Designing journalism to be used

Excellent essay by Jonathan Stray calling for better “product design” in journalism:

Since journalists don’t make tangible objects, the product is defined by the user’s experience. It’s whatever the user interaction with the news is. It’s picking up the paper at breakfast, or watching CNN in bed, or waiting for your mobile app to update the headlines on the bus. And yes, the product includes the stories delivered by the medium, but those stories alone are not the product; they never were. The stories were packaged into a newspaper or a television show, and that was the product. Or more precisely, the newspaper and the television show as the user chose to use it was the product.

Much of the ongoing future-of-journalism discussion focusses on how reporting needs to change, and rightly so. But that analysis stops short of the user, and how journalism is actually used — or could be used.

Digital news product design has so far mostly been about emulation of previous media. Newspaper web sites and apps look like newspapers. “Multimedia” journalism has mostly been about clicking somewhere to get slideshows and videos. This is a little like the dawn of TV news, when anchors read wire copy on air. Digital media gives us an explosion of product design possibilities, but the envisioned interaction modes have so far stayed mostly the same.

This is not to say that the stories themselves don’t need to change. In fact, I think they do. But the question can’t be “how can we make better stories?” It must be “who are our users, what would we like to help them to do, and how can we build a system that helps them with that?”

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