Is River Of News an advance for readers or not?

Doc Searles has a long and interesting post about what Dave Winer’s “River of News” concept is really all about. He makes the point that a lot of those saying “so what?” about it – myself included – are missing the point.

My point is that Dave isn’t just coming at this as a technologist. He’s coming at this as a publisher. Specifically, he’s proposing River of News as a new format for publishing. Or a new approach to it. His message with River of News isn’t just for geeks like us. It’s for the NYTimes and BBCs of the world, as well as for bloggers whose output is frequent and texty and newsy enough to work, as Paul Kedrosky says, like a newswire. But unlike the old newswires that went from AP and UPI to newsrooms at newspapers and broadcasters (or to professionals at workstations at brokerage houses), River of News goes directly from writer to reader. In other words, its a new, phone-friendly approach to publishing.

There are a couple of points in answer to this. The first is that the notion of creating a site explicitly for mobile users isn’t new. The BBC, for one, already does it – a service that I use pretty much on a daily basis.

But that isn’t the only thing about River of News. The other aspect of it is that it treats all forms of content in the same way: with the time of posting as the only heirarchy. There’s no attempt to define something as “top story” or sectionalise the content beyond the raw RSS feed. Of course, this has technically been done before too – NewsGator lets you convert any feed or set of feeds into a Mobile-friendly format – but the point that both Doc and I believe Dave are making is that this “River of News” approach is the best method of working on small-screen devices, as it intrinsically divorces the content from that Doc refers to as “stuff”.

As Doc puts it:

Mobile feeds and systems for looking at them on phones may not be new. But getting publishing in alignment with the needs of Web users with cell phones is new. That’s why River of News is a business hack. It’s not a social hack, because the users are already there. The River of News idea calls attention to an opportunity opening up for everybody who produces news. Not just for those who consume it.

The thing is that the reverse-chronological approach isn’t the best way to consume news for most people, because it lacks one of the main things that readers expect from publications: context. The only editorialising is time-based: the latest story is the one on the top. Unfortunately, that doesn’t actually tell you what is and is not “news”, because news means more than simply what is new.

Take a look at Dave’s BBCRiver.com site, and compare it to the main BBC News Mobile site. As I write, the top story on the official BBC site is “13 Obese Adults by 2010″ – the same as the top story on the main BBC page. On BBCRiver, this is the sixth story down – top story is “Wembley Casino plans axed”.

Why does this matter? Because people go to a news site to find out what’s happening, and part of finding out what’s happening is seeing instantly what the most important thing occurring at that moment is. Chronological reverse order tells you what the latest news is – but not the most important.

With mobile access, the need to show what the most important story is is doubly important, because access is likely to be sporadic. I spend five minutes checking the news on the bus. I spend ten minutes reading while getting coffee. I don’t have the news constantly trickling in, and I don’t want to have to wade through all the latest minor stories in order to find the major ones.

The River of News approach works when content is fairly slow, when there are (at most) five-ten stories per day. But for an organisation like the BBC, which produces hundreds of stories and story updates across a huge range of subjects, it is at best confusing at at worse unusable as a coherent news source. Far from being phone-friendly as Doc claims, it’s phone-unfriendly – you don’t want to have to scroll down five screens of local news stories and sport in order to find out that a plane’s been blown up. The comparison with an AP feed that Doc makes is quite a good one: 80% of newswire stories get dumped by editors unless it’s a slow news day or they have specialised interest. Because River of News has no one editing it, no one saying “this is the top story” it fails as a coherent news source.

  • naomi

    hi ian, i think you make some really valid points and i know from experience of working on rss feeds for bbc news that these issues are exactly the kind of thing that we spent a lot of time debating. i guess what the bbc tries to do is offer users a range of content consumption options so that they can choose the way in which they consume content that most suits them. for some of course, the editorial agenda is a crucial aspect of why they chose bbc news and not any random source. for others i guess they like to think that they can make their own mind up about what’s important and what isn’t. but i do know, and think (for what it’s worth!) you’re absolutely right to point out that context and editorialisation are absolutely fundamental to the bbc’s offering. whether you agree with that editorialisation is, of course, a whole other argument!

  • http://www.scripting.com/ Dave Winer

    In the US the top story is the death of a 6-year-old girl ten years ago. Maybe your editors in the UK are better at setting your priorities than ours are, I certainly hope so.

    And I haven’t spent much time on the BBC river, although I have subscribed to many BBC feeds in my RON desktop aggregator, for years. I vastly prefer it to the hunt and peck method of finding out what’s new, which is why I look for “news” — the new stuff.

    In any case, your mileage may vary. And I’m thankful that you’re no longer calling me names, that gives us a chance to have a reasonable discussion. :-)

  • http://www.bynkii.com John C. Welch

    So wait…Dave reinvented the stock ticker concept and merged it with feeds?

    This is somehow…something? What’s next, merging single-malt scotch with a baby bottle?

    Yay, now I can get all my news like it was a really high-traffic mailing list, woo-hoo. Sweet, sweet innovation, is there anything you can’t do?