In quest for homepage engagement, newsrooms turn to dreaded ‘A’ word

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Leave it to the Scandinavians to be open to change and innovation, even in the ever-traditional world of newspaper journalism. I often mention my client, Aftenposten, of Norway, and a part of the Schibsted Group, as a newsroom where the laboratory of change and innovation is always open.

Many media critics pronounced Sweden’s  Svenska Dagbladet (another member of the Schibsted Group) almost dead, but management says its fortunes are looking up thanks to a controversial idea: using an algorithm to run the news. It’s a concept platforms such as Facebook and portal sites like Yahoo have been using for years, but now it is gaining support among traditional news organizations including The New York Times.

 

Algorithm as ‘traffic cop’

Sounds a bit wild, doesn’t it? Well, the algorithm doesn’t exactly “run the news,” but it acts as traffic cop for the flow of news. After reporters and editors are finished with a story, they set a “news” value—a variable ranging from 1 to 5—and a “lifetime” value, either short, medium or long, and let the algorithm do the rest.

Some will argue this is too-little-too-late to save the homepage, since evidence shows that many users come into a publication’s website via a social media link and never get to the homepage at all. But Svenska Dagbladet says it’s working.

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Algorithms set the agenda based on a series of criteria—just like human agenda setters have done through the ages—but perhaps with greater accuracy, since algorithms can react to how users behave, how long they stay reading, when they read, etc. At Aftenposten, this is already working well, and two users who live next door to each other may get two different set of stories on their homepage: Susan, who likes fitness and cooking, gets items in those categories; while Paul, her neighbor, may get a heavier dose of politics and sports news. A good thing.

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The New York Times and customization

I am delighted to read that this level of experimentation may be coming to the United States next. The New York Times is working on an effort to customize the delivery of news online by adjusting a reader’s experience to accommodate individual interests. So, as a loyal Times reader interested in running, cooking, and theater, I may get alerted to stories on those subjects.

Not all readers may be that excited about this move by the Times, based on reactions from readers who were not shy about expressing concern and disgust with the idea that a newspaper would show them what they want to see, rather than what’s important. “Bad (or sick) idea,” one commenter wrote. “Opt me out.” Added another: “I don’t want curated news. This is creepy and disturbing. Please re-think it.”

 

Need-to-know and want-to-know

Of course, critics of algorithms and customization cite the fact that in submerging readers in coverage of pre-existing interests, we may miss out on important material we should know. I doubt that the smart readers of today will only read that which is served specifically to them. But I also know that in a society where information travels as fast as it does, it is important for those publications that we call essential to recognize our interests, while still providing fact-based information that unifies us as a society. A solution that seems feasible is to create a unit on the homepage of “News You Must Know,” with perhaps the five top stories of the day.

Those who continue to defend print as the ultimate platform often argue that digital can never match the print-newspaper experience, where serendipity prevails. We flip the pages, often surprised by what we find, stopping to read a story that we would have never searched for. In a world where algorithms, digital-first manifestos, and customization seem to be the essential ingredients, it’s good to remember the two qualities that made newspapers essential and exciting: the news that we needed to know and the surprises we were happy to find.

Neither will be sacrificed by a thoughtfully deployed algorithmic solution in partnership with knowledgeable editors.

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Mario Garcia is CEO of Garcia Media and senior adviser on news design at Columbia Journalism School.