I’d like to rant about something only spuriously connected to topics my group covers (finding the single version of truth among document versions and data, threaded discussions, tagging and hyperlinking, searching).
Every news story is a thread. It connects backward through history and will be updated with new information over time. Most news websites ignore threading and treat each story as a self-contained entity, frozen in time. At best, one gets links to a tag that yields a bucket of other stories related to a broad tag like “technology” or “Africa”. Consider a narrow story that will only produce a few articles, such as a missing boy story on CNN, a lawsuit involving a celebrity or official accused of doing something they deny, or an amazing breakthrough in cancer research that promises to yield new treatments. You often read the “introductory news” story, think to yourself you’d like to know how that turns out, and then never see the resolution because the next articles in the thread escape your attention. I suspect news outlets are partly to blame since they see the accusation or possibility itself as the story and then don’t care about the ending. After all, a possibility is what gets people talking around the water cooler. But for me, I’d like to just subscribe to that story and see the resolution when the ending is known.
When it relates to a titillating accusation that turns out to be false, this loose thread causes a great deal of harm. Studies of retractions have shown that almost no one sees or remembers the retraction, leaving the introductory news story as the sole impression on readers.
If news sources provide metadata-based ways to subscribe to threads they have a better chance of keeping readers who may otherwise set up a Google alert using keywords that will catch stories in competing publications. This is a little more work, but not a lot. Journalists have to know the last story their publication published on their topic and would have no trouble pointing to it. The resulting timeline of articles on a story thread would be trivial to track and allow users to navigate with a little metadata.
This doesn’t just apply to current stories that I want to follow in the future, but also to stories in the past that come up in searches with no connection to their storyline. If I find an introductory story that’s 5 years old, how do I find out what happened next? My only chance is to wade through the noise in a full text search and hope I find it.
The closest I’ve found to this is The New York Times website. They show the historical thread as “past coverage” and the broader tags as “related searches”. The only omission is that one can subscribe to tags, but not the story thread, and that means they do not show up in “My NTY” as an increasingly personalized set of stories one is interested in. Here’s what it looks like – this is the bottom of a story called “Corzine Proposes Steep Rise in Tolls“.
So, news organizations:
- Understand that stories are threads
- Add metatags that help your journalists and the readers to follow the threads over time
- Enable searches to find the most recent update on a story, not just a list based on a relevance calculation of how often the search terms were used in each article or a list sorted in reverse by time but including all the noise a full-text search tends to include
- Do periodic audits on loose threads to identify stories that need to be completed. Don’t leave readers hanging with just an introductory article written based on their potential interest
- Allow RSS/ATOM subscriptions to stories (specific stories, not category tags) so readers can follow them. Maybe readers will be less likely to cancel a subscription when they know how many story threads of personal interest will be cut. And they will be more likely to return to your publication to find out what happens rather than finding its continuance in your competitor’s publication.
- A side benefit of connecting articles into a story thread is that if a mistake is made (such as giving the wrong name of someone convicted of something – oops), you have a better chance to properly informing your readers and minimizing the damage (to the innocent person and your company in the inevitable lawsuit) if you make it very easy for readers to find follow-up stories which may contain corrections
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