Note to media: Serve your users, not your platform

old newspapers
Everyone in the media industry seems to be trying to find a magic recipe for digital success, whether it’s a paywall or an iPad app or an outsourced news-aggregation service like Journatic. But it’s worth remembering that the simple things matter as well — such as giving readers something that serves their needs, even if it doesn’t fit your traditional business model or the way you think about your platform. A great example is a news service called Evening Edition, which some web designers came up with as a side project and launched on Monday. The idea behind it is so simple that it seems almost unworthy of notice, but that simplicity is also part of its power, and something more mainstream media outlets could arguably learn from.
As Read/Write Web notes in its report on the launch, the concept for Evening Edition came out of a comment from former New York Times designer Khoi Vinh about how studies of iPad usage showed readers looking for news in the evening hours rather than the daytime. Jim Ray of web-design shop Mule Design took that idea of an “evening edition” — something that many newspapers used to have back in the glory days of the medium — and worked with fellow designer Mike Monteiro to put together the service in a little over a week. It was launched on Monday with funding sponsorship from the non-profit agency behind the magazine Mother Jones.

Simplicity can be a powerful attraction

Evening Edition couldn’t really be any simpler: an editor, Anna Rascouët-Paz (who also works for Annual Reviews, a non-profit publisher of academic journals) puts together a single page of news — a half-dozen important stories about a variety of topics from politics to business — which gets published online every day at 5 p.m. As Jon Mitchell at Read/Write Web points out, there is no RSS feed, no live updates, no streaming videos or any other features, just half a dozen news items that summarize an important issue and contain multiple links to background or related information from other media outlets. As Ray says in a blog post about the service:

[W]e’re all constantly awash in a torrent of news-like “updates”, in between fake celebrity death tweets, divorce notices on Facebook and new-puppy tumblrs. How is anyone supposed to sift through all of that to get to the important stuff?

Of course, sifting through vast quantities of information in order to show people the important stuff is what newspapers are supposed to do, but many newspaper websites and even mobile apps still shovel an enormous amount of content at users with very little filtering, as other web designers like Andy Rutledge have noted when looking at offerings like the New York Times website. Why do they do this? Because they have hundreds of reporters and editors whose job it is to pump out thousands of articles a day for the print edition, and the website gets all of that and more.
It’s a supply-oriented approach to information, rather than a demand-oriented one. In effect, a newspaper website says to a reader: “Here’s all the things we came up with today, which you may or may not be interested in.” Something like Evening Edition, however, says: “We know that you are busy, and overwhelmed with information, and we want to help you — here’s what you need to know.”

Distill and simplify, or competitors like Twitter will

Evening Edition isn’t alone in trying to simplify and distill the oceans of information that flow past us every day. That was also the point behind services like Summify and — both of whom have said they found a surprisingly intense interest in their daily email newsletters with a selection of the day’s top stories. Twitter bought Summify in January, and is now sending out similar weekly emails, as part of its growing attempts to filter and “curate” content for readers. As I’ve tried to point out in the past, the danger for traditional media companies is that if Twitter and others (including Facebook) manage to do this better, they will inevitably gain the upper hand with time-pressed and attention-deprived readers.
This need also explains much of the success of outlets like the Huffington Post (s aol), which routinely gets accused of “over-aggregation” for summarizing or excerpting news stories from mainstream outlets like the New York Times. The painful reality many traditional media players don’t want to consider is that their readers don’t want all of their carefully researched and painstakingly edited stories — they may only want a brief summary or excerpt, which the Huffington Post and Google News (s goog) and other aggregators are more than happy to provide. Rupert Murdoch and former NYT executive editor Bill Keller may call it theft, but readers probably just think of it as useful.
News-recommendation services like Prismatic and Flipboard and Zite are playing a similar kind of game, although they still provide far more information than many readers may want or need. The compelling part of Evening Edition is that it is so simple and so stripped down — and yet, there is a surprising amount of depth even in the short items that it includes in its daily roundup, thanks to the work of Anna Rascouët-Paz. Is it the future of digital media, or a magic recipe for success? Hardly. But it still contains lessons that larger media outlets might want to consider, such as serving their readers’ needs instead of their own.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Shironeko Euro