Raju Narisetti and Digital Journalism Design, Part 1

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This is the first in a two-part series about digital journalism. Check back next week for the second half.

Last Tuesday Raju Narisetti, Senior Vice President and Deputy Head of Strategy for the new Newscorp, came to West Virginia University to spread his wisdom to the journalism school. Narisetti, or “@Raju,” has a long and prosperous history in journalism, especially digital journalism, as you can see from his Wikipedia page.

I had an opportunity to have dinner with Raju and some choice faculty from the journalism school, and he blew our minds. Immediately following, he gave a presentation that rendered speechless an entire conference room of students, professors and professionals. Plus, he’s verified on Twitter. Boom!

Raju’s presentation was one of the most important perspective-shifting moments I’ve had when thinking about digital journalism. He focused on nine ideas that all future-thinking journalists should understand.

But first! An introduction. We’re in kind of a weird spot in journalism – everyone is telling us print is dead, and people are making their careers in specific mediums. Fact is, our audiences are moving back and forth between digital mediums pretty easily. Plus, there’s more people consuming journalism than ever before, which creates an interesting problem: there’s more demand for our work, but less people paying for it and even fewer creating it.

Let it be known –

1. Print isn’t going away anytime soon, and for a pretty basic reason. In many markets, print is the best way for advertisers to reach their audiences – because of that, there will always be print products and print staff, at least in our lifetimes. Most of our revenue will come from print, and we’ll always have staff devoted to it. The money’s still in print, folks. Don’t count it out.

2. Digital advertising isn’t our savior. No matter how many clicks, views or visitors we accumulate, the revenues from digital advertising is constantly falling. Why is that?

The supply of websites is almost infinite. There are currently about 15 billion indexed web pages. If you’re an advertiser, the choices where you can run your ads have expanded dramatically. Because the supply of websites is exploding (because anybody can make one), the supply of potential ad space is huge. Because of that, it’s hard to justify hefty advertising fees.

The implications of this? If you’re going to create a new website or digital storytelling experience, you have to think about including revenue-building models into it.

Look at the New York Times’s Snowfall.  Their biggest, most expensive project and their most popular web post ever originally had no advertising built into it. As Raju said,

“It’s the most insane thing you can do in a newsroom: the thing that will get you 10 million views won’t make you a penny… Snowfall pageviews are empty calories.”

Ask yourself this question when you’re creating: How can I integrate advertising into this and make money while people are reading my journalism?

I know it’s hard, because to us, journalism is art. How could we tarnish that with an ad for consumer goods? The fact of the matter is this: We will always need advertisers, and we need to think about how we can use our digital storytelling skills and audience metadata to make money. That’s how it was with newspapers, and the story hasn’t changed now that we’ve moved to the web. Always be thinking: How can I get paid from this? It’s the only way to survive digitally.

3. Paywalls are here to stay (and struggle.) There are more than 600 papers in the U.S. with paywalls. Unfortunately, the ones who think those paywalls will solve their problems are wrong. Indeed, a paywall is a significant source of revenue, but if you see it as your final solution, you will fail. Think about paywalls in this way: can we convert flyby readers into subscribers? Are we giving them such an amazing experience that they’ll choose to pay for it?

If you can put together a mindblowing, compelling media package, people will notice it and be like “Hey, I like what they’re doing and I want more. I’ll pay for it.” It’s a journalism challenge and a media challenge.

That challenge pales in comparison to this one.

4. News has to go to the readers, they don’t have to come to us. Because of social media, people are less prone to go and explore news websites. We have to be where the people are – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr (god forbid.) Imagine the challenge in that now we have to go to the people AND make money off them. Whew.

The good news is that in 2013 the definition of a journalist must include “I will do everything that I can to bring as many people as I can to my journalism.” It’s part of your mission and job description. How can you bring people in? If you think of this promotional aspect as extra work, as stupid stuff above your excellent journalism, you will fail. If you consider promotion as part of your job, you’ll integrate it into your work and be more successful because of it. If you don’t know what it is, you should wise up and sell your soul to the SEO gods. 

Raju gave an anecdote about – who else – Miley Cyrus. As it turns out, Americans don’t know how to spell her name. Looking to capitalize on our ignorance, writers could use the misspelled versions of Miley’s name in their post’s metadata – it was totally invisible on the page, but it was picked up by search engines who directed the ignorant spellers to their stories.

