I live in Austin, Texas, and teach at Texas State University, a short drive down I-35 in San Marcos. One thing I look forward to every year with great anticipation is the annual South By Southwest conference that happens in mid-March. Many are aware of the gigantic music festival associated with this event, but a smaller group of tech and media aficionados know about the fantastic Interactive gathering that occurs just before the musicians come to town. It is, by far, the most important event my students and I attend each year. Emerging topics at SXSW quickly become the “next big thing” within a few years. While attending SXSWi this year, an emerging theme that I noticed was that of User Experience (UX). At least one panel had UX in it’s title, and it was a common topic in many of the sessions and overheard in various hallway conversations. Where “content is king” was once the mantra of online publishing platforms, it now seems to have been replaced by “UX is king.” I have shared this observation with many people, and am often met with an initial look of puzzlement followed by the question, “What do you mean by that?” It’s a tough concept for people to grasp, particularly journalists, who traditionally have had control over every aspect of newspaper consumption, other than actually turning pages for readers. Others have a general understanding of user experience in regard to usability and accessibility standards in terms of making a website that has proper functionality, design and navigation that can be accessed by a wide range of users, including those with disabilities.
But, more and more frequently, when UX is discussed, it is about what users can do online. The social networking sites, like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube, have seen to that. These online tools, in most cases originated to facilitate interpersonal communication, are increasingly being co-opted by news organizations so that they too can provide a meaningful experience to their users. The concept of news itself is being redefined as “hyperlocal” when news is as much about what your friends are doing right now as it is about the latest national and international story. And increasingly, breaking news is more quickly disseminated on these online platforms than in their traditional media counterparts (e.g. several examples using Twitter include images from the Hudson River plane crash and early information about the China earthquake). With the increasing usage and reliance on mobile platforms, such as the iPhone, users expect their news to be delivered anywhere, on demand and with special applications (such as iPhone apps), and often expect to be involved in the process via contribution and engagement. News outlets are competing for the attention of consumers with a broad range of professional and amateur communicators, and some are trying innovative ways to engage the modern news consumer. Through these interactions, users are gaining an expectation of participation, regardless of their location or platform of access.
And, while users don’t necessarily seek monetary compensation for their participation (they seem to derive other forms of social capital from the experience), it is unlikely that they will be willing to pay for content that they are helping to create and publish. Combine this with consumers being accustomed to getting news for free and for having many free alternatives to traditional media content, and the chances of ever being able to charge for the majority of online content (either through subscriptions or micro-payments) become close to nil. So, how are news organizations supposed to build a business model around an increasingly interactive online experience?
First, it may be helpful to understand what the user experience might look like for a news site. Some news organizations are beginning to understand their role beyond that of content provider to that of architect of user experience. One of the best examples to date is the way in which The New York Times is engaging audiences with their data-driven interactives and WordTrain phrase presentations, delivering news as a two-way experience. One of my favorites, although it has been around for quite some time, is their Rent vs. Buy interactive graphic, that offers the user a completely customizable experience in understanding the factors involved in the decision to rent or buy a home. We talk about this in my classes and discuss how a traditional story about renting versus buying would be written: interview a few people about their decision process, get some anecdotes, talk to a few experts. But, the individual reader would be left to factor their own variables and make a decision. The New York Times interactive provides a tool that helps the user customize their own version of the story, modifying variables and making assumptions relevant to their personal situation.
The New York Times is also an innovator in a form of crowdsourcing a story via their WordTrain feature. On election night, users were asked to submit one word that described how they felt. The only other piece of data that was collected was their party affiliation. Then the story of the night unfolded as users were able to watch the most prominent terms march across the screen in a visualization. Another popular WordTrain asked users about their feelings regarding the economy and their employment status. The data requirement, and thus the users’ participation, are minimal, much like the parsimony of Twitter’s 140-character limit. But the result is an astounding look at the pulse of an audience’s sentiment.
The New York Times recently unveiled Times Wire, a Twitter-like feed that pushes short summaries and links to articles based on user preferences, and Times Reader 2.0, a desktop application that downloads stories and presents in columnar format. The Times is also experimenting with different mobile formats including iPhone applications and is one of three newspapers that are in partnership with Amazon to subsidize the price of the Kindle e-book reader.
The term “hyperlocal” also relates to the user experience as news becomes redefined as anything that is of local interest. Our idea of news now includes what our family and friends are doing, along with interesting links, as well as local, national and international stories. Everyblock.com is a project created by former Washington Post journalist/developer Adrian Holovaty and funded by the Knight News Challenge that allows users to engage with and contribute to hyperlocal information based on their exact location. News becomes items like restaurant reviews and sanitation ratings, neighborhood events, local crime statistics and blog commentary. And, Everyblock.com has recently announced an iPhone app that makes the hyperlocal experience position-specific, engaging GPS to make the information relative to the user’s exact location.
