general approach to marketing (wouldn’t it be nice if these people were aware of you). As Google has discovered, however, all of these diverse data become powerful inputs used for understanding and correlating individuals. I can sell to a category of micro-subscribers in a much more targeted way than even a category magazine could. I would know, not only that a person liked fishing, but that they like fishing in a particular place using a Shakespeare Reel.
Magazines, physical or not, will still have a role in helping create an editorial cohesiveness for a topic, and if they can’t take on that higher-order task, I would challenge their strategic direction.
What I described, or even the more primitive options available today, erode older value propositions for print content, as subscription rates clearly show (and widening free access via libraries). If you want to hold subscriptions, you need to offer content with a strategically differentiated value proposition — or risk the recycling bin of history.
Personalization isn’t enough. The Liquid Newsroom needs to be intelligent, proactive, and visual. News needs to not just be passive information, but retrieval extensions of our mental models. Can the BBC, CNN, Condé Nast, and others find ways to aggregate access, to cooperate, so that they truly offer input to their consumers in a way that allows them not to just be informed citizens, but actively thinking citizens capable of creating extensions to their own memory.