Journalists typically recoil at the thought of writing anything that resembles marketing copy — or even from thinking of news as a product. But we’re already long past the age when an established news brand was all you needed to determine the relevance and quality of news. If journalists truly believe the quality of their coverage is so great, and if their product is news, then why not market it directly?
I’m not talking about marketing news brands. I’m talking about marketing the merits of each story, right in the story.
Erin Kissane offers sage advice for writing product pages that I suspect could, with a twist, also make it easier for people (and search engines, and the semantic web) to grasp the value of quality news:
“Most product pages need to answer these questions:
- Who is the product for?
- What is the product?
- What does the product do for its target user?
- Why is the product better than the available alternatives?
“Stupidly simple, right? But the lack of answers to these questions is what leads to thousands upon thousands of wasted hours (and more money than I want to think about) spent writing, serving, and reading meaningless dreck that doesn’t inform users, promote products, or help anyone.”
Now: What if news stories included similar context? At least through some sort of categorization or tagging on the back-end. That could enhance relevance in search results, semantic web applications, or site features like optional pop-up boxes or an iGoogle-like personalized news interface.
That revised list might look like this…
- Who is this news for? Communities or demographics most likely to be interested or involved.
- What kind of coverage is this? Breaking news, update, alert, feature, interview, event report, data, analysis, backgrounder, info graphic, timeline, fact box, photo, commentary, how-to, topic introduction, etc. Most news venues already address this to some extent by section heads, but that’s usually more about topic than type of content.
- How might this news help its target audiences? I’m not exactly sure how to best handle this, but example benefits might include civic empowerment and government oversight, personal financial stability, understanding the local economy, personal and public safety, knowing your neighbors, etc. (Help me think this through, what are your ideas on this one?)
- Why is this news better than available alternatives? Here’s where being transparent about journalistic processes and expertise can really shine as a selling point — crucial in an age where most people have easy access to multiple news sources for coverage of virtually anything. What about “Reporter has 15 years covering education issues, including three years in this city.” Or: “All facts verified and/or corroborated.” Or: “This reporter is not affiliated with this issue or any related organizations.” Or: “Highlights Native American community impacts and perspective.” Or: “Eighth report on this unfolding story.”
These kinds of things often get discussed in a newsroom when planning coverage and writing/editing a story — but communities also would find this context useful, I think. It strikes me that news stories often assume either that people are able and willing to read between the lines to figure out this stuff out, or that they don’t really care about it. But in fact, these criteria help define relevance. Spelling them out could save people time and uncertainty. And: In an era of information overload, obvious relevance (not content) rules.
Clarifying relevance and quality context for each story (at least on the back end, but possibly also directly presenting it to communities) might help demonstrate the value of quality coverage. That’s not something that news orgs, communities, or individuals can afford to keep taking for granted.
Right now, I’m unclear how exactly search engines might use this information. I’ll investigate that further. So I’m thinking in the near term it might actually make sense for news providers or aggregators to either provide direct access to this information, where available, from stories. Or they could create personalizable interfaces (highlight stories related to local schools), or integrate it into site search (so you could, say, easily find backgrounders on a particular topic).
But in the long run, I suspect that adding this kind of context, in the form of metadata, might be very useful indeed to semantic web applications that relate concepts and context. Once we get beyond facile keywords and categories, there are many layers to what makes news useful. The semantic web might be the key to everyone — including journalists — getting more value out of quality news.