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Why a viral radio show owned the story of the financial crisis

Friday, September 18th, 2009

From the most important essay about the news business I’ve read this year:

“Among the assumptions I wanted to test … was the idea that news consumers really are looking for context rather than merely the latest news. After all, during years of working in online newsrooms, I’d seen plenty of deep, contextual news packages ignored by our site users in favor of weather updates and crime reports.

“The financial crisis provided an early test of this assumption. At the time, news about the crisis was ubiquitous. All at once, every news organization was unearthing news about a different aspect of the meltdown—the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the role of the Community Reinvestment Act, the status of the bailout plan wending its way through Congress. Amidst all this news, would people choose context?

“The answer was yes. The breakthrough news item of the year wasn’t an investigation that yielded some hot new scoop, it was a piece of on-the-record explanatory reporting by ‘This American Life’ and National Public Radio that went wildly viral. ‘The Giant Pool of Money’ went on to become the most downloaded episode in the history of ‘This American Life,’ garnering the award trifecta of a duPont, Peabody and Polk for its producers. Many listeners said they’d been tuning out all those crisis-related headlines until they heard the episode. For them, ‘The Giant Pool of Money’ was like a decoder ring for this news story. And once you heard it, you wanted more.”

Two kinds of products that rely on people's flaws

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Here’s a distinction worth understanding:

a) Products that rely on the idea that people will simply be too dumb to figure out an alternative. These products rely only on informational barriers: once you know the better way to do things, it’s no trouble to do things the better way.

Like a car mechanic who preys on ignorance in order to sell more air filters, these products breed resentment.

and

b) Products that rely on the idea that people don’t have the time or effort to pursue an alternative. These products rely on procedural barriers: even if you spent the time to figure out an alternative, you’d need to alter your behavior to take advantage of it.

Like a car mechanic who pokes around in earnest for possible mechanical problems you haven’t yet noticed, these products breed loyalty.

Next gen of online comments: in-line comments

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

I’m late to this party, but if you haven’t seen the comment system on Jack Slocum’s blog, you gotta. I’m not sure it lends itself to news, since it requires that click to view, but this is still explosive stuff.

Saving the suburbs from bowling alone

Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

The Web gives local newspapers a chance to fill a social vacuum that’s arisen in small towns and suburbs across the United States. One Illinois paper is setting out to do it.

The (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald is the quintessential suburban newspaper. Penetration is weak, but they make up for it on volume, distributing more than 20 zoned editions to a sprawling footprint across Chicago’s wealthy west and northwest suburbs.

Character? Some. Soul? Um.

Beep, the family-owned paper’s new publication for 18-34s, wants to give the suburbs a soul. Not only does it aim to introduce local folks to one other online — log in to see the pleasantly quirky user profile page — it wants to become a social resource for hundreds of thousands of young suburbanites who feel alienated or lonely in the atomized modern world. It wans to let them know that they aren’t alone, that things are happening near them. And it knows that — unlike in the big city — the perfect distribution model for the car-addicted, shrub-encrusted suburbs is the Web.

This is not a trivial service to readers, or to society.

Though the who-attended-whose-party “community pages” of newspapers across the country are treated like vestigal organs, just waiting for their elderly readers to go blind, local papers shouldn’t turn up their noses at the past. Those were — remember? — the glory days, for newspapers as well as American society. The social institutions of the 20th Century have crumbled, but human thirst for physical interaction hasn’t. As the prime clearinghouses for local information, newspapers can use the distribution power of the Web to help people find each other again, and build institutions for the next hundred years.

Beep and its peers have an inspiring vision for the Web, and though I’m not affiliated with Beep, I’m proud to say I played a part in its creation.