News week, day 2

Today started a little better than yesterday on the news project. With two days’ worth of news I was already starting to see themes that would extend across the week, stories that would be worth condensing and summarising in a weekly round-up. But I’ve also started wondering if I’m trying to tackle the wrong problem.

I have two main dissatisfactions with reading news online. First, some of the priorities of what appears on “news” websites don’t match my own interests at all. Often this is a matter of all the opinion, lifestyle, sport, competitions, etc stories cluttering the place up — they only amplify the feeling that the websites aren’t created by or for people like me. Sometimes it’s simply odd priorities in which stories feature in the actual news sections. You know, rubbish like this.

Second, the design and structure of most of the websites get in the way of reading the news. The worst are sites like the New York Times or the Times which split some stories onto multiple pages, or Salon or the Times of India which throw out pop-up advertising windows like it’s still the twentieth century. But even more reasonable sites are full of clutter, distracting the reader from the story they’re on the page to read, and slowing down page loading times.

If these problems are my biggest concern, it means I’ve started this project by tackling the wrong one. In reading lots of news and attempting to summarise and re-write the stories I’m trying to fix the journalism and writing itself. And that’s not something I have a problem with. Well, there are often stories in which the journalist has no idea what they’re writing about, the kind of thing that gets picked up by Ben Goldacre, or stories about the Internet where I can tell they’ve got things wrong. But with most of the important news stories I have to assume they’re accurate. I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough to re-write them better without a huge amount of research.

So, now, I’m not sure what the point of this project is. The bulk of my time is being devoted to reading a lot of news stories so I can re-write them, when there’s not much wrong with them in the first place. This feels like a stupid. and increasingly dull, use of my time.

So that’s a bugger.

While I wonder whether or how to continue, there are a couple of related things that I can see could be useful.

A weekly news summary could be good at bringing together related strands of stories that are treated separately day-to-day. For example, stuff about Obama’s budget, or about climate change, could usefully be brought together and summarised. It still requires an awful lot of reading and writing though.

The other thing I’ve found myself wanting while reading news stories is more context. Almost any story that mentions figures — profits and losses; budgets; temperature changes; growth rates; numbers of accidents, deaths and disasters — would benefit from historical data, ideally presented graphically. It’s so hard to understand whether these figures are actually big news when you have little understanding of their context. The Guardian’s print edition, for one, often pulls statistics out into large, eye-catching numbers that always seem a little pointless. Perhaps a better use of the space would be a small graph showing the statistic’s historical value.

So, there we go. Planning speculative things in public like this is a bit awkward when it appears that they’re not working out. I’ll have a think about what to do. Any thoughts appreciated, as struggling through vague projects on one’s own can be very frustrating.

Comments

  • Adding context to data would be a huge triumph. That would definitely be worth doing. That always frustrates me about news. Is that number meaningful? What was it last year? What is it as a proportion of other numbers? How many people are going to die anyway? They never do that stuff.

    And, although I can see how this public planning of a speculative thing might be awkward for you, it’s fascinating to me. So, you know, thanks.

  • (Tortured metaphor ahoy)
    The front page news today is like the end of a stick of rock, with the headlines as the little letters. But break off the stick on the middle, and you find the same items, just different headlines.

  • Along with the diagrams from their print edition, The Guardian also publish various statistics in their Datastore section/blog/thing, presumably with the aim of encouraging people to be able to understand context (and provide nice visualisations). It’s an admirable step, although I’m not sure how many third parties are really providing visuals (as opposed to just reading the figures in a spreadsheet). Nonetheless, it’s worth noting, perhaps.

  • So, what happened?

2 Feb 2010 at Twitter

  • 09:02am: @GuyP Whoops, weird, thanks. Comments were enabled for the post in Movable Type, but the form didn't appear on the page. It's there now.
  • 12:10pm: Shouldn't be surprised, but still amazed at sites (TimesOnline, NYTimes) that split stories over a few pages, like they don't want 'em read.
  • 12:40pm: @badzelda No, it's presumably so they get more page impressions. Or they think people are idiots and don't know how to scroll.
  • 01:44pm: BRIG ambles into the 20th century... the refridgerator and (get this!) micro-wave oven have arrived!
  • 01:51pm: BRIG's micro-wave oven does not include a "clock function", but that's what pocket chronographs and grandfather clocks are for.
  • 03:37pm: I may not have found the ultimate solution for reporting the world's news, but I have put the door back on the fridge.
  • 10:08pm: Wondering how to re-assign my Skill Points.