Hats off to the Commercial Appeal for a good solid piece of investigative journalism about how Shelby County General Sessions Court Judges are absent way more than they should be. http://bit.ly/CAJudgeInvestigation
Unfortunately, because they and most other news organizations are still stuck in a primarily narrative story mode, where text-based stories that disappear shortly after creation are the norm, they missed multiple opportunities to transform their work into more useful, usable and longer-lived content.
If the Commercial Appeal and other news organizations are going to succeed on the Web, they’re going to need to move beyond just writing stories to creating information products that maximize both the value of their work to the news organization and their audience.
So what do I mean by that?
So instead of just writing stories, think about the different challenges your audiences face and how if you structured the information differently, you can help them solve those challenges. And secondly, how could you leverage the information to drive ongoing engagement over time.
Below are a few thoughts that came to mind after I read the story.
Learn how the brain works
The brain has three types of memory:
- Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
- Working Memory: The brains RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory.
- Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.
The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.
Just think about all the stories you’ve read where you’ve confused the various characters and have to constantly refer to earlier parts of the story to understand who’s who and what’s what.
Just as we no longer rely on just oral communication, we can’t rely on just text in a world with almost infinite design options if you want to maximize your story’s impact.
I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.
Help me understand my government
First, while the article was chock full of information, I still don’t understand how the different courts are structured or work. There was a paragraph or two buried in the article about the different courts, but since the article was so fact dense, the information was quickly pushed out of my working memory as I tried to absorb other details in the story.
The local court system in Shelby County is incredibly confusing, but there is nowhere you can go that explains how the different courts are structured and compare them with each other. The CA provided some limited explanation of the court structure in the article, but if they had created a table that explained the various courts and provided links to more in depth descriptions, they would have both provided better context – and created evergreen content that would be helpful to anyone who is trying to understand the Shelby County Court system.
While the investigations are great, developing rich base content about the people and institutions that serve us would fill a giant information gap in the market and provide a better foundation for stories like this to build from.
Unfortunately, by not thinking of themselves as a Wikipedia for local government, they missed out on the opportunity to:
- Better serve their readers by providing insights into a confusing and opaque system.
- Create evergreen/longtail content that will be relevant months and years after it was written.
- Deliver a better user experience as the structural details of the various players, processes and systems get lost in traditional storyform.
Just ask yourself, where do you, your friends and family turn to when they have questions about their local government? Is it a local news site? And is it easy for them to find the information they want? Or is there an opportunity for you to fill?
Help me vote
Second, by not structuring the story as part of a larger voter-guide initiative, they lost the opportunity to make it easier for me to make decisions about the upcoming ballot.
The upcoming ballot in Shelby County will be huge – especially with all the various judgeships on the ballot. As someone who’s not involved in the legal community nor closely tied to the local political parties, I don’t have a clue who these people or what their duties.
If the Commercial Appeal created a ballot structure with links to the various articles/information – or that had the information in such a way that I could easily save as part of a voter guide, the stories would go from “Hmmm… this is interesting and potentially outrageous” to “Oh… this is great, they’re creating a comprehensive voter guide that I can easily use to help me make voting decisions.”
Instead I read the article, thought this is bad and I need to save this information for when I vote, then promptly lost the article and got lazy about copying the information to a form that I could use to decide and document my ballot choices. As a result, I may not ever use the information in the article as part of my voting decision-making process because of the additional work required by me to make it usable for me. (Okay, I will but only because I’m a nerd who invested so much time writing about the article.)
Don’t make me work
Stories are great for painting pictures of events and conflict, but they frankly suck for providing detailed minutiae as our brains can only hold so much detail in our working memory. Instead of forcing people to remember a bunch of facts and figures, news organizations need to focus on new ways to help people easily understand both the larger context and the details of who’s doing what – neither of which traditional text-based stories are very good at doing.
So considering how much time is invested in investigative work, in the future news organizations need to think how best to communicate that information to their audiences for their audiences’ benefit – and how best to transform that information into valuable longer-term assets.