Rebecca, overload & the future of journalism online

Ame Otoko, Akihabara "My Brain is Full," July 9, 2009, Creative Commons Attribution

Ame Otoko, Akihabara "My Brain is Full," July 9, 2009, Creative Commons Attribution

I had the privilege of spending last year at Stanford as a John S. Knight Fellow, focusing on innovation and change in journalism. I spent a great deal of time at Stanford’s d.school, where I helped create a class called Redesigning Journalism. We brought together students from across the university to break down our assumptions about what journalism is, and build prototypes to express what it might become.

My team (consisting of myself, a Stanford MBA student and undergrad, and another Knight Fellow) designed for the millennials — digital natives who have access to more information than any generation in history, but also feel like they have little control over their information intake. (Read the Associated Press’ fascinating and important study of younger news consumers.)

We interviewed/observed many Stanford students and other millennials, and quickly learned that, while being a serious news consumer was a shared value for many, there was a strong tendency to feel that news on the internet was by turns boring, violent and depressing.

Instead, they gravitated towards content that “caught their eye” and gave them a feeling of empathy and connection to the rest of the world (sites like The Sartorialist). Building from that insight, we designed a prototype for a new way of consuming the news we dubbed “NewsZen.”  We envisioned a new cadre of “News DJ’s” who would take raw evidence of news events (video, artifacts, photos, etc.) and remix them into an immersive experience of world news that day/week/month.

The core idea behind NewsZen is this: To deliver journalism to audiences online, you need to connect emotionally first in order to create a pathway to the intellect. In other words: Help people feel something, and they’ll stick around to think.

That’s an insight I think is helpful to keep in mind as we attempt to design an enticing and informative online journalism experience, not just for younger audiences, but for all of us feeling enervated, thinned out, and overloaded by the sheer volume of information we are bombarded with online.

For more, see Economist correspondent Andreas Kluth’s chronicle of our project  and San Jose Mercury News’ Columnist Chris O’Brien’s.

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2 thoughts on “Rebecca, overload & the future of journalism online

  1. Interesting idea, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem, which is that serious, depressing and violent news is what is considered important to report. Upbeat, inspiring news is relegated to the weekend section or buried far from the front page. How many people died in Iraq this week is on the front page and how a soldier helped an Iraqi is in some op-ed column where you’ll probably never see it. What does it take for people to believe that good news is newsworthy?

    • andrewhaeg says:

      What was interesting to note is that, after testing our prototype, and being asked which of the stories presented via NewsZen that she wanted to dig into more deeply, Rebecca chose the story of Hamas leadr Ismail Haniyah. Can you imagine a more predictable, violent, boring or depressing story? The point I took from this was that a feeling of human connection to a story can engage tuned-out people in the most difficult stories. Creativity and a sense of empathy are key.

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