Some bad and good storytelling
One article mentioned on Slashdot in the past 24 hours is an example of one of my storytelling pet peeves. Another has a nice use of new media’s capabilities.
The bad storytelling is in prose rather than an interactive package, but it angers me enough to mention it here anyway. It’s in a Tuesday New York Times piece about the city’s subways using flywheels to capture energy from braking and use it for acceleration. Too bad the word “flywheel” is not used until paragraph 17. By my count, “flywheel” is word 692 out of a total of 892. Unless Slashdot and I are missing the point of this article, the reporter has gone to great lengths to precede the news with a discussion of what is not news. Paragraph 1 introduces the electricians of the subway as the story’s apparent topic. But paragraph 2 is wasted discussing subway jobs that do not involve electricity. Paragraph 7 describes the electricians’ working environment, mentioning whirring metal boxes and levitating ping-pong balls — everything that does not involve flywheels. Finally, paragraphs 12 and 13 discuss the problems with regenerative braking methods that do not use flywheels. Only in paragraph 17 do we finally discuss flywheels. If the reader is interested in this topic, the story then ends too soon, only six paragraphs later.
This story is a great example of what I think is a bad habit in writing, one that I’ll admit I have used when I did not try hard enough to figure out a better way to tell the story. I have sometimes written about what the news is not before what the news is when I was not interested enough in the subject matter on its own merits. This New York Times story would probably not spend several sentences discussing some questionably sexier subway jobs if the reporter thought the electricians had a sexy subway job. The writing in paragraphs 1 to 16 becomes a tacky ornament trying to prove why the topic will become interesting in paragraph 17. Paragraph 17 should be in paragraph 1 so the facts, which at least I genuinely find interesting, can speak for themselves.
The decent piece of new media storytelling I saw today is a Flash animation by MSNBC to accompany a story on the odds of asteroid collisions with the Earth (if the link doesn’t work for you, try it in Internet Explorer and see below). The animation of an asteroid and the Earth both orbiting the sun goes a long way toward showing viewers how an asteroid can have a more elliptical orbit than the Earth’s and a different orbital period but still cross paths with our planet. What might have been an even stronger use of new media, though, would have been a 3-D animation (especially if it had some kind interactive zoom/pan/tilt/roll/flythrough controls). That could have shown how some asteroids’ orbits are inclined away from the ecliptic plane. Of course, Flash is designed for 2-D animation, not 3-D, so I’ll cut MSNBC some slack on that point.
However, I won’t cut them some slack on the fact that this feature only works in Internet Explorer. “MSNBC is optimized for Microsoft Internet Explorer,” their site announces at the bottom of most pages. Putting aside the selfishness of this kind of proprietary “optimization” — let alone announcements of it — there is no excuse for completely incorrect HTML, even if it works in IE. I tried viewing this popup with Netscape 4 and Netscape 6, and in both of them the only contents of the window were:
<% mainsectionID="TECH" navsectionID="SPACE" %>
This, of course, is ASP code that is not being parsed and removed by MSNBC’s servers but is instead being embedded in the HTML sent to the visitor’s browser. It has not been parsed because someone has given the popup page a .htm extension rather than one of .asp, but left the ASP code in the file. Apparently IE is okay with this resulting garbage, but the extraneous code quite properly destroys the FRAMESET in Netscape, which means the Flash feature never loads. Does MSNBC’s “optimization” for IE mean they don’t even check whether attractive features of their site function in other browsers?
More narrowcasting, please
We had an interesting discussion at work today. Last week editors asked all the print edition features reporters to write some feedback on the paper’s features sections. One reporter questioned whether one online-only editorial feature should be produced for ajc.com, since it is for a special-interest audience rather than a general one. (To avoid naming names or making this a particularistic case, I won’t give further details of who made the comment or what this online-only feature is.)
One of my online producer colleagues knew why this reporter’s concern was unnecessary. We produce that feature for the Web site because we can, she said, and she’s exactly right. In print that feature of specific interest would have to compete for limited newsprint with others of general interest, but with the Web’s unlimited space, we can run it and serve a dedicated audience, even if that audience is only a small fraction of site visitors. In other words, the Web’s lack of overt space limitations is not only — as I also believe — a tool for greater depth. It is a tool for “narrowcasting” to the people who care about a special topic.
These observations about the Web are as unoriginal someone suggesting to an old media publisher that it would be most cost-efficient to print content on both sides of a sheet of newsprint. But if there is such online opportunity for customization and narrowcasting, why do many news sites — including the one I work for — have a broadcast mentality? Our features pages are loaded with celebrities and our front page is loaded with weird news, two things that consistently generate a lot of pageviews. As my boss’s boss correctly points out, television programming is designed to appeal to the widest possible audience because ratings are what matter in that medium. I am not going to deny that the broadcast mentality works online, and it certainly is the easiest online content for news organizations in the “mass” media to produce, but one of the main strengths of the Web is a way to publish to smaller and more dedicated audiences. Learning how to do that may be a difficult transition for traditional mass media organizations to make.
'Immersive storytelling' without more work
E-Media Tidbits carried an encouraging post from Carla Passino Monday. She has begun doing some of what Steve Outing calls “immersive storytelling,” which in most of Michelle Nicolosi’s examples allows readers to explore stories rather than just read them.
Passino reports that “basic [Flash] movies are not that much more time-consuming than standard 500-words-and-a-picture pieces.” Right now, news sites rarely have resources to redevelop stories with a completely different “immersive” style, especially when content management systems make republishing print edition copy so simple. But Passino’s experience reinforces my belief that someday, perhaps when online publishing (on today’s Web or some electronic format yet to come) starts bringing in a decent profit, online storytelling styles will not be the exclusive domain of Web producers. I think, and hope, that eventually people like me will be out of a job. Reporters themselves should have the tools and training to do exactly what Passino is doing — telling stories in a much more compelling way without big new investments of staff time by them or their news organization.
Content plus context for news front pages
A few days ago Adrian Holovaty mentioned a usability study from Wichita State University that compares three types of online content presentation — what the researchers call the “full,” “summary” and “links” designs — in which the “full” format presents the entire text of several articles, “summary” contains headlines and descriptions, and “links” contains just the linked headlines with no descriptions. Many news sites seem to use the “summary” design for their most important stories and the “links” design lower on the page for less important stories.
The Wichita researchers found no statistically significant differences between the three formats in the amount of time it took site visitors to find information, but the differences in users’ satisfaction were significant. They preferred the “summary” design most, for “promoting comprehension” and for “being visually pleasing.”
I, too, prefer the “summary” design because it clarifies headlines, which simplify a story down to less than 10 words and sometimes become sensationalist. The Intelligencer Record, where I worked last summer, calls them “summary graphs” and likes them enough to use them on at least 95% of the stories in their print edition as well — which is great because the copy desk rather than the Web staff usually writes them. (The Intelligencer doesn’t call them subheads because they're usually in sentence rather than headline form.)
In the future, computer displays will get bigger and news sites will be able to present, perhaps, an entire section’s full text articles on an area the size of a wall with visitors using the best interface of all — eye movement — for navigation. The “summary” system is probably the best solution in the meantime, but the limitations of the current Web (or perhaps the limitations of our current computer monitors) have trapped us with “index pages” for context and “story pages” for the information, with no space for stories on the index page and little space for context on the story pages.
Frankly, I think this is the biggest limitation of the Web as a medium for distributing news. The Web may be faster than any other publishing medium in history, but there is still usually a lag of several seconds between when a site visitor clicks on a link and when the next page is fully loaded in her browser (this delay is exacerbated by bloated HTML in site designs and is worst for people on modems or using Netscape 4.x, which sometimes takes forever to render complicated pages). Too many visitors to news sites (myself included) assume they are up to date on the news by reading the front page only, without clicking many links to actual articles. In contrast, when you read a printed newspaper, there is an excellent interface for reading a story after reading a headline or reading more of a story after you’ve read the summary in the lead. It’s called moving your eyes one line down on the page.
I wish online news organizations had a way for visitors to begin reading a story without clicking on a link, repositioning their eyeballs, and waiting for a new page to load. Online news sites’ front pages are what print edition front pages would look like if all their stories jumped to inside pages right after the headline. When I read the New York Times in print, I often read the entirety of the front page, leaving each article mid-sentence at its jump, before turning to any inside pages. When I read the New York Times online, I actually begin reading far fewer articles because doing so requires clicking a link from the front page, but because there is such a simple way to keep reading once I’ve started — the down arrow key, the page down key, my Intellimouse wheel, or even the vertical scrollbar — I do, usually reading articles to the end.
What I’m looking for is a simpler interface than the link that site visitors can use to begin reading stories listed on a front page. The best realistic idea that I can come up with is some kind of semitransparent DHTML or Flash popup that would appear when a visitor clicked or mouseovered the headline and would contain a scrollable copy of the story’s full text as well as easy ways to dismiss the popup or expand it to fill the screen. But an ideal interface for something like this would involve eye-tracking: When you simply looked at a headline for a second or so the full text would pop up underneath; if you continued to read that text it would stay there but if you looked away it would disappear and uncover the original front page.
Don’t hold your breath for any innovation like this, especially since the eye-tracking system or larger monitors would require expensive new hardware for millions of PCs, but I do think that eventually someone will invent a good online way to present an index of today’s news together with the content of that news, making obsolete the old system of “summary” design on news sites and providing an addition to the Web’s basic navigational structure, the link.
