Annotated Newscast

In the late 1990's, after more than ten years of playing music videos on TV and competing with MTV for the newest way to make this visualization of radio interesting, VH1 launched it's show Pop-Up Video. That year, 1996, marked the year of boredom with the music video. It was the year that the network decided, these viewers have seen the videos, they know what to expect from new ones, now they want some addition to their experience.

So the pop-up video was born. The pop-ups appeared throughout the video to supplement the reader's experience with tidbits of information about what was going on in the video. Some told behind-the-scenes stories of the video's filming, some revealed the hidden meanings behind song lyrics, some were silly facts for laugh value. All of them added to the experience of watching a music video.

Broadcast news today is in much the same position that music videos were in ten years ago. There is a seemingly never-ending supply of it. Very little of it is something we've never heard before. We have adapted to be able to perform other tasks while we "watch from across the kitchen counter (I know I keep my eyes on my fingers when I'm cooking dinner and watching the news, not the screen). Broadcast news is quickly becoming just background noise.

But what about if we take the idea of pop-up video and apply it to a nightly newscast? What if we make the visual relevant again?

In our age of celebrity newscasters (Andersoon Cooper, Rachel Maddow, Katie Couric) who wouldn't want to know anecdotes about Anderson's travels in post-Hurricane Katrina or what sort of small talk Katie made with Sarah (Palin) before the cameras turned on? In our reality-TV obsessed world, it's the more information the better.

But on a more serious level, some sort of pop-up or annotation could be used to supplement serious segments too. For example, a definition pop-up for stories on the Middle East. How many broadcast news viewers know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim? There may not be time in the newscast to remind them every day, but there is visual space. And what about a map? I'd bet there are more than a few TV viewers who aren't sure where even the staple news locations, like Guantanamo, Mumbai or the West Bank, are located. Why not have a world map to point out the location of every story in the newscast? It would be a visual reminder of where news is happening in the world.

If we move this Annotated Newscast to the web, we have even greater options. By providing links to stories from other news outlets, we could redirect viewers to explore the stories that interest them with even greater detail. We can link to opinion articles about news events reported on the broadcast. We could link to official studies and journal publications referred to in the broadcast. Remember anchormen saying, "Visit our website to...find your polling station/...write your senator/...see if your child's toys contain lead and have been recalled"? Those days would be over with a direct link that could take you straight to the relevant site. The possibilities are endless.

The web also opens up the opportunity to target different demographics with annotations with different content and in different styles. Imagine an Annotated Newscast with a target audience of sixth-graders. The annotations would remain on the screen longer to account for their slower reading pace. The background might feature brighter colors and more attention-grabbing designs (even sound effects!). The content would be adjusted for the younger audience also. The definitions would be far simpler and the facts might include something as elementary as "Barack Obama is the 44th President. George Washington was the first."

Alternatively, imagine a version of the Annotated Newscast for a well-educated professional. This would feature many more links to sophisticated news stories in publications like The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc. It may also feature short five-line biographies of key players in congressional news, with facts about their party affiliation, their home state, their voting history. In addition this Annotated Newscast may feature more technical explanation for financial, environmental, or political concepts that are glossed over in broadcast news. And certainly this would include many links to expert opinions dissecting the news stories.

The Annotated Newscast shows exceptional promise to multi-outlet news conglomerates. The Tribune Company, for example, which owns multiple print and broadcast outlets throughout America could use an Annotated Newscast to refer viewers to stories posted on their other websites, thereby generating more traffic for all of the company's holdings.

And best of all, this program generates more traffic on the web without adding additional content. Rather than increasing the amount of news available to a viewer, it keeps constant the quantity of news while making it easier to navigate and, ultimately, understand.

The Economics of Information

Bree Nordenson has eloquently summarized the larger problems caused by information overload in her cover article for the Columbia Journalism Review. Her seven-page article articulates many of the points already mentioned here on this blog. She ponders whether we are more tuned in or more tuned out than we used to be, she asks whether all the information available on the web has made us any smarter and she examines the rise of niche media circles.

