on Jul 10, 2014
July June The Atlantic had an article titled Why Audiences Hate Hard News—and Love Pretending Otherwise. It says what I think a lot of people have been afraid to say: The trashy stuff everyone says they hate is the stuff they’re actually willing to read. The celebrity gossip. Top ten lists. Photo galleries, usually of beautiful people or ugly deeds. Lazy “what new terror is killing our children this week?” type moral panic. Inflammatory quotes, taken out of context, trimmed to their most provocative phrases, and re-arranged into headlines.
We can complain all day about how much this stuff sucks, but it’s what people read. It’s what they share on Facebook. It’s what they comment on. International news about complex geopolitical issues? Not so much. We seem to think we need those stories, but we’re happy let other people do the work of reading and thinking about them. This isn’t just a problem with news. Everyone claims to dislike trash culture like reality TV, Michael Bay movies, and toothless vapid pop music, but that’s what the public consumes. It’s what people will pay for. To a certain extent it’s unfair to blame a news organization if it’s simply reflecting the preferences and habits of the audience. How dare you give me what I want! You should instead make less money by offering up a product I’ll ignore!
It’s like getting mad at McDonalds because people don’t eat their salads. Dude, the salads are there. Eating them is your job.
But I don’t think you can blame the entire problem on the filthy peasantsI’m not a filthy peasant. I just showered.. A big part of the problem is that our news organizations are stuck in 1950. News stories are written like newspaper copy: Intro paragraph, details, background, public reaction, byline. That makes sense in print, but it fails to make use of the strengths of the medium. It would be like introducing TV news to the public by having a static shot of a guy reading the newspaper out loud. And to be fair, early news shows were pretty much that. It took us a while to add things like picture-in-picture of related footage, and a text news crawl at the bottom.
Not one link in the first five paragraphs. Hamas? Gaza? No link to the event that originated this particular rash of violence? Why are these sides fighting? Who shot first? WhyObviously the answer is “it depends on who you ask.” And that’s fine if the story doesn’t tell you. It just needs to acknowledge the question before moving on.? This is a news story written for someone who already has a complete grasp of the situation. Which is a minority of the population. Which explains why almost nobody reads it.
If I was telling you this story in person and you weren’t already up to speed on this stuff, you would stop and ask me these questions. You’d need that context before you could even begin to care about the he said / she said between the various leaders. In an ideal scenario, I should be able to find out about the Six Day War, Yasser Arafat, and the United Nations Partition Plan, all without leaving the news site.
The article does eventually get around to giving the background of the conflict, along with some links. But that doesn’t happen until you’re 500 words in. So if you’re trying to catch up on the news you have to scroll way down the page and read bottom-up? Is that how this is supposed to work?
I don’t think people are nearly as averse to news as they seem to be. What people are averse to is hassle, and reading real news is a hassle compared to reading almost anything else on the web. I say this as someone who forces himself to read international news and is meticulous about avoiding celebrity gossip in all forms. I’m supposedly the target demographic here: A guy who actually wants to know what’s going on. And while I find the subject matter interesting, actually reading about it is a chore.
A while ago I had a good three or four day stretch where I didn’t read any news. I don’t remember why. I was probably coding. When I came out of my accidental news blackout I tried to get caught up. ISIS was fighting in Iraq! I hadn’t heard of ISIS before. I read the top story, and the previous story. Both told me what ISIS was doing without explaining their overarching goals, their leadership, or their area of influence. I’m glad I already knew about the basic breakdown of Iraq into Shias, Sunnis, and ethnic Kurds in the north, because the article didn’t even hint at that. I had to go back to the previous day’s news to find the introductory story and get caught up. And I had to find that article on my own. That’s madness. Reading a major news site is like reading a version of Wikipedia with no cross-links, a terrible search function, a habit of beginning every story in medias res, and a popover ad on every third document. Who has time for that? No wonder people just want to read self-contained, easy-to-digest fluff pieces. Everything else is a research project and a scavenger hunt.
Note how “sticky” Wikipedia is. Same goes for TvTropes. They do for prose what Google Earth does for maps. You can stand way back and look at the big picture, or you can zoom way in and examine a minute detail. The strength of the net is the ability to make small articles that branch out into larger ones, giving the reader freedom to adjust their reading.
You wonder what something is? Click on it! And while you’re reading about that you’ll probably run into something else you didn’t know, or had forgotten. Pretty soon you’ve got a half dozen tabs open, you know a bunch of new stuff, and you forget where the whole adventure began.
You want more clicks on your news site? Make more links to click. Did a story mention Obama? Make his name a link that takes the reader to a 100-word overview and a link to the last 50 news stories that mentioned him. Yes, basically everyone knows who Obama is, but people will click through just to see what it says. And when they get there, they will likely see something else that makes them curious. Click, click, click. There’s the pageviews you’re so hungry for.
Vox is a recent effort to make news more accessible. I applaud this. It’s a huge step in the right direction, although I suggest we could do even better. Rather than a 2,000 word introduction to a topic, the average reader would probably be best served by a 200 word overview that links to 20,000 words of detail. I know this sort of wiki-like structure takes time to build. Which makes it all the more frustrating that large news organizations are spending all their time making dead-end news articles that only offer information to the already-informed.
Yes, french fries will always be more popular than salad at McDonalds. But that doesn’t mean we need to sell salads in heavy, hard-to-open containers. No degree of effort will make reading about ISIS more immediately satisfying than looking at pictures of cats, but we could be doing a lot better than we are now.
NOTE: It should go without saying, but bringing up Obama, Iraq, and Israel does not leave an opening to argue politics. Let’s stick to talking about internet news. And please try to be be patient with each other. The intersection of news and politics is always kind of fuzzy and often results in a lot of proxy debates between partisans. This is natural. But this is also not a great place for that sort of thing.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.