At a Confab in Phoenix, Lamenting (and Inventing) the Future of News

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better filtration tools to help combat information overload. Yet at the same time, other conference participants were focusing on ways to use the Web to provide readers with even more information—for example, the context, history, and background relevant to major news stories. Tristan Harris, for example, talked about Apture, his San Francisco startup, which makes software that turns every word in a news story into a potential search query linking to Web pages, images, and videos. Now that the congenitally curious have so many more ways to explore whatever interests them, the only way to keep the slightly-less-curious from falling catastrophically behind is to lower the barriers to exploration even farther, Harris argued.

I’m not sure how to fix information overload. My own feeling is that journalism is all about “more”—otherwise we wouldn’t get up every morning to write yet more copy. But online journalists probably do need to work harder to provide useful and succinct context, beyond the “topic pages” that amount to a discouragingly huge wall of links to our own previous articles.

Finding readers is about search engine optimization. Get used to it. Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Land, led a heavily attended session on journalism and search. (Other journalists love Danny because he’s a really nice guy and a world expert on the search industry, and he doesn’t charge for his advice.) These days it’s easy for writers—and their bosses–to gauge the impact of each article just by looking at the traffic statistics. So it’s dumb to leave potential page views on the table by failing to do a few simple things to help your articles show up higher on search result pages, Sullivan argued. One is avoiding puns and allusions in headlines. While these may add spice to the writing process, they just make articles harder to find for readers. Another is checking Google Trends or the keyword search tool at Google Adwords to see what popular words or phrases come up in relation to your topic, then putting those words into your headline or lede paragraph.

Obviously, it’s possible to overdo this, and companies like Demand Media have created vast assembly lines to churn out articles that exist solely to pander to the search engines (as former Demand Media executive Sam Jones admitted at News Foo). But organic (i.e. non-sponsored) search results are such a huge source of traffic for most news sites, Xconomy included, that SEO should be seen as a natural part of the business—no different from the old process at print newspapers of rewriting headlines until all the type fit within the available space. If that makes us all less “creative,” so be it.

The Internet erases geography; paradoxically, it may save local news. I was impressed by the number of people on hand at News Foo from online operations that are all about serving audiences at a “hyperlocal” level. Xconomy is one of these—we focus on high-tech entrepreneurship within specific innovation clusters like Boston and the Bay Area, on the theory that this is where the really interesting and instructive interactions happen. Other examples included Windy Citizen (Chicago), TBD.com (Washington, DC), Technically Philly (Philadelphia), Everyblock (localized news feeds for 16 cities), Intersect (place-based storytelling), LocalWiki (expanding from Davis, CA, to many more places) and Spot.us (“community-powered reporting” in a variety of locations).

What’s happening here, in part, is that the Web lowers communication costs, making it possible for journalists to talk to smaller groups of people than … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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