But she goes where I haven't yet gone: she looks at the economic impacts of information overload.

As I've said before information in our society has become (or perhaps always was but has now been revealed to be) a commodity. That being said, it can be traded in a market economy just like sugar or grain. And with the freedom to publish and freedom to obtain that has been made possible by the web, we have an entirely free-market economy to trade our commodity: information.

But, Bree says, if we want to make money we are going about the trade all wrong. In an attempt to earn prestige and glory for our news outlet (whether it be the Los Angeles Times or a self-published blog), we are flooding the market with up-to-the-minute breaking news reports and tsunami-sized waves of data.

Not only does this overwhelm the consumer, it overwhelms the market. With a constant demand and this massive increase of supply, basic macroeconomic principles tell us the value of that information will go down.

So, what to do then?

My elementary knowledge of economics tells me we have two choices:

1. Reduce the supply
2. Increase the demand.

Now, reducing the supply of news may initially seen like an impossible task. But in fact, by supply, Nordenson doesn't mean the actual amount of information on the web (which is continually expanding and almost never contracting). Rather, she means the information that is new, that information that we might call "news" in the loosest sense of the word. The amount of new information added to the web has increased sharply in the past few years. This has been a large factor in devaluing the product of journalists and nonfiction writers.

Certainly the prospect of discouraging some web writers from updating their blogs, or cutting back on their wikipedia edits, or reducing the content they add daily is unlikely. Even journalists for well-established news organization have taken to spreading their writing thick on the web with "web exclusives" and story-behind-the-story blogs in addition to their print content uploaded for the web. Nordenson says, "While it is naive to assume that news organizations will reduce their output - advertising dollars are involved, after all - they would be wise to be more mindful of the content they produce." Which gets us to our next point...

We know that information, and news, is readily available on the Internet, so how might we, as journalists, increase the demand for that information? Nordenson has an interesting suggestion: she says that good explanatory journalism can actually increase the demand for more information by sparking interest in a subject and making that subject easily understood. She sites, as an example, an episode of This American Life, the radio program with Ira Glass. For the duration of a full hour episode, the show explained the housing crisis and the factors that lead up to it. The programs was a great example of explanatory journalism on a subject that was not readily understood. But the program served to increase the demand for news on the housing crisis. Once readers (or listeners, in this case) understood the basics of the problem, they sought out more information to fill in the specifics. Media critic Jay Rosen says that good explanatory journalism like this creates a "scaffold of understanding in the users that future report can attach to, thus driving demands for the updates that today are more easily delivered." The programs responded with a podcast and another follow-up episode a few months later.

Thus, by simply doing a great job at the most basic tenants of reporting and explaining, we can make our product more valuable to readers. And if we can create a whole network of follow-up stories, peripheral knowledge, links, graphics and interactive features that build on a very basic understanding, then we can create a group of products that both have an audience and that will create a demand for themselves.

I truly believe that this is how we will rescue the news business. We can create a product that transcends time (you can see the original, most basic report from three months ago side-by-side with today's latest update), exists on unlimited space (with the opportunity to link across the web to all sorts of resources from primary sources to expert opinions) and creates a thriving market for itself at the same time that it creates a more educated public.

Tribune to File Bankruptcy

The reports are official, the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets, will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to an email from Sam Zell today. He explains:

I am proud of the work we have done at Tribune in the last year. I’ve seen
strong determination to take hold of this company and put it on a new
course. As a result, we’ve reduced costs, gained market share, and laid the
groundwork for creating a new business model out of traditional media. This
restructuring will give us the time we need to build that model, to secure
sustainable and growing cash flow, and to achieve the success the talented
partners in this company deserve.

What News Should We Choose?

I've talked before about "information overload" on the Internet - too much news, facts, and data for any one person to comprehend - and the effect it has on our ability to understand the world around us. Well, Curtis Brainard in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review has suggested an alternative phrase for this problem, and I must admit his is better.

