Why is it that the majority of online news sources all look the same?
There is no doubt that news as we know it has forever changed because anyone and everyone can report on an incident live and in the moment. It's hard for the most respected traditional media outlets to break major news events in this day and age. There's even been some recent discussion online about whether or not any one outlet can break news anymore with an exclusive report because of our always on/always connected world. In fact, it's not uncommon for major news outlets to be following the social media channels to source stories as they happen. Look no further than the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed and you'll find a short-step to a tweet by IT consultant and Abbottabad, Pakistan resident, Sohaib Athar, who unknowingly busted the Navy SEAL's cover when he tweeted, "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)" as the dramatic military operation was happening live and in real-time. Things got even more Twitter-centric when Keith Urbahn (former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff) tweeted, "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn," nearly one hour prior to the official announcement from President Obama to the media and public. While CNN would like to take credit, it could be argued that Twitter is one of the many digital places where the real news is unfolding before our eyes... long before the journalists get their scoops.
What could the news look like now?
With apps like Flipboard and people saving interesting online snippets in places like Instapaper, the look and feel of our news is beginning to morph, but the look and feel has not been re-invented and this is a very curious thing. For the most part, we have a title, sub-title, byline, date of publishing, body of text and - if they're more web-centric - reader comments. Some of the more forward-thinking online publishers may include more updated information as the story unfolds, but the common/only way of knowing this is by a "last updated" insert that resides next to the date of the published piece (more often than not, it's hard to tell which parts of the content have been updated).
We fail to realize that text is now three-dimensional.
The Web is not a printed sheet of paper and those publishing content online should experiment with what that means. Because of links, people creating their own content on a similar theme and the constant evolution of a news story, we have to look at better ways to both present and keep the content fresh, up-to-date and more interesting. Recently, the CEO of an up and coming pharmaceutical company was injured in an accident. The individual was someone I knew, personally, but was - for the most part - an acquaintance. I was interested in staying apprised of their situation, but the online channel wasn't much help. The only news published online was a copy/paste of the articles that ran in the respective newspapers. It would be interesting if these types of news items became more three-dimension by allowing people with information to update the news item (perhaps the publishers could then vet this information and put a star next to items they have validated to be accurate). Pushing that idea further, the news item could then be updated but readers could go "back in time" to see how the versioning has evolved from when it was first reported. Why not allow readers to "subscribe" to the specific news item and they can be notified (by RSS or email) when the news item gets updated (and this includes entirely new articles about the same issue)?
This is what will make the digital news more interesting.
It won't only make the news online more interesting, it may actually make it worth paying for. In fact, if done well (pushing beyond just how the news is reported and looking at the overall layout and design) it could make digital news worth more than what we're currently paying for news and information. The trick (of course) is in making it better. Currently, even the most engaging Blogs and mobile apps are nothing more than an evolution of what was available in print. The hard work of making the new media worth paying for isn't only about the quality of the content, it's also about making the actual platform more engaging by design and function.
The good is news is that anything is possible. The bad news is that most media brands see it as an impossible task.
The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here: