Since the election, many people I know who don’t work in news have taken a break from the news, social media or some combination of the two.
This is healthy and normal. Taking a small break from the news is recommended by psychologists who study the negative health effects caused by constant bad news.
The American Psychological Association gave similar tips last year when they released a study saying that more than half of U.S. adults felt “very or somewhat stressed by the election.”
So people check out of news — and then they want to come back. How can we best meet their needs? Some ideas are below. Please build on these, or make them better!
We should allow people to check out or pause and return. I envision a website where someone can say how long they’d like to be away from the news and what kinds of news they’d like when they return. This could most easily be accomplished through newsletters. For example, a landing page might allow a user to say: “I am taking [XX] [days / weeks / months] off. When I come back, I’d like to be updated on [topics] on [this frequency.]”
Aram Zucker-Scharff, a developer at Salon Media Group, builds on my idea. “The easiest way to do this is to store a bunch of newsletters,” he says. “It would also be easy to have a sort of pause button on a news site, saved to the user’s cookie when it’s clicked, and then replay the stream of news back at them past that point. Perhaps you could allow someone to pause one topic so that users could continue to follow sports while taking a break from politics.”
He also envisions a way to use notifications. “You could pause notifications on your phone and then have them all pop up at a scheduled later date,” he suggests. “Or you could do that via email. Set a pause and start time and have the system email you everything that happened in between.”
I like that idea: I want it curated. If I check out of Cabinet-level confirmation hearings for a week, I don’t want to know everything about them when I return — just the highlights, and the ones that will allow me to catch up quickly.
We should treat every story page as not only a homepage, but as a person’s first possible exposure to that news story. How do we make it easy for people taking a break to catch up? We must provide context within story pages themselves. This doesn’t mean writing catch-up text in every piece. Instead, WUNC producer Rebecca Martinez Fitzgerald brainstorms that news organizations can create embeddable interactive timelines for longer stories, like Cabinet appointments or executive orders, that help prove chronological context for readers coming in midstream.
“I could also see embeddable explainer pages at the top of stories that contain summaries or Cliff Notes for related topics,” she says. “Or annotated information boxes like in Pop Up Video.”
She continues: “If I don’t know who Steve Bannon is, and I’m reading a story about Steve Bannon two weeks after his appointment, I don’t need to read his bio that tells me where he grew up or where he went to college. I want relevant information that catches me up to date: Tell me his current role, his previous jobs and a little about his political views. That blurb could be embeddable in a number of stories.”
There are some examples of this — The New York Times has topics pages, for instance, and Vox has explainers and cards — but I really like the idea of putting contextual information in or above the stories themselves and allowing the reader to have everything they need right there. I played around with this idea with headlines, but we could conceivably rethink every part of a page’s design to give additional context.
We should make it easy for people to come back into news slowly, without needing to pick up everything immediately. Not everyone wants to become an expert on campaign finance reform. That’s why areas like “Explain it Like I’m 5” are popular on Reddit. If there’s a hard, complex news story, follow the lead of Fritz Klug of MLive Media Group, who threw together an “in-depth news story, a video, a quiz, a database, an editorial, a forum for readers to ask questions, local stories and a voter’s guide” on a ballot initiative in Michigan.
If people don’t want the news, what else can we provide them? Are there ways we can still add context and community? I’m thinking of things like book clubs, similar to what the Alabama Media Group launched, or other events. There’s a lot of value in thinking about your news organization as a conduit through which members of your community make connections.