Other features that are influencing news engagement are Digg-type popularity ratings and blog comments that allow users more input into how stories are presented. And, many news organizations are going off their platform and engaging tools like Twitter to present news and information in a way that is personal and timely. The Austin American-Statesman‘s Twitter account (@statesman) is much more than a simple RSS feed of stories. The main proprietor of the account, Robert Quigley, uses it to promote stories, break news, get feedback and reply to users, often in a way that promotes a personal side to the publication. This activity takes place outside of the newspapers’ main online presence. But, Twitter offers a variety of ways to repurpose it’s platform, by embedding RSS feeds or widgets of streams or by using the search tool to search tweets for trending topics and real-time sentiment.
These are just a few ways in which news organizations are experimenting with new presentations of information and ways to engage users. It is still too early to tell which, if any of these innovations will be successful or long term, but these directions are certainly hopeful signs that journalism can and will have a continuing valuable role in society.
So, as more news organizations begin to understand their role as user-experience creator, what questions can be asked that could facilitate an understanding of potential business models for the future? Here are a few:
- What expertise is your organization gaining with these new roles? A few things that come to mind that could be developed into business models include creating interactive Web experiences for clients, providing access to data (although privacy concerns would need to be addressed) and managing live, interactive video streams.
- How can information be repurposed on an ongoing basis? The ability to search, filter and provide meaningful, topic-based archives can continue to drive visitors over time. Consider how content can be aggregated much like the History of Las Vegas project at the Las Vegas Sun.
- What niches can be tapped that can drive subscriptions or higher ad rates? Can your organization create communities around sports, parenting, local events or issues.
- How can you measure the success of interactive environments? Eric Ulken recently wrote an excellent post on this topic (“Measuring User Engagement: Lessons from BusinessWeek,” April 16, 2009). In it, he details a number of internal (comments posted, return commenters, times e-mailed time spent on page) and external (tweets/retweets, Diggs, Delicious saves, inbound links from blogs) metrics employed by Business Week. Too often, metrics take the form of hits or pageviews, but that connotes a mass-media mentality and is restrictive in its relevance. It will be important to understand what people are doing with your content and on your platform and how that translates to influence and ultimately profit? But, it may be a two-step model with long-term benefits. Different metrics may be applicable to measuring different activities for achieving a wide range of goals.
There is no one model, like the subscription/ad-based model of the past. There are no easy answers. But, there are models that can provide inspiration in moving forward. In an article in Wired early last year and in his upcoming book Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired>, outlined several models of free distribution. These models aren’t new and don’t mean that everything is free to everyone. But they do represent the potential for providing some content free of charge in an environment where distribution and hosting costs are approaching zero. News organizations need to look for ways that they can charge a small percentage of their audience that will support the efforts of the entire organization; they need to justify the value of a well-placed ad in a hyperlocal, niche-driven platform; they need to explore relationships with partners that can use their audience as a platform for selling physical goods and services; and they need to understand the value of non-monetary compensation, in engaging in labor exchange or using their platform to promote brand awareness, reputation and community.
And finally, news organizations need to understand that an active user is a desirable user and can create significant value for the organization, as described by Henry Jenkins in his 2006 book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Create an experience that people are passionate about and sell that to advertisers by emphasizing the association with the good feelings of the interaction, like Coca-Cola’s presence on American Idol. The value is more than just exposure. It is in the way that a user feels about a community in which he actively participates and how that feeling can be transferred to a sponsor. Concert promoters and beer companies figured this out a long time ago. Associating your product with a popular musician, a live experience in which people are passionate, has value and ultimately drives sales.
Since I live in Austin, known in many circles as the live music capital, I talk to a lot of musicians about using social media. They are dealing with the same issues as journalism, an old revenue model that no longer works and an unclear understanding of new models and platforms. I keep repeating that it’s all about engaging your fan base and creating a community around your music. Everything else will flow from that. It’s not easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But if you are committed to what you do and are open to innovation, there is much more to be optimistic about than pessimistic, and there are opportunities for more rather than fewer in engaging new models. I offer these suggestions as a starting point for media companies to begin the hard work of soul searching to figure out exactly what they do and to identify their value and unique competencies. I realize that none of this is exactly earth-shaking nor entirely new. But, I hope it provides a context for considering the role that innovation and creativity have in the future of journalism. Find inspiration in others outside your immediate purview, those in other industries or endeavors. Look to innovative startups and labors of love. Read publications like Wired that address the culture of technology. And, attend South By Southwest.
I am not directly affiliated in any way with the South By Southwest conference. I have attended for the past several years, and this year, my Advanced Online Media course provided comprehensive coverage of the event at sxtxstate.com.