How Topic Pages Can Give Readers a Bird’s-Eye View of the News

Breaking news alone doesn’t make a balanced media diet, so The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., is working to give readers a fuller picture with topic pages that summarize years of news stories.

Although many news sites aggregate related stories, The Spokesman-Review is one of the few to provide written summaries alongside the links. The summaries provide context about how the latest news relates to the big picture.

Ryan Pitts, The Spokesman-Review’s senior editor for digital media, said it’s important to accommodate readers who recently moved to town or haven’t been paying attention.

“This is the place where you can get caught up on an ongoing story and stay caught up,” he said in a phone interview, describing the pages as “kind of like a local Wikipedia.”

Combating “news fatigue”

As Wikipedia has become a go-to source when news breaks, some have promoted the concept of “Wikipedia-ing” the news, as Matt Thompson put it — bolstering current news with context.

Thompson (a former Poynter employee) advanced the idea last year as a Donald W. Reynolds Fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute in Missouri. While there, Thompson developed a prototype with summaries focused on issues rather than event-driven stories.

He’s now working to develop topic-focused local news sites with NPR member stations. (He and others discussed this issue at South by Southwest Interactive earlier this month.)

Thompson was partly inspired by a 2008 study commissioned by the Associated Press. The AP research, performed by Context-Based Research Group, used qualitative anthropological methods to study young adults as news consumers.

The study found that adults ages 18-34 experience “news fatigue” — a news diet heavy in updates and lacking the deeper background that could be supplied with topic summaries. This isn’t a matter of simply wanting chocolate while needing broccoli, as some have described the difference between what the audience wants and what journalists think it needs.

“People in the study were able to articulate the imbalance of their news diet as a problem,” the report said. “They spoke of having trouble keeping up or finding resolution in the news.”

The report quoted one man who said, “News [today] is not the full story, but more like a preview — it’s kind of annoying sometimes. I don’t like to get bits and pieces of information.”

Using topic pages for the full story

The nature of news means that much of our work appeals to readers for only a short time. Topic pages that include summaries, however, have a longer shelf life; they can funnel readers to those stories for years to come. They take advantage of the Web by supplying links that are lacking within stories. And though The Spokesman-Review hasn’t seen a traffic bump from its topic pages, they could gain audience, inbound links, and more opportunity for revenue.

Further, similar news stories compete with each other, as pointed out by a Google executive in May.

“Consider instead how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity,” said Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president, in a Senate subcommittee hearing. “We see this practice today in Wikipedia’s entries and in the topic pages at NYTimes.com. The result is a single authoritative page with a consistent reference point that gains clout and a following of users over time.”

More recently, Google ran an experiment in what it calls “Living Stories” from December through February, in partnership with The New York Times and The Washington Post. Each “living story” includes summaries about five paragraphs long.

According to Google, 75 percent of people who sent feedback said they preferred the Living Stories format to the traditional online news article. Users also spent a significant amount of time exploring stories.

The company released the Living Stories code in February.

The Spokesman-Review’s approach

Though The New York Times has had topics pages with summaries for years, most other papers haven’t adopted them. The Spokesman-Review shows that this approach isn’t just for giants.

The paper posted its first topic page on Feb. 23, about Morning Star Boys’ Ranch. Its summary provides an overview about allegations of mistreatment at the group home, from the allegations by former residents in 2005 to the victory for Morning Star in the first lawsuit, on Feb. 12.

There are now eight topics pages on the site; another 15 to 20 are planned for development over the next few months, Pitts said.

The bulk of the work has been by reporters and editors, he said. When they tag articles with a topic, the publishing system automatically links to the topic page.

The online department works with the city desk to identify important topics. “That’s where the work of reporters and editors needs to come in,” Pitts said.

A big chunk of the editorial work is choosing key stories to include. Editors need to review years of content, looking for the stories that will be linked directly from the summary text. Then reporters or editors write the summaries, which average about 250 words.

An assistant city editor is in charge of updating the summaries when needed. “It’s got to be somebody’s baby,” Pitts said.

Despite the new work, the project has been received well in the newsroom. “It feels good to be helping readers who aren’t like us” and immersed in the news, Pitts said.

That is exactly the kind of reader that news sites can reach with topic pages.

For occasional visitors to news sites, “the incremental story may seem to be just so much monkey screech,” Steve Yelvington wrote last year. But well-developed topics pages can give those readers “a gentle, almost encyclopedic introduction to the topic.”

Yelvington offers several do’s and don’ts for news sites looking to start or improve topics pages. The nutshell version what not to do: Don’t do a slapdash job.

What would be on your list of do’s and don’ts? What would be good topics and components for summary pages? Do you know of other news sites using them? Add your comments.

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