3-D TV would add little to storytelling
The New York Times has a story about three-dimensional TV. The reporter notes that 3-D movies and television have been tried occasionally in the past but never caught on, and concludes that “the question, now as then, is whether 3-D has staying power or will remain a gimmicky fad.” This ties in perfectly with my previous post about which media innovations catch on and which don’t. The problem is that 3-D television or movies add comparatively little to the experience relative to what is added by a 2-D movie compared to, say, a book or a still image. But think of images on the evening news. What makes video of pill bottles rolling along a factory conveyor belt during a report on medical news tell the story better than a still? And, for that matter, frankly, does a still tell the story any better than no picture at all? The ultimate problem — and opportunity — for multimedia is that some mediums do not tell some stories very well. The trick is to pick the appropriate medium — be it prose, a timeline, a table, a chart, a graph, a map, a photo, a 360-degree panorama, an audio clip, a video clip, or yes, 3-D video — for the story you are trying to tell. Telling a story in an unnatural format may be just glitz without adding anything to substance, and yes, audiences know this. It’s why, even in the movie and TV business where everything is about glitz in the first place, audiences have never grown attached to 3-D movies or TV. There aren’t enough movie plots that are best told in 3-D form. In my opinion, though, there is one hugely important “story” that deserves a better medium than it has right now that the Times article misses entirely. There's great potential for the 3-D viewing without glasses that the article describes in next-generation human/computer interfaces, if not on the evening news. The modern computer GUI’s “overlapping windows” paradigm is a three-dimensional analogy on a two-dimensional screen. I am sure there are significant enhancements that could be made in interface design, and thus productivity, if 3-D ever came to computer monitors. 3-D may not impact journalism by offering viewers 3-D photographs, but what about 3-D infographics or 3-D Web pages? Think about the extra information — or relationships between bits of information — that reporters could communicate in such a format.
News sites should worry about security
Onlinejournalism.com noted today that, according to a Netcraft survey cited in The Register last week, a majority of Web sites are vulnerable to certain kinds of remote exploits identified in IIS and Apache in June. Netcraft estimates that 6 million Apache sites have been upgraded to the newest version of Apache since the June 17 security bulletin, but 14 million have not. That’s in addition to the perhaps 5 million sites that may be vulnerable to the IIS exploit. Of course, I am one to talk since my hosting provider is still running an older version of Apache, and so is the site I work for (although at least the AJC is running it on Solaris, on which the exploit has not yet been shown to be possible). Netcraft’s survey sheds light on what I believe is a lack of enough security on the part of news organizations. Although news sites are understandably hesitant to upgrade because newer versions of the server software might introduce instability or the upgrades might cause a temporary loss of site availability, I think that, if anything, news sites have more responsibility than the average site to make sure their systems are secure. This is not a hypothetical; the New York Times has been hacked several times. The most dangerous type of vandalism could be a “rewriting of history” through the introduction of plausible but false news stories buried somewhere in the site, rather than absurd modifications to the front page that might be more easily discovered by staff and readers. Imagine if the anti-globalization protesters who created gatt.org, a spoof of the true World Trade Organization site, had actually hacked into the WTO’s site and posted their parody there rather than at a separate URL. Since a site's entire look and feel necessarily becomes public in its HTML source code, it would be remarkably easy to create counterfeit news pages. Whether or not hackers post fake news or — what most of them have done in the past — obvious modifications to the site’s front page is not the important issue. What is at issue is whether news sites take enough security precautions. I do not believe the two newspapers that I’ve worked for do. Their FTP servers are not firewalled (which would allow only designated computers to update the site, not any computer on the Internet), they do not use secure FTP, they do not change their passwords often enough, and one site’s password was not robust enough during the time I was working there. The student server my college newspaper is hosted on was compromised in May 2001 by a hacker who obtained a user’s password when it was transmitted via an insecure protocol. The “big” sites I’ve worked for don’t appear to have that much more sophisticated security. Shouldn’t their administrators be more worried?
Update July 19, 2002, 1:25 am: usatoday.com was hacked on July 11. And sure enough, the hackers created counterfeit news stories. I wonder how many hits their front page got in the 15 minutes before someone noticed?
Best innovations are information-rich
Not all media innovations are actual hits with the public. Consider the differential impact of smell synthesizers with, say, photography. What has made photography much more widely adopted? Perhaps it is the flexibility of the photograph for conveying information — the human brain could discern differences between millions of different photographs but maybe only hundreds of different smells. Thus, every photograph is far more information-rich, and it is a more useful medium for communicating complex ideas. Trying to communicate by smell — unless you are, perhaps, a dog — is like trying to translate the complexity of Shakespeare into a first-grade vocabulary, or in a geeky Web analogy, like trying to program a server-side SQL database with only SSI statements. The detail and extensibility of a vocabulary just isn’t there. Another way to look at it is the fact that pictures can be used as passwords, because there are enough distinctive pictures in the world. I doubt there would ever be enough unique smells to generate strong passwords.