So Long Sections?

Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of real and virtual ink devoted to what the future of newspapers might be (although I would prefer if there were less writing and more doing). I’m not interested in rehashing the teeth-gnashing and grave-dancing in so many of these pieces but instead I’m interested in the way the structure of newspapers will change when they move to a web-only environment. This is the first of a few posts to explore that.

So what might change? For starters, consider the newspaper section. If you look at a newspaper from 100 years ago, it’s shocking to see how much content from various beats is jumbled onto pages next to each other. This might be tolerable for a newspaper of only 18 pages, but as newspapers grew in size and scope — In 2000, the New York Times published its largest weekday newspaper ever of 174 pages — it became necessary to organize stories into sections. Sections make sense for a printed product. They enable a physical organization that allows readers to pick the content they like without an index by pulling out what they like and ignoring the rest. This becomes a selling point in itself for the hypersectionalized Sunday newspaer as highlighted in this New York Times ad for the Weekender (and ably parodied by the 92nd Street Y Tribeca here). Sections are also reflected in the organizational structure of a modern newsroom, where each desk is an autonomous crew of reporters, editors, designers, etc. all working to create their part of the newspaper.

On the Web however, sections don’t really make sense. We don’t need the physical grouping and arrangement of stories, because we don’t have anything physical to group. We can find the content we want by searching for it, rather than pulling out a section of pages. And yet, if you visit any newspaper website, you’ll see the print sections staring right at you with their stories bullet-pointed below. And even if you go to online news ventures, the sections are still there. For instance, here is the organization of the Huffington Post: Home, Politics, Media, Business, Entertainment, Living, Style, Green, World, and Chicago. You can imagine how a print version of the Huffington Post would be organized by that alone. Google News has similar groupings. The Daily Beast is a little cheekier (Cheat Sheets, Big Fat Stories), but once you click into one of those you see the same sections (arts, science, etc.). This is not to say that classifying content by its sectional subject is useless, but it’s funny how a physical scheme continues to predominate online where the need for such an approach is no longer necessary. And how such an approach is stifling serious investigations into other ways of organizing the news.

In many ways, this is akin to your computer’s user interface. Unless you’re one of those people who does everything in Emacs, you probably interact with your computer via documents, folders, and other concepts designed to make the computer easier to learn by a novice. This Desktop Metaphor is why we interact with our 2009 computers by pushing around little icons of things that a 1950s secretary would recognize. What’s wrong this approach? Well, what isn’t weird about pretending all sorts of data are little documents we can shuffle around virtual file cabinets? And as we add more interlinked and indexed content to our lives, the folder metaphor gets more stretched (what would the physical analog of an alias be? A search folder?). So, why does the desktop metaphor stick around? Possibly because most alternatives often resort to a eyecandy gimmickry more at-home in a science fiction movie and the perceived learning curve is too great to switch. But mostly because we’ve all been trained to think in folders and documents (just like Google’s greatest triumph has been to make us search in Google’s style). The Desktop Metaphor lives on because through being around so long it’s now become natural to computer users.

So, in that sense, my headline is misleading. Sections will probably persist online, but not without their own drawbacks. Take the issue of context. Articles in the physical newspaper gain an implicit context by their location in the newspaper (is it on the frontpage? is it in the metro section?) that is easily lost online, where that context is not so clear, especially when read in aggregators or search results. In this sense, Google is to newspaper sections what the iTunes store has been to the album. For instance, why the New York Times has published so many articles about Twitter in April? In the printed product where things run in the Dining, World, Technology, etc. it’s clear that each story has been produced by different sections working independently (the bottom-up view). On the website where every twitter story falls under Technology, it seems like an overtly directed plan to incessantly promote twitter (the top-down view).

More importantly, I feel like the sectional viewpoint creates artificial silos that compartmentalize the news. Take the really big news stories of our time — the economic meltdown, swine flu, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. — and it’s very easy to see how parts of these stories touch multiple sections. But the sectional organization obscures the holistic impact of these events by inviting readers to discard parts of the story because they only like reading about national news and not business, etc. Not to mention the difficulties presented to a reader who wants to get up-to-speed quickly on a topic. Picture instead of sections, a topic-driven organization that would provide background and content tied to the big picture rather than the location where the print article would run. Would a newspaper without sections still be a newspaper? Perhaps not, but it’s time we killed sections, so the newspaper might live.

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  1. You make a very good point. I think your idea of topic-driven sectioning is exactly where online news should evolve. In your article you reference HuffPo, which actually does a pretty decent job of topic-centric coverage. They create several “big-story” pages devoted to topics such as “Obama”, “Financial Crisis”, and “torture”…

    Also, I think you could make the case that one single sectioning scheme is also going to change. With the ability of most CMS’s to add several pieces of meta-info to each story, or tags, there might be a case to be made of providing the user with several different classification schemes, and letting them use whatever makes sense… Geographical, big news vs small news, topic-driven, and more…

      • Jacob Harris
      • May 29th, 2009

      Good catch, I totally missed that other part of the Huffington Post. I guess the question I am mulling over (in my own incoherent way) is whether newspapers might reorganize their backend departments (for instance, the NYT now has a Media desk with reporters from Business and Culture) or if tagging will suffice. Part of me is a little dissatisfied with tag-driven topic pages however.

  2. Followed you all the way to your antepenultimate sentence, where you suggested “topic-driven.” What’s the difference?

    You should talk to a librarian, or these days, an information architect. The world is divided into two groups: those who put things in categories and those who don’t. Taxonomy or folksonomy: why choose? The web, as you point out, allows both at the same time.

