Our readers are evolving the way they consume information, and as journalists, we must evolve too.
I grew up in a newsroom. My mother was a longtime reporter for the Fairmont Times-West Virginian. My sister and I would accompany her on reporting trips and some of my most cherished memories come from that. But through those trips, she instilled on us the essentialness of her work—the work of journalists in keeping our country free.
She had done lengthy investigations of Grafton, West Virginia’s corrupt Economic Development Authority and later a corrupt City Manager. And every morning, her work would be delivered to the 18,000 or so who subscribed to the Times in North Central West Virginia. Her investigations would lead to real change in Grafton, with many city and county officials resigning or forced out of office.
The preamble to the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act became something close to scripture in our house. “The people, in delegating authority,” West Virginia state code reads, “do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” She still takes special joy when she gets to include that passage in a story.
But today the circulation of the Times is down considerably since the mid-90’s when my mother worked there. In 2013, its audited daily circulation was just barely above 10,000. It’s one thing to report when you knew (or at least believed) most of your audience had a habit of just picking up your paper or turning on your broadcast at 6 p.m.
But how do journalists fulfill our essential mission to the Republic when we’re almost entirely reliant on the Facebook algorithm and whether we or not we can convince those who do click to not only read but also share?
We’ve thought a lot about this at my startup, We Heart West Virginia, and we think the answer is embracing a philosophy we’re calling “Frictionless Information.” At WeHeart, we’re looking to build a sustainable model for regional impact and accountability reporting. But we don’t just want to do the reporting, we want people to read it.
The idea of Frictionless Information is to remove as many barriers between the information we want to deliver and our audience as possible. Anything that might slow down the absorption of information is friction. To be fair, it’s what alot of people are already doing, and we’re just spelling it out a little more formally as our company grows up.
To us, Frictionless Information means matching a story with the best content type (a list, an article, a video) and the best platform for delivery (our website, social media, virtual reality, etc.) while removing anything that may trigger someone to tune out unnecessarily.
That friction could be anything:
- How can we best present this piece of information: Should it be a long narrative piece? Should it be a list? A quiz? Video?
- How can it best be delivered: Should it be only on our website? Should we upload the video directly to Facebook? Should it be virtual reality?
- Have we anticipated personal biases that may trigger a consumer to unnecessarily tune out: Should we use that ugly lime green color on an infographic? Because he’s so polarizing, must we include a Donal Trump comparison with a local politician, despite it positive or negative?
- Will the headline actually get people to click or will they just keep scrolling by?
As an example, the Associated Press offered a wrap-up of West Virginia’s legislative session in March. Or at least, I assume they did since I didn’t see it cross my newsfeed. At WeHeartWV, we offered our own: 8 Things That Are Now Law in West Virginia. Since its publishing in mid-March, that story has seen over 17k clicks. Which is not a ton, granted, but we’ve only really been around since January. And getting anybody to click, much less 17,000 times, on a “legislative wrap-up” story (I fell asleep just writing that phrase) is an accomplishment to me.
I had a boss once who was a real stickler for AP style. Every time I used a % sign, I got a lecture. Percent, in AP style, is spelled out. Who the fuck cares? Granted, AP style can, in fact, help remove friction by offering a conformity otherwise lost.
But in other situations, it can add friction or prevent the addition of an element that would remove it. The abbreviation for West Virginia in AP style is W.Va. Who writes W.Va. except newspaper reporters? Is adding a funny gif to a lighthearted story AP style? Certainly not. And don’t get me started on the traditional inverted pyramid—my goal as a digital media company is to get you to the bottom of the page, and the next piece of content, anyway I can.
A frictionless headline (one that probably has a curiosity gap) is also essential. We had a breakout viral hit at WeHeartWV this morning with this article: This West Virginia High School’s Awesome Senior Video Just Won The Internet. I know some editors have come to hate “won” or “broke” the internet, but that aside, this was the alternative: Nitro High School Students Celebrate Graduation in Video. Which is more appealing to a wider audience?
That story doesn’t really fall into our essential mission, but it’s worth discussing how the headline removed friction. More people are interested in West Virginia than Nitro High School and the qualifiers “awesome video” and “won the internet” made us feel good for the students who produced it. (The video had a really positive message by the way, set to Andy Grammer’s “Good To Be Alive.” If you didn’t know, West Virginia is in a recession and it’s really not the ideal economic climate to graduate into.)
But in this fractured media landscape, in a brave new world of the attention economy—where the only things in my newsfeed this morning were Celine Deon and Hold The Door—we can’t afford not to get in the mix. It’s easy to write a story about Game of Thrones and get somebody to read it. Try doing that over a state budget debate.
Our readers are evolving they way they consume information. We must evolve too. We can’t sit on the sidelines and let things like AP style and inverted pyramids and a ton of banner ads and paywalls to hold us back. We have a job to do and a public to serve.