The problem is not information overload, but rather access-to-information
overload. Since well before the creation of the printing press, there has been
more news available on a given day than any one person could follow, and more
information than any one reporter could process. It’s just that today both
reporter and reader have much greater access to the news and information, and as
such, there is a greater need to employ filters and other tools to help us
organize and manage the deluge.
Great point, and I commend him for it, but, like so much of cjr.org, this article fails to go on and prescribe a solution to the problem.

Brainard suggests using Internet filters, bookmarks and RSS feed to sort through the information found on the web. Sure, it's good advice but it doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize you'll need to organize this tidal wave of information somehow. What he fails to suggest is what criteria readers should use in organizing the information they find.

Should they target a specific politician, political party or issue that they feel passionately about and subscribe to every RSS feed that mentions it? Should they sort news by geographic area, assume what's closest to them is most always the most important in their daily lives? Should they visit all the websites their friends and coworkers visit, so they will be able to keep up in water cooler conversations? Or should they bookmark only the news sites that give them the news they want to hear - all about honors students and adopting puppies with no indication of war or economic decline?

We all know that there is an "access-to-information overload," we see it everyday when we sign on to our web browsers. What Brainard needs to tell us is, What news should we choose?


Lee Abrams Speaks

I've had my eye on Lee Abrams for a while now, but just recently I had the opportunity to meet him face-to-face. He was in Los Angeles to speak at an LA Press Club event about the future of news. Great topic, great speaker: of course I was there. You can check out what Abrams, the Chief Innovation Officer for the Tribune Company, had to say about the Los Angeles Times, the employee cutbacks and the changing nature of storytelling in a five-part series of you tube videos.


Keeping in Touch

Just before Barack Obama took to the stage for his acceptance speech in Grant Park, he emailed his supporters with a personal note of thanks and a promise: “I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.” That promise came after months of a campaign whose ultimate strategy seemed to be keeping in touch: with emails, text message and a comprehensive website.

But now that he’s been elected, it’s more important than ever for Obama to keep in touch with a citizenry lost in the technical jargon of a recession and increasingly unaware of the world around them.

The political climate isn’t unlike that of the 1932 election, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat the incumbent Herbert Hoover for the presidential spot. Like Obama, Roosevelt inherited a depressed economy, a massive unemployment rate, and a public on the brink of loosing hope. I believe that, like Roosevelt, Obama has the potential to massively change our country for the better.

But in order to do that, he must keep in touch.

Roosevelt’s fireside chats, a series of thirty radio programs directly addressing American citizens and explaining the complex financial issues surrounding the Depression, were massively popular and greatly affected his influence as president. Roosevelt faced a Republican-dominated legislator, and the massive amount of letters that poured in to senators’ and representatives’ offices after a fireside chat were enough to pressure those legislators into passing some of the president’s more radical measures.

Obama will enter the White House with a Democrat-dominated legislator, and so he will not need help in passing legislation. Obama, instead, will need help in keeping face. That is to say, he may need to keep the public on his side in a war against the media.

The media has been anti-Bush, and anti-conservative, for so long now that we are apt to forget that the media isn’t naturally inclined to be anti-conservative, but rather anti-authority. The Watergate legacy of news media has left it with ample reason to doubt those in power, regardless of who they are.

And the media may have only been energized by the audacity of the Bush administration. The amount of news dedicated to politics and the amount of excitement concerning that news has only increased in the Karl Rove, WMD, wire-tapping era. And the outrageous Sarah Palin impersonations and other election news only elevated that level of elation.

That excitement regarding anti-authority political reporting isn’t likely to die down once Obama sits in the Oval Office.
In fact, because the 24-hour news networks admittedly pander to public interests, the amount of political coverage may increase given Obama’s popularity. And as long as Obama remains popular with the public, we may see and increase in favorable coverage of the White House.

But should Obama lose the trust and faith of the public, should he fail to deliver on his message of change, or should he abandon his message of hope, he could lose the favor of the public and the media will, no doubt, follow.

Thus, it is integrally important that Obama follows through on his promise to “be in touch.” He must do as Franklin Roosevelt did to win the affection of his supporters and his opponents (for fear of Fox News) and he must keep the trust of the American people.