Thoughts on News and User Experience

As promised, Tina Roth Eisenberg has posted video of my talk from last Thursday morning at FREITAG am Donnerstag in Zurich, Switzerland. If you didn’t get to make it to the event, or you just want to relive the good times, it’s all available for viewing at or over at Vimeo. The videographer who recorded my talk did a terrific job giving you a sense of what the space was like, capturing the contrast between my ideas about digital news and the old world sensibility of the print shop-style showroom in which the lecture was held. Also, very helpfully, some of the slides from my Keynote deck were laid into the video directly, so you can follow along with the specific points I was making.

Khoi at FREITAG am Donnerstag
Above: Me talking last Thursday at the FREITAG Reference space in Zurich, Switzerland. Photo by Swiss-Miss.

Key Points

This roughly half-hour-long lecture is essentially a brief overview of my current thinking on the problems facing the news industry as it grapples with digital media, especially as seen through the lens of the nearly five years that I spent working at The New York Times. I say ‘current’ because I think that, two months after leaving that post, I think I’m still putting together my thoughts, working up to a more definitive statement about what I saw and what I see ahead.

Among the ideas I’ve been trying to refine is a simple overview of the change I’ve observed in the delivery of the news. In my talk Thursday, I used this slide to communicate the concept:

Now the news is: Journalism + Presentation (optional)+ User Experience + Distribution

You can of course watch and listen to my explanation, but I thought it would be useful to put down in writing some of the rational behind this slide here.

  • The old equation for news used to be: journalism (the reporting and editing) + presentation (laying out the news or preparing it for broadcast) + distribution (delivering newspapers or broadcasting news over the air).
  • Into that equation, digital media introduces the added factor of the user experience, or how the journalism is put to use by its consumers. Oftentimes this means entirely cutting out the presentation component, and news is transmitted in raw form, without the traditional design values of the past.
  • The news industry generally believes that its problem lies in the distribution of the content, which is why you see so much hand-wringing over monetization, licensing, rights management, etc. Solutions focused on distribution have generally been half-hearted or unsuccessful or, frequently, both.
  • In terms of rising to the challenge of digital media, most news organizations have done a much better job of using digital tools to produce increasingly rich (and complex) journalism. The response on this end has been far more robust, in my opinion, than attempts to solve distribution woes.
  • The result has been some truly terrific journalism produced over the past decade, but as I wrote in my talk, “Great journalism is its own justification. But great journalism is not a substitute for great user experience design.” By and large, the digital news consumption experience is a poor one which I think is what really ails the news industry.

That is the core idea of the talk, really. But there’s plenty more in the video, including some thoughts on why it’s so hard for the news industry to change, the tabloidization of news design, the opportunity presented by the iPad and why single-source news apps are doomed to fail, and some snarky digs at some of my former employer’s competitors, to boot. Watch the full video here.

But Wait, There’s More

Again, thanks to Tina and the FREITAG crew for having me. If you’re in or near Zurich, don’t forget that there are two more similarly-themed talks in the FREITAG am Donnerstag series, and you can find out more about them here.

  1. Mads: Fair feedback. I hate listening to recordings of my own talks, but that is definitely one thing that sticks out when I do. In my defense, I was severely jet lagged, having had to cope with my 1-year old’s own jet lag for much of the previous night. Anyway, I will definitely be trying to do better with that.

  2. Great talk. Really interesting ideas on design. I’m not sure I agree with you about how some things don’t have a presentation layer. Everything has to look like something, even an RSS feed has a design to it. It’s a very simply design, but that is it’s presentation, simple.

    Everything has a presentation layer. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to see it.

  3. Derek: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it and of course you’re right — everything does have a presentation layer. What I meant was that the presentation layer is no longer controlled by the content creators. Also, the presentation layer has been divorced from the content such that it’s highly variable; what one person sees is often/usually different from what another person sees.

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