information ambience

Publishing the News When it’s Already Everywhere

What do publishers and news consumers do in a world of infinite choice?

There’s a game that a group of people have been playing for the last few years. Be the last person in America to know who won the Super Bowl. Unplug both online and off, avoid people and places that might clue you in, and see how long you can last. This year, some fell within an hour. Others barely made it a few days before the news presented itself.

The game is an exercise in “intentional ignorance” as The New Yorker put it back in February. Through it, we learn how pervasive information is. We learn that whether we seek it or not, news finds us.

This is how we generally “know” things we haven’t consciously read, listened to or watched, such as who won the Super Bowl; that an earthquake happened somewhere; that a Gwenyth Paltrow is trying to survive on food stamps. Information is ambient. We don’t just brush up against it. We exist within it.

Publishers still struggle to make their way through an information saturated world but generally gravitate toward settled strategy: Bring the news to the social and mobile platforms where people already are. Become a signal or a beacon on those platforms. Become the trusted someone an audience can hold onto. Trust that they’ll share.

Some of this is clever. For example, the BBC covered India’s elections and launched an Ebola information service in West Africa with chat apps.

Some of it’s simply puzzling, like now, where the new, new thing being considered is to hand the keys over to Facebook and publish news natively on that platform.

And some is settling on a more subtle, design approach. As Amy Webb recently pointed out, it’s not just information that’s ambient. Attention is ambient too. That is, we have repetitive, mindless moments over the course of a day where we fiddle somewhat unconsciously with our devices. Publishers can harness these moments, she thinks, with better material and interface design.

Apple’s new watch uses haptic, or tactile, feedback for information prompts which is neat until, perhaps, it becomes annoying. We’ll find out more as the New York Times experiments with its one sentence stories.

All this is a relatively straightforward overview of how publishers can — or intend — to reach audiences. But flip the equation and ask how news consumers make their way through the ambience. How they find new stories, sources and a bit of joy in the serendipity of discovery. The question isn’t just how do we find and read the news when there’s infinite choice; but how do we organize our media diets to fit the flow of our otherwise busy lives. For many, it’s ingesting small bits because that’s all the time available. Many also try to make space for more substantial meals. The question though is how?

Yes, there are the Flipboards, Instapapers and Feedly’s that attempt to solve the particular issues of news and information everywhere. Facebook is ever tinkering with their algorithms in an ongoing attempt to surface relevance. While worthwhile tools, apps and algorithms alone won’t solve personal, individual news consumption and understanding.

Instead, the solutions are more methodological. That is, how in a news ambient world do we create habits that enable deeper understanding of the issues important to us and bring a bit of joy as we do so? How do we understand tools and services offered to us so we can leverage those that are best for our particular needs? How, at root, do we become more literate?

A version of this originally appeared in The Future Journalism Project.

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