Despite the fact that they are in financial distress — or perhaps because of that distress — both the Boston Globe and the Washington Post are experimenting with some interesting new formats for finding and displaying the news.
There are a couple of different ways that newspapers and other media companies have chosen to respond to the inexorable decline of their former market dominance: one is to moan about how Google is stealing their content, and talk incessantly about the good old days, and the other is to try and adapt to the shifts going on around them — by experimenting to see what their readers respond to and learning from that. It’s refreshing to see at least a few newspapers choosing the latter path, including theBoston Globe and the Washington Post.
Neither newspaper is doing particularly well, in the larger scheme of things: the Globewas just sold to a local hedge-fund billionaire for $70 million — which means it has lost a staggering 90 percent of its former value in the last two decades. TheWashington Post, meanwhile, was just acquired by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, after the paper’s former owners admitted that they couldn’t see a future in which they didn’t have to cut more staff and continue to lose money. Not a great environment for innovation, you might think — but you’d be wrong.
A Twitter-based local news aggregator
As Justin Ellis at the Nieman Journalism Lab notes in a recent post, the Boston Globe‘s in-house research lab has built what amounts to a Twitter-powered news aggregator called 61Fresh — a tool that pulls in tweets based on a number of factors, but most importantly whether the content comes from a number of sites and services of interest to Boston residents. The algorithm-driven experiment is designed to produce a kind of Techmeme-style news aggregator, but one based on geographic parameters rather than topic-specific ones.
Every 10 minutes, the algorithm goes searching for the most viral news items. And because it uses Twitter as its source material, it isn’t just a soul-less feed of the latest headlines, but a snapshot of what people in the community (or at least connected to that community, since some may be ex-residents) see as interesting content worth sharing — whether it’s about Tom Brady or a local fire.
Is this going to somehow save the Globe by generating millions of dollars in revenue? Of course not. But it might help the company figure out how content works now, and how social sharing helps drive engagement, and that certainly couldn’t hurt as it tries to carve out a new path — not to mention that those working on it could develop new skills that might come in handy.
A visual interface for mobile news
Along the same lines, the Washington Post is experimenting with a visually-driven news interface called Topicly, which it launched this week: in a nutshell, it takes the top stories from the newspaper and sorts them based on the number of updates — and then displays them as a series of images tiled across a page, so that when readers click on a topic like “Chemical Weapons,” they get all of the stories the newspaper has written that related to that topic.
Cory Haik, senior director of digital news for the paper, told Ad Week she thought of the interface as a good way to present news for mobile users who don’t want to scroll through a lot of headlines, since it’s easy to see what the top stories are and what they are about (Circa, the San Francisco-based news startup, is also trying to rethink news for mobile). The new Post feature also has its own advertising format, which should make it easy to insert native ads into the stream as well.
Again, this probably isn’t going to make the difference between profitability and unprofitability for the Post, but it is a welcome sign of experimentation and a desire to learn how to present content differently for a mobile, digital audience. And to be fair to the Post, the paper has a long history of that sort of thing — from a Facebook news reader (which didn’t wind up working out) to its algorithmic news-recommendation app Trove and a socially-driven advertising unit.
Since no one really knows what the future of digital media looks like, it’s worth experimenting with as many new things as possible — in part because the next new thing always starts out looking like a toy. So kudos to the Post and the Globe for doing so, despite the gloom all around them.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly