Reinventing the Newsroom

I Chose This: Why the Web Is More Personal

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on February 23, 2010

Syracuse.com’s Brian Cubbison has posted a very good Q & A with Howard Owens of The Batavian, whose real-world experience at hyperlocal will be drawn on for years to come. It’s a solid read for Owens’ takes on advertising, working with local businesses and citizen journalism, but what really grabbed me was an exchange about digital media in general:

[T]he way people interact with digital media is much more personal.  Our digital devices are much more personal than a family-shared television, or even a newspaper, which has the feel of something everybody else is reading, too. It’s a mass media vs. personal media mindset.  So communication on personal media is more conversational, more of a mindset that communication is one-to-one, not one-to-many.

At first glance this flies in the face of the popular idea that the Web makes us fickle consumers of disposable content. You know the drill: We don’t read, unless it’s short articles formatted as cute lists, and we certainly don’t read important stuff because an in-depth story about the fighting in Marja is just a click removed from the latest starlet who forgot to wear underwear to the club.

I’ve always thought that idea was wrong, or more precisely that it carelessly assumed all Web readers behave like a few Web readers. But at the same time, I had to admit that yes, people generally read things on the Web with a certain impatience. I didn’t have to look further than my own surfing habits to find evidence that Web articles do best when they stick to a single topic, and that long-form pieces have to be really good to keep their audience. I tried to dig into how both of these things could be true in this column about writing for the Web that I wrote for the National Sports Journalism Center, arguing that understanding your audience and what it wants was far more important than any one-size-fits-all Web advice. A reader wanting to know what’s going on at noon on a workday needs to be served very differently than one looking for a better understanding of a complex issue on a Sunday morning.

I thought that column turned out OK, but had the nagging feeling that some key piece of the picture was still missing. I think it’s what Owens is talking about above. Reading a newspaper or watching a newscast, I’m interacting with a product that’s a bundle intended to appeal to a general audience, of which I’m a small part. I tailor that product for myself by choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. But searching for information online is different. I’m looking for something that fits my needs as exactly as possible.

So what does that mean?

For one thing, bundled products have an uphill battle to engage me, because by their nature they’re tailored for general audiences and the starting point of engaging with them is winnowing out information that isn’t relevant. This is why the Web blows bundled brands to literal and figurative bits.

For another, I’m going to read ruthlessly. I’m looking for something specific, and if what I read isn’t it, I’ll stop reading and look elsewhere. If what I’m reading is what I’m looking for but the execution is lacking, I’m much more likely to quit part of the way through and look elsewhere, because there may be other sources that do a better job. This isn’t true in print: If I want to know what’s going on in Afghanistan and all I have is the print New York Times, the fact that the Times’ Afghanistan story wanders off into larger questions about nation-building is less likely to make me stop reading. It’s as close as I’m going to get, and I know it.

But there’s a flipside to this that I didn’t see until I read the Q&A with Owens. If what I find online is a fit, I’m going to engage with it more closely than I would engage with a print story or the right story on the news, because it feels like it was made exactly for me. I found it and I chose it. The ruthless abandonment and the close engagement are two sides of the same coin. I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.

In the digital world, every article or product starts as an uncertain prospect for holding my attention. It has to succeed, and quickly. Online, the battle is always uphill. But there’s potentially a greater reward. If that battle is won, if an online product succeeds, I will be more loyal to it. Because I chose it.

(Update: Read more thoughts from Howard Owens on personal journalism here and here.)

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12 Responses

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  1. Howard Owens said, on February 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Thanks for the kind mention. Very nice, thoughtful response, too.

    For further reading, here and here are my earliest musing on the topic of “personal journalism.”

  2. reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Thanks Howard — and will add those links in the main piece, if that’s OK.

  3. Roy Peter Clark said, on February 23, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Thanks, Jason. Your ideas, as usual, are interesting and provocative. I want to add one definition to the mix, what Michael Gartner once described as “refrigerator journalism.” I love that term because it describes how readers in real geographic communities respond to the newspaper. Just ask yourself this question: What, if anything, would I clip out of the newspaper, and attach to the refrigerator door? Usually, it is something very personal, perhaps a wedding photo, obituary, a feature about someone you know. In our case, it was soccer and theater stories and photos about the girls.

