There’s so much talk about news at the moment with the moves to bring back paywalls (as I’ve written about previously here) and the general nervousness among old media houses that the likes of Google are stealing their thunder (and their ad dollars). Everyone is musing about how this will play out, who will be the winners and what is actually the best way to deliver news to web users. A couple of things have struck me in the last couple of days that deserved a blog post.

Firstly, Google have launched a new product from its labs department. Google Fast Flip is being touted as a new way to read the news, that brings the web experience more in line with newspapers. Basically Google has taken screenshots of web pages containing news stories and put them into a neat user interface that allows you to flip between stories and zoom in on them before deciding whether to click through to the original article.

Google Fast Flip

Google Fast Flip

It’s a really nice way to browse and a great UX to find serendipitous content as you might stumble across something you’re interested in. Of course there’s also Google’s search power under the hood so you can narrow down the content available, isn’t there?

No, it seems that Google hasn’t put it’s search power to good use by letting you search the full content of the articles available (I’ve tested it by searching for specific content within the stories). It is actually just a nice UI to flip and browse through news stories, it doesn’t put that UI on top of the power of Google News though.

Secondly, Microsoft recently unveiled a vision of a ‘Next-Generation Newspaper’ as part of a response to a request from the Newspaper Association of America asking for ideas about ‘monetizing digital content’. The next-generation newspaper delivered as part of their response is remarkably similar to Tweetdeck, as noted by Nieman Journalism Lab today.

Microsofts idea for a 'next-generation newspaper'

Microsofts idea for a 'next-generation newspaper'

The news-deck delivers content in an RSS reader kind of way using a stack of Microsoft technology, content and advertising products. It looks good, and the promise of semantic search, personalisation and contextual awareness is promising.

So, are either of these a ground breaking new way to consume news and do they hold enough promise to herald the future of web based news reading? I don’t think so. They both offer nice solutions to different types of user scenario in my opinion.

Google Fast Flip is a great UI that allows for casual browsing of the news in a similar kind of way to which I read the Sunday newspapers. It’s a coffee and bacon sandwich type situation, but not a serious trawl for information experience for me. It’s too much detail upfront with not enough ability to refine for anyone serious (or used to) discovering content online or even using RSS readers. At least with an RSS reader you can make your choices of who to subscribe to and read articles based on headlines or quick glances at the content. Yes, this is a quick way to thumb the pages but it’s a little gimicky for me and doesn’t fulfill my needs for consuming information. Google partnered with top newspapers to create this but I don’t think it helps them. Digital news content is consumed in a different way to paper content and I think this needs more work before it could ever become the norm for online news reading. Must admit it’s nice on an iPhone though!

Microsoft’s  news-deck aproach suits my needs much better. It has the search and refine type features I’d demand and a familiar UI that works for dashboard type experiences. Is it the future? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s a little lame of Microsoft to propose a solution like this to the challenge from the NAA, it’s too similar to RSS readers and looks too like a cross between Netvibes and Tweetdeck. In fact if you read the details of their response (available from the Nieman Labs post) it really does just sound like next-gen Netvibes to me. It’s not really the future, more what we have now mk2.

Now I’m not sure what the future of news consumption is but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. If you could combine the two you might be getting somewhere, if Fast Flip allowed me to search and read all the content and not click off to the news source it might be better and if Microsofts dashboard wasn’t just a rehashed Netdeck/Tweetvibe it might get me more excited. Personally I’m seeking something more intelligent and with better data mining possibilities to satisfy my search for news (and I wouldn’t limit it to news, any solution should be my medium for information consumption as a whole).

One thing this does make apparent though is that as much as the newspapers and old media want to pull their content in and keep it close, they are going to have to relinquish their hold and let their content free as whatever the user experience of the future is it will demand that.

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Twitter is a source of many things; great content recommendations, trends, memes, geeky chatter, friendships and mindless drivel (40% mindless drivel according to Pear Analytics). Reading this post on how best to use Twitter by Chris Brogan made me think that it could have a future in destination advice and content.

Chris says he uses Twitter before he visits a city to find out who’s there, where they go and what’s good to do. I’ve used Twitter myself for just those reasons when I visited Japan in May and more recently on a trip to Texas. The information returned is pretty good just by using Twitter search but ask a question and you get even better recommendations and content.

I’m thinking that if Twitter could be mined for all the recommendations people make for things in a certain location and a positive/negative sentiment filter be applied to it you’d actually have a pretty good service for travellers. Concierge service in 140 characters anyone? Trust would obviously be an issue but it wouldn’t surprise me (or others here and this article from Chris Brogan again is worth reading on reputation) to see Twitter launching some sort of reputation filter in the future which when combined with sentiment will open up mining of Twitter content to many more uses. Tapping Twitter in a way that delivers the nuggets of information held within in a usable format with sentiment and reputation considered is something I’ve yet to see from any ‘trend’ tool. Does such a thing exist yet?

Paid content, pay walls and the link economy; topics receiving massive attention in the last week thanks to the document (via the Nieman Journalism Lab) distributed by the Associated Press which details their plans to reclaim their content and seek to make it work harder for them. It’s a troubling time for news companies as they struggle to find a way to make their websites profitable and look on in distrust as the aggregators increase their audience and in turn their ad dollars. Is locking up content behind subscriptions and selling online entities the rights to reuse it actually going to help them in the long run?

An interesting debate into this has been sparked by this article from Arnon Mishkin which elicited this response from Jeff Jarvis. They take opposing sides but at the same time both make valid points. Two posts worth reading!

In my opinion the answer isn’t charging for everything. Content creators have the right to charge for something if it’s valuable to someone else, the problem for news is that everyone writes slightly different opinions of the same thing (this post being one example of that). Newspapers and publishers need to have something unique to offer if they’re going to charge users to read it let alone charge others to reuse or further distribute. Some will be able to do this (the FT being a good example), others really don’t offer enough value to get away with it and I’m afraid I think their dreams of making the web their most profitable distribution channel are over.

One problem is that there’s only so many news stories out there and if everyone is covering the same thing then only the best coverage will survive (users will very quickly stop paying if the content isn’t good enough). The other problem I foresee for news is that if you lock your content away and prevent linking then you’ll kill the buzz that surrounds a good story you do publish (how many retweets will a pay walled article get?).

The web is built on links and content curation (not just creation); that’s how buzz explodes, memes spread and serendipity occurs. Cutting this off could just kill a lot of news sources as the more forward thinking (and innovative online) take advantage and continue to push the free and distributed model. Even newspapers get shared, picked up, discussed in the pub and curated. Will web pages behind pay walls have a lifespan or will they end up forgotten in some archive that Google can’t access?

I think linking’s vital to the webs survival and continued growth, it’s how it all started (my first job in web involved building link portals in 1995), and without it we’d be a much poorer community. Content creators need to find ways to monetize their assets while not hindering access or distribution, a new model is required.