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Here’s how we should be doing news on the web

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(Hint: Think radio. Another hint – it’s a conversation – remember?)

Howard Owens was right – we should never have begun dumping our printed paper onto the web. It’s been a disaster — sucking enormous resources and energy, requiring, massive, multi-million $ CMS’s, producing little of real value, and blinding us to the real strength of the medium.

Online news is lot more like radio than print.

Online news lives in three dimensions — height, and width on the web "page" yes, but also TIME. It exists in time, it is not frozen in place the way a print story is, gathered and crafted and then embedded in wood pulp and for shipment hours later to a distant consumer.

Online news is a ongoing conversation, it’s a "Hey! Did you know that Elliott Spitzer was snagged by anti-terrorism, money-laundering laws?" followed a little later by a "Oh! And you’d better head home a little early today, there’s an Alberta Clipper due to hit town about 4pm."

Forget the print product — if people want that they should darn well pay for it.

Here’s how we should be doing news on the web.

We should publish a river of news (which Dave Winer – father of RSS – has been advocating for years), a torrent fed by many streams: international, national, and local. Professional and amateur alike, full stories and blog-like links to the best of the web. Breaking news gets priority. Speed is the altar upon which we’ll sacrifice our young (reporters).
The river would flow at a pre-determined rate (unless events overtook it) such that the freshest stuff would take 3 maybe 4 hours to be pushed off the page by the weight of the river behind it. Then fully tagged and commented, it would flow off into some kind of archaic, category-rich, dated, news museum, a sectioned-off thing that would probably bear and uncanny resemblence to the websites we all have today.

But that’s not all — it’s like radio – we can program it. And so we should.

My "aha!" moment here came in one of my WebU classes when a reporter (Melissa Dalton, from the Record) complained about the Globe and Mail’s web site that "they’ve got all this soft news, featurey stuff over here (on the left). I don’t want to see that first thing in the morning. First thing I want practical stuff. Show me the features in the afternoon."

Carry the world’s news  and local news as it happens – get it into that stream as quickly as you can – but that accounts for only maybe 1/3 of the stories told by the average news staff. The rest – the features, the columns, the how-to’s , the recipes, the advice columns, the editorial cartoons – should be programmed throughout the day to meet the readers needs as they change during the day. First thing in the morning, I want the weather, maybe traffic. I want to know what’s happened over night that I should now about. Equip me to walk out that door. But my lunch time, maybe I want something more entertaining, diversionary. By 3pm I might be looking for what to do that night, or what to cook etc.. The stream changes as the day grows old.

And it’s a conversation, remember?

We should not only thread conversations and comments from readers with the relevant story – we should pull out the best  and drop them into the stream along with the journalists work. I’d even (oh heresy!) insert clearly marked advertising into that stream.
And I’d make a lot of readers – and advertisers – very happy.

Bill
(photo from David Plotzkys Flickr photo stream)

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