    Emily, who is now 33, and eleven of her teammates from high school were just elected to that schools Hall of Fame. When we arrived for the ceremony, many of the parents brought in newspaper clippings they had saved for 18 years. These were precious objects, almost sacramentals, that defined the lives of our family in this specific community.

    I have not seen anything yet online that substitutes for this experience. Cheers.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 24, 2010 at 10:04 am

      Yep, that’s a great thing to add to the mix, and I love the term too. Still, I would ask if Facebook isn’t a better refrigerator. If there’s a high-school soccer story and you can immediately share it on Facebook for all of your friends and family, isn’t that enormously valuable in terms of reinforcing real-world community, particularly now that Facebook is starting to be fairly representative of more and more real-world communities? It’s a shared refrigerator, if you will.

      The sacramental aspect of this isn’t there, I’ll grant you — shared stuff on FB often feels like it doesn’t have an 18-hour life, let alone an 18-year one. But that feels like something that will emerge as FB or something like it stops being new and just becomes part of our daily lives.

      Hmm. Love this topic. More to be done there. Hmm.

      P.S. Emily is 33? Astonishing.

  4. uberVU - social comments said, on February 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by stevebuttry: Excellent take on @howardowens interview. RT @jasoncfry “I chose this” – why the Web is more personal. http://bit.ly/9XxYff

  5. Mark Coddington said, on February 23, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    “I’m going to read ruthlessly.”

    I’ve been using the same word to describe my reading habits online, so your observations ring true for my experience, too.

    I would also tie this concept to the idea of trust. If I read something that rewards my investment, I’m going to be much more likely to give the author (or site, sometimes) the benefit of the doubt the next time I read what they write.

    This might seem to go without saying, but I think the effect is far more pronounced online. If I’m a subscriber of, say, the Des Moines Register, and I read a front-page article on the housing crisis that’s particularly insightful, I’m still not too much likely to read all the way through the next article I see by that author, or the next article on housing. The trust just carry over that directly. (Local columnists are probably an exception, though.)

    But online, where niches and personal voice become so much more valuable, that connection between quality content, trust, loyalty, and a personal sense of engagement is much stronger. If, for example, Jay Rosen writes a blog post, even if the premise is initially a bit eye-rolling, I’ll read it all the way through and engage with it, because I’ve followed him on Twitter for at least a year, and he’s made my investment well worth it. I chose to follow him. I’m in.

    I liken it to music: If I hear a song that’s new to me by an artist I know and respect, I’ll listen closely all the way through, with a positively inclined attitude — even if I’m not liking the song that much. If the exact same song was made by a band I’ve never heard of, I would switch it within a minute. But the band I know has earned my respect by consistently being worth my time and listening interest, especially if I feel they’re more of a niche favorite of mine. In both the music and reading, there’s a feeling of belonging there that breeds more loyalty.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 24, 2010 at 10:14 am

      Thanks Mark.

      Totally agree on the connection to trust. It’s a virtuous circle — I chose this, I was rewarded, I will be back. What hadn’t occurred to me was that the act of choosing might be really important to the process, in terms of being self-reinforcing. I’m sure economists have a term for that and could assess the argument accordingly. (Never dreamed as a journalist I’d wind up being frustrated that I have so little grounding in economics, consumer loyalty, etc. Oh, brave new digital world.)

      Interesting to think about how as a publisher you could use this to go up the ladder: If I can figure out the context within which you liked that Des Moines Register piece (or a succession of them) and offer you more of the same, maybe I can convert you to a loyalist for that writer, or that topic, or the DMR itself….

  6. [...] to digital equipment. Building off of Owens’ comments of the personal nature of online news, Jason Fry muses about the uphill battle that news faces to win our attention online. But if that battle is won, Fry [...]

  7. [...] of “refrigerator journalism” as discussed by Roy Peter Clark in the comments on this post. And I’d say the same thing about other side-bet businesses that connect readers with local [...]

  8. [...] to digital equipment. Building off of Owens’ comments of the personal nature of online news, Jason Fry muses about the uphill battle that news faces to win our attention online. But if that battle is won, Fry [...]

  9. [...] I Chose This: Why the Web Is More Personal – I#039;m not sure why it is a suprise that content that works means that people will come back. But the challenge for MSM is getting this idea to percolate and to work in their systems. [...]

  10. [...] stories in any medium — ink, pixels, skywriting, cuneiform — it is true that the Web has made people into ruthless readers, with fingers hovering over the back button. As Keller notes, the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook all [...]


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