Here’s why thinking of news as atoms and waves can grab readers

Organizations challenged to present stories for digital audiences in new, easily consumable ways might take a page from companies experimenting with new types of storytelling.

News organizations like Vox, Quartz and Circa News are developing story formats that take into account how people are increasingly reading the news — often on mobile devices and at irregular times of the day. News is no longer taken in as a single article, but rather as a stream or wave of information.

A “story stream” from The Verge

“We have to adapt our thinking, adapt our systems to account for this paradigm shift in news,” said Pablo Mercado, Vox Media’s vice president of technology at an Online News Association conference session Friday in Atlanta, Ga.

Vox, which publishes The Verge, SB Nation and Polygon, has been addressing the problem of how to deliver news quickly in the midst of an explosion of social sources, said Trei Brundett, Vox’s chief product officer. Topic pages don’t work when people simply want to follow a story, he said.

What works for Vox are streams or waves of story updates, told in reverse chronological order, allowing readers to keep up with the latest updates and to contribute as well. Other media, including The Washington Post, Reuters Politics and ITV, have been presenting readers with timelines and content streams as well.

An article page on Circa News

Another approach some are taking is chunking or atomizing the news. Circa News delivers headlines and short summaries on mobile devices, while Quartz, a site covering global economic news, gives readers a choice of quick summaries or longer, in-depth coverage.

Zachary Seward, Quartz senior editor, said media organizations need to address the changes quickly taking place in news consumption. Where readers used to check the news at regular times of the day, they now get the news from time to time.

“The news habit is no habit at all,” he said. People may also be saying they are not reading the news because they no longer “pull” the news in by visiting websites or buying newspapers. Instead, they are having news pushed to them, perhaps following Twitter or other social media. All of this argues for creating small, consumable atoms of information.

New thinking also needs to be applied to the nature of articles, Seward said, which should be thought of as something to pass around. In that way, headline styles, such as Business Insider’s “Here’s why” can be seen to work better to grab readers. (Business Insider headlines have a fan group on Reddit.)

Some of The New York Times’ most popular stories shared on Facebook in 2011 aren’t even stories, Seward said. They included satellite photos of the Japan quake, a list of Apple’s Steve Jobs’ patents and an op-ed piece by investor Warren Buffett.

These alternative approaches to news present challenges with workflow, design and staffing, the speakers said. But when done right, people will stick with it.

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  • tomstites

    For what percentage of the public is news “no longer taken in as a single article, but rather as a stream of wave of information”? The article seems to say that this has become the general rule but I’m deeply dubious. What research supports this assertion?

    My sense is that the assertion is true for a small, always-on information elite whose work or identity demands that they be up-to-the-minute on certain kinds of information. I doubt that it’s true for very many of the 80 percent of Americans who work for hourly wages. Democracy demands business and presentation models that serve not just the information elite but also the broad population of regular people.