      • Jacob Harris
      • May 29th, 2009

      Sorry if I’m not being clear, but I guess what I’d like to explore is a better way of bringing trending topics into focus in a single place rather than splitting sections. Admittedly the technology is there already, but I still am not entirely happy with how topic pages work and I wonder if it would be better to have editors assigned to beats like “The Iraq War” and “Swine Flu” rather than sections like International or the Arts. Does that make sense?

  3. Thanks for the interesting take! For me, reading this raised the question … will websites of the future take on the simplistic design of Google since all we really need is that search box? Or, ultimately, will Google be the internet’s ONLY website?

    Let me blow the dust off the music example: People are no longer trading records, 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs; they are trading music in the form of data. The same could happen (is happening) to information we report.

    The downside of this discussion is we can only search what we know. Categories provide us a jumping off point for where we can expand our knowledge base. I love drinking gin and tonic, but sometimes I need to look at the menu to see what else the bar has to drink.

      • Jacob Harris
      • May 29th, 2009

      Agreed. Search is definitely part of the fabric of the modern online newspaper (TimesSelect was discontinued because of the rise in search-driven traffic to the Times), but when I look at the TimesWire, it’s pretty humbling to see how much news I’m interested in that I wouldn’t think to search for directly.

  4. I’ve always felt that Sections would persist but would be treated just like any other meta-data and on the same level as keywords, phrases and other terms.

    The real problem is how to present it, how to allow seamless navigation, and how to make groups of similar content meaningful.

    I think developing the proper UI will play a big part on how well we succeed in moving away from these few arbitrary terms.

  5. I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but now I see what you’re driving at. A “topic” in your lexicon, means something current and probably continuing, and almost certainly not anticipated by the formal “sections” which are defined in advance. In that case, I totally agree! If there’s a revolution in Suriname led by a performance poet, sparked by blog reports of corporate corruption in healthcare (I have no inside knowledge, just a made-up scenario), does that story fall under the business beat, Latin America, literature, health care, web? The usual approach from an editor’s point of view is to force it into one bucket — one reporter (probably just a wire service reader, most likely). If it becomes an investigative story, then an editor may create a task force, with someone to capture video of the leader’s performances, someone to check the business history of the company involved, etc.

    But I would still recommend reading up on taxonomy vs. folksonomy, for instance here: http://tr.im/mOKV

  6. Excellent post. If you don’t know it already, David Weinberger’s book Everything is Miscellaneous addresses many of these points — all suggesting that faceted, dynamic and recombinant tagging makes far more sense than rigid siloed “sectioning.”

  7. Jacob,

    Great thoughts. I think it’s critical that newspapers find a way to be the best place to learn about the news, rather than search engines.

    You make a useful point that the topical sections of traditional papers are probably not really optimized for what’s needed online and how users think about finding content. It’s always interesting how historical habits transparently become implicitly entrenched over time.

    I’d like to comment on this line from your post:

    “We can find the content we want by searching for it, rather than pulling out a section of pages.”

    I suspect you didn’t mean only external search, but also internal search engines. But the challenge is that users don’t use internal search engines enough; far, far less than external search engines (mainly G.)

    Putting newspapers in a historical perspective, they really were both places to learn about what news is important and places to read the actual articles. They were content producers and content aggregators.

    But online, they are increasingly the last step in a transaction for content; about 50% of users come from google search or google news to typical news sites and they read 1, _maybe_ 2 articles on the news site before leaving.

    This is bad, and hard to monetize.

    So thinking about ways to be the best place to learn about news content is really, really critical. Maybe that’s better on-site search, better topics, external links, discovery tools, personalization, whatever. It’s more than changing sections or tag-clouds. Article pages need a complete make-over. But it’s critical to solve this problem in order to maintain audience or brand equity long term.

    • Cori Faklaris
    • May 30th, 2009

    Hi, saw your post at Nieman Journalism Lab. These are really good points. I think you’re on target that if newsrooms can reduce or get rid of the bureaucratic structure (Page 1, National desk, A&E, Sports, etc.) that divides up the job responsibilities into sections that mimic the physical structure of the printed product, we’d see our mental metaphors and our workflows become more useful as we move onto the Web. Maybe this would help improve the print product too — the default structure encourages not only blindness to what other sections are up to with overlapping topics but territoriality (I often see people getting pissy because of a suggestion to print content from another desk or team in “their” section or pages or because another team did “their” story).

    Maybe get rid of individual section editors in lieu a “taxonomy” or “sectioning” editor who makes sure all the content is tagged appropriately and divides up the news budget for both print and online posting? And also, revise the news budgeting systems so that you don’t have to plan for and slot the content according to the physical sections in print, but according to topics or some other platform-independent way. Just seeing that piece of paper in the news meeting change could be a powerful tool for revising how editors think and place content in context.

  8. I’ve seen the taxonomy tension played out before with interesting results, Jacob, and I’d second Scott’s referral to Weinberg.

    In my client experience with major news companies, there is often resistance to moving away from the holy tablets of section-based taxonomy. And it’s been an editorial team-led resistance, or sometimes an argument for remaining attentive to user needs. Both hold merit, but as you say, the technology and need to compete are driving us to push the model in bolder directions.

    It is happening, although some such projects haven’t seen the light of day yet. I think the kicker, from my own experience, is that advertising and biz strategy is driving a lot of the web editorial innovation coming down the road.

    I’ve seen sophisticated ad strategies enthrone new models of organizing content at other media and entertainment companies. (Much of this follows topical aggregations, executed to varying levels of technical and revenue-driving ingenuity.) News orgs will not be immune.

    I wish I could be less oblique, but as it goes, the most interesting work being undertaken by ad/design agencies in digital today is swathed in non-disclosure agreements. What I can say is that strategic reboots of taxonomy have become a distinctive pillar of intellectual property at big content organizations. In that respect, there’s a lot to come.

    Cheers,
    Jeff

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