What online journalists can learn from information scientists

ulken-headshotkopieI recently took part in a fascinating ‘unconference‘ in Seattle aimed at information professionals of various stripes — librarians, information architects, interaction designers and the like. It’s called InfoCamp, and it seems like a natural venue for online journalists too — though there were few in attendance.

The sessions covered such familiar topics as information visualization and user-created content, but from a broader perspective than we journalists usually look. This got me thinking: Why should there such a gap between the information gatherers (us) and the information organizers (them)?

Why don’t we look at our content the way librarians do? It begs for classification, cross-linking, mapping and contextualizing.

Why don’t we look at the design and functionality of our websites the way interaction designers do? Most of our sites would benefit from some serious user testing and usability enhancements.

In that spirit, here are some ideas I picked up at InfoCamp that online journalists could steal from information scientists:

- Personas give your audience a face.
At university, I had a broadcast journalism professor who used to implore students to ‘remember Mabel’, a hypothetical retiree who represented the regular news viewers of the small TV station where we worked. When a student would pitch some wacky, avant-garde story idea, the prof would ask, “Do you think Mabel cares about that?” In the digital world, it’s easier to get a more precise picture of the audience, but it still helps to have some typical users in mind. Interaction designers call them ‘personas‘, and often give them names and pictures and even biographies. Mabel probably represents only a fraction of the audience of most news sites, but an audience could be typified by several different personas. And, while personas won’t give you feedback, it can be a useful exercise to put yourself in their shoes on occasion and assess how well you’re meeting their needs — particularly if you’re an editor making coverage decisions. (More useful links on personas.)

- Users don’t want what they say they want.
If there was a theme at Infocamp, this was it. Information architects and user experience experts repeatedly cautioned that user feedback should be taken with a grain of salt. Of course it’s valuable, but often users don’t really have enough experience using your site to know what they want, which could result in them asking for features or content they won’t use. Better information can be gleaned by observing how your site is actually used — through site analytics and, perhaps, user testing — and making changes accordingly.

- A/B testing helps you optimize content.
As user testing goes, it’s about the simplest form: You create two different versions of something — say, a design element or textual cue — and show some of your users the ‘A’ version and others the ‘B’ version. Then you measure the behavior of the two groups to determine which version worked best. You might test user clicks on blue underlined headlines versus black non-underlined headlines to see which results in more clicks, or you might test the language on a button (“Sign up now” versus “Click here to register!”). News sites could extend this idea to the content of headlines. The Huffington Post has experimented with testing two headlines for a story and, after analyzing early results, going with whichever headline generated the most clicks.

- Let the community curate content.
First it was the mechanical term “user-generated content. “Then it was ‘user-created content’, which sounded more respectful of the users doing the creation. The next buzzword — though it’s a mouthful — could be “community-curated user-created content”, the idea that users should be in charge of moderating each other. The jargon is my invention, but the topic was raised in a fascinating discussion on the motivations and behaviors of users who post content to the web. We already see community curation on a lot of sites. Wikipedia is an obvious example, but the idea is also represented in comment boards that allow readers to “vote” posts up and down. Few news sites have seriously embraced community curation, though — perhaps because they fear giving up too much control.

- Go for the long tail.
A slide from Vanessa Fox’s keynote presentation on search showed that the proportion of traffic arriving at news, sports and entertainment sites from search engines has grown by as much as 30% year-over-year. This trend underscores the importance of search engine optimization for news websites. Some elements of SEO are technical in nature, but others — such as ensuring key terms are represented in headlines and stories — are the domain of editors. The biggest potential benefit in search engine optimization comes not on breaking news but on the huge volume of archival content that news sites accrue over time. Features such as topics pages can help maximize the findability of archived content through search. (See my previous post on the introduction of curated topics pages at Germany’s Spiegel Online.)

Eric Ulken

Eric Ulken is oud internetredacteur van de Los Angeles Times. Hij nam ontslag bij de krant om in 2009 de wereld over te reizen, op zoek naar trends en ontwikkelingen in de journalistiek. Hij bericht over zijn bevindingen in een maandelijkse column voor De Nieuwe Reporter.

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