Gaming the system, you say? Nay, I say – if we wrote a story, it’s our responsibility to help people find it. 

Chew on that for a while. Check back next week for the second half of Raju’s list.

Zen and Digital Design: a Cultural Theory

So I’ve been browsing through some blogs recently, only partly because I’m required to for class, but also because people sometimes say smart things.

Recently, the smart things people have been saying are about software media design: websites, digital magazines, mobile magazines, mobile news apps, etc.

Well, I’ve started to identify some common denominators. Everyone seems to be tooting the same horn, and I wanted to put them all together to reveal something everyone’s been hinting at: the culture of digital user interfaces and user experiences, or UI/UX.

I propose that a culture of use and culture of design exists between the people designing the software and the people using the software, creating a number of subtleties that can be exploited to create fabulous software.

Let us begin!

The Visuals of Software Design

We’re far beyond the days of baroque start menus, flashy desktop icons, designers have been embracing something called a “Flat User Interface,” or flat UI. If you have a Windows 8 phone, you already know what this looks like. Here’s an example from dribbble.com:

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The design focuses on a clean, minimalist approach with basic colors and ergonomic, easy-to-press-on-a-touchscreen buttons. Also notice the simplicity of the text and the lack of superfluous visual decorations.

Either way, you’ve been seeing this across the internet recently, from Instagram to this startup web mag Middle 8. Windows 8 is probably the most recognizable invocation of flat UI.

One can assume this change is being driven by user demand – software is more successful if it reflects this flat style. I mean, look at all these flat designed apps. But why would we switch from bells and whistles to a skeletonized, minimal design?

Well, as Adrian Taylor over at Smashing Magazine puts it, the bells and whistles were too much to handle.

As a constantly connected culture, we deal with a nonstop flow of information, some of it important and relevant, most of it not. We are constantly evaluating, filtering and, of course, creating content, and it all gets pretty exhausting… Becoming overwhelmed is all too easy, and a reduction of clutter in a user interface (UI) can create a little visual zen.

Of course, there’s a problem with simplifying design – no longer can you write the full name of a button’s purpose inside the button. The solution? Let a person infer what each button means by strategically placing it and adorning it with a symbol.

Maybe this experiment will make things clearer. Here’s a screenshot from Instagram, an insanely popular mobile app. What is the purpose of the button in the bottom left corner?

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It takes you to the home page, and if you knew that, congratulations! You’re part of the culture I’m talking about:

Because many of our intuitive user interfaces are similar, people can pick up software and already know how to navigate it – the same way anyone who picks up a book knows how to open and read it. 

This phenomenon manifested when magazines first made the jump to tablet editions. Instead of scrolling up and down like a web page, users wanted to swap left and right, just like they would through a physical magazine. This was a big problem with designing Huffington, Huffington Post’s iPad-exclusive magazine, according to Josh Klenert, Director of Design and User Experience at HuffPo. (We talked briefly after a presentation about Huffington in New York this summer.)

The answer? Either embrace people’s natural inclinations or give them subtle hints about how to navigate your app. Klenert chose the latter, as you can see with the little arrow in the bottom right hand corner of the magazine’s pages.

From Robert Snow Photography
From Robert Snow Photography

The bloggers over at Nielsen Norman also highlighted the problems with awkward design:

Although tablet-specific applications have plenty of usability flaws, the problems are mainly the same as those that plague traditional application design: difficult features, a mismatch with user workflow, and poor instructions that people don’t read.

However, our good friends at Nielsen Norman upset me with the following statement:

The flat design threat is a fashionable trend that will hopefully subside before it hurts users (and companies) too much.

NN argued that because flat design is so minimal, many users have trouble determining how their intuitive gestures work (swipes, pinches, drags of the fingers.) I disagree – the Twitter and Gmail mobile apps have helped fight this problem with design that response to slight swipes, snapping whenever a full swipe triggers the effect.

This is the bottom line: by exploiting how your users will attempt to interact with your product upon first glance, you can design mobile media that not only operates smoothly but feels natural to the user.

I’ll leave my conclusions at that, but I want to ask you some questions:

1. Have you ever downloaded a new app and found it easy to navigate?

2. When was the last time you had to read a tutorial for a mobile app?

3. Do you use any apps to read/watch/listen to media on a mobile device? Does that app utilize intuitive design?