May 29, 2018

My phone lit up a half dozen times with a variation of the same news over the long weekend.

“North Korea’s Leader, Kim Jong-un, met with South Korea’s leader amid doubts over a proposed meeting with President Trump.”

It’s important news, no doubt. But for someone who already tends to read a handful of news sites several times every day, it wasn’t terribly urgent.

It’s a problem with push notifications for news in general. How do you push news of interest directly to audiences’ phones without knowing what they’re actually interested in beyond a few simple categories? How do you send them at times that work best for them (which are not necessarily the same as times that work best for newsrooms)?

USA Today just launched a new version of their app that I think pulls off both remarkably well.

Expanding from its list of general topics — breaking news, sports, technology and other standards you’d expect — the app now allows users to also pick from a list of suggested topics with a more narrow focus, things like midterm elections, virtual reality and social security. Don’t see a topic of interest in the list? Further suggested topics exist within stories — a story about Uber rolling out an emergency feature displays an “Add Topic” button for Uber, for example.

Users can mix and match topics to receive the news, culled from across the USA Today Network, that’s most interesting to them.

“We’re helping folks organize all of the information that’s out there … and find something of relevance,” said Jason Jedlinski, head of consumer products at USA Today Network.

Unlike the push notifications in the main categories, which are curated and written by journalists, the new notifications are automated and alert users as soon as a related story is posted.

The new specific notifications join previous features requested by USA Today’s audiences, the best of which are a premium ad-free experience and “Quiet Time,” which allows users to turn off all notifications between certain hours. Most phones now allow users to turn off all notifications at set times, but by fine-tuning the USA Today app, users could technically be able to stop receiving news alerts at 9 p.m. even if their phones are set to go dark at midnight.

“This is for folks like me who are very judicious about which push notifications I allow to my phone,” Jedlinski told me. “Regardless of brand, I don’t typically allow push alerts broadly. I would authorize a news app that did this to alert me because it’s very specific.”

“We are making a concerted effort to be user-led in all of our decisions,” Jedlinski said.

And it shows. If other newsrooms borrowed this idea, which prioritizes the needs of users above the needs of news organizations, perhaps push notifications wouldn’t be as reviled as they have come to be. And I could be a little less grumpy about my long weekend.

Digital News to Know

40 BETTER HOURS: It was shocking to learn that I spend about 2 hours and 30 minutes per day — or 15 percent of my waking life — on my phone, a revelation I discovered through an app called Moment that I shared a few weeks back. It’s one of the many examples of how technology soaks up the free time in our lives. Start a similar revelatory process on your laptop or desktop with Nudge, a Chrome plugin that can turn off notifications and alert you about possible browsing addictive behaviors.

PICTURE THIS: News archives are vast, untapped resources in many news organizations. Many are filled with countless photos, articles and other odds and ends that aren’t searchable, making them difficult to navigate, especially without the help of news researchers and librarians. If you have free time (and can find the key), go explore yours on a quiet afternoon. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll eventually digitize them like National Geographic did with its collection of more than 6,000 vintage maps.

THE MORE YOU KNOW: Two tools helpful for examining Twitter accounts and the spread of viral hoaxes just got updates to make them easier for journalists and average people to use. Botometer scores a Twitter account based on how likely it is that it’s a bot (mine got a 0.2 out of 5) and Hoaxy shows how stories with low credibility spread on Twitter through charts and graphs.

SAY IT WITH A HARD G: GIFs are the only moving image format that can autoplay natively across devices. It can be intimidating to try to make your own (I tend to hack mine together with the help of GIPHY) but this Adobe tutorial provides assets and step-by-step instructions to help you get the hang of creating them with Photoshop in less than an hour.

WOW-WORTHY STORY: More than 50,000 people live in the Marshall Islands. About half of them are under 18. Frontline and the Groundtruth Project profiled three children in a story that combines video, audio, images and text in a stunning effect. It’s exactly what I was looking for when I asked about wow-worthy stories earlier this year.

READER RECOMMENDED: Write text in Drafts on your iOS device and you can send it, um, everywhere? I haven’t spent much time with it yet, but Dan Haugen wrote in to share the app that seems to integrate with anything a journalist would need it to — plain text, HTML, email, messages, tweets, Dropbox, Evernote, OneDrive, it goes on! It seems like the perfect Swiss army knife for reporters on the go.

Tools from Poynter

  • Have you ever tried to find the contact information for a news desk or individual journalist? It’s a miserable process. Kristen Hare examined the problem and found ways that some news organizations have solved it.
  • U.S. news organizations are handling the new European Union privacy regulations (aka that GDPR thing you’ve seen in email subject lines all week) in interesting ways.  
  • Learn how to debunk the most compelling of online hoaxes in a one-hour online training session in July starring my colleague Daniel Funke and yours truly. We’ll show you how to use tools like RevEye, Google’s Reverse Image Search, InVid, YouTube Dataviewer, Account Analysis, StalkScan and more to make sure you won’t get fooled again. It won’t cost you a dime.

Try This! is powered by Google News Initiative. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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