Today's news is highly unidirectional - newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts and television news all convey a fixed story targeted towards general news consumers. Editors and producers must make news judgments about their product assuming their readers and viewers have the same knowledge about a subject. In an attempt to be relevant to as wide an audience as possible, this one-size-fits-all approach becomes a problem with complex subjects, especially ones where the knowledge base of news consumers varies widely.
The growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web promises an optimistic solution. What the Web lacks in richness in visual aesthetic, it makes up for in interactivity. Text is harder to read on the computer screen than it is in print. Viewing a video clip on the Web resembles a slide show with broken audio. Web surfers are willing to settle for reduced quality in exchange for choice - the ability to interact and direct the flow of information.
The "interactivity" of media can be defined in terms of richness of feedback, control, creativity, productivity and communications. These techniques can enhance understanding of news content by allowing users to stitch together the unique context for them to understand the news.
Minding the Knowledge Gap
Stories with rapidly changing facts or with complicated issues are particularly hard to cover for a general audience. In particular, international news and business issues are highly complex and depend upon a deep understanding of terminology, history and analytical information. To understand the conflict in Kosovo or Chechnya, a news consumer must understand the underlying ethnic strife, economic conditions, political developments and historical background. It is particularly tough to track all these criteria and keep a story compelling at the same time. Publications such as The Economist have a remarkable talent for addressing both of these goals, but in general, news organizations find it difficult to balance being succinct and being complete. As a result, many news organizations attempt to "dumb down" the news at the expense of providing a total view of the story. Clearly this is not an ideal solution.
It's been said that news is the "first draft of history." It would be more accurate to say that there are many first drafts, each one constantly changing and varying in accuracy. We have plenty of news sources that produce the "breaking" news - television news, cable news channels, radio programs, newspapers. For a "longer" view, we have weekly/monthly print magazines and television news magazines. But there is a surprising lack of content between the magazine and the history book. Traditionally, the media have not addressed this "knowledge gap".
Stories that make page one today seem to drift into the ether tomorrow. Follow ups, clarifications and corrections to a particular story usually appear in obscure locations such as the inside page of the next issue or at the bottom of the next day's television news program. This knowledge gap has the greatest impact on people arriving in the middle of the story.
For young news consumers just becoming familiar with the events of the day, digesting the news can be difficult. Newspaper stories usually depend on readers to possess significant knowledge of the topic at hand. For "new" readers, it's hard to fill in the gaps. In the 1970s, stories regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Vietnam War fell into this gap. These events of the late 50s, 60s and early 70s were too "new" for inclusion in school history, yet they were too "old" to be rehashed in daily newspaper articles.
Not surprisingly, news stories about long term conflicts and investigations are likely to fall into this knowledge gap. These types of stories usually build over an extended period of time and have pivotal twists and turns. At any given moment, it is hard to provide a full glimpse of these ever changing stories.
Interactive technology for news applications promises to help us "mind the gap." It allows news consumers to create the associations and research the background material needed to put any and every story into its proper context. Interactivity works not as a rival to traditional "push" delivery methods, but as an adjunct to produce better-informed news consumers. Rather than a "one-size-fits-all" publication, interactive methods can provide an experience that can be tailored for different "knowledge profiles."
We are starting to see a number of resources that provide "simple" interactive access to story subjects without being "simple minded." Some examples of interactive products leading the charge include Web sites ranging from general news to business to museum exhibition.
Map of the Market
In the world of investing, there is no better example of trying to "snapshot" the development of a story than the stock market index. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, NASDAQ, Hang Seng and other market indices attempt to summarize the complexity of a whole day's trading of billions of shares into a single number. This simplification provides a poor indicator and delivers very little insight into specific industries and associated gains and trends. In the absence of any other tools, news organizations are relegated to using these simple numbers as their "news."
One bold step to provide better insight into the world of stocks is the Map of the Market application developed by the team at SmartMoney.com. This interactive Web site uses a Java applet to provide a two-dimensional map of representative stocks from the NYSE and NASDAQ markets, showing the relative market capitalization of the companies and their performance for a specific time period. Instead of simplifying a whole day's worth of trades into one number, the Map of the Market allows users to view performance on a color coded map, showing the size of stock increases/decreases and their relative impact on the market. It is an excellent example how to bundle multiple values into one user-friendly view, and providing one-click access to corporate profiles and related news items.
Yahoo Full Coverage and NewsMaps.com
A direct approach to filling in the "knowledge gap" of news information is to provide ready access to as many resources as possible for the news consumer. Yahoo Full Coverage packages a comprehensive set of news stories from the Associated Press, Reuters, Agency French Press and other news services along with multimedia, photos and external links. By providing as many materials and related materials and keeping them constantly refreshed, Yahoo has taken the position of a content aggregator to the ultimate level.
If Yahoo Full Coverage provides an exhaustive list of related news items, NewsMaps attempts to map these relationships graphically into a space that users can explore interactively. By using a geographical contour map metaphor, NewsMaps(http://www.newsmaps.com/ )creates a true "landscape" of news stories and shows related stories by their physical proximity on the map. Sets of stories that constitute a trend or newsworthy topic create clusters or "hills" that appear as peaks on the landscape.
The Thinkmap provides a tool for creating interactive displays of interrelated data. It goes beyond just visualizing data by allowing users to interact and navigate the complex relationships among items in a database, or set of news items.
Plumbdesign has used this technique not only to model the relationships in a thesaurus, but also for creating interfaces for accessing the collection of a museum. In the Revealing Things project for the Smithsonian Museum in the United States, the Thinkmap is used to show the associations among various museum artifacts. As the first Internet-only exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution, the site allows viewers to see the artifacts related by era, by theme or by object type. The associations can be made either by word descriptions or pictures of the objects themselves.
Through a very simple interface, the Thinkmap allows users to simulate the museum "browsing" experience by perusing the objects through interactive methods.
Interactivity Into the Future
Today, we view interactivity as the ability to point and click with a mouse to "surf" to packaged content.
What might interactivity look like in the future? Work at the new Interactive Design Lab at Columbia University will explore this question in collaboration with companies and researchers around the world. As a collaboration between the School of the Arts and the School of Journalism, the IDL will examine interactivity in creative content applications and the work process for developing interactive products.
Many pieces of the interactive future are being developed in the laboratory today. Of particular interest is the ability to go beyond the keyboard and the mouse for inputting information into the computer. Speech recognition and dictation has recently become a consumer reality. Digital cameras can now transmit still images directly into the computer without the need for developing film.
We are now moving beyond the era of still graphics and into motion video. Consumer desktop computers are becoming video-ready, even handling "broadcast" quality content. The new Apple iMac and consumer-oriented video input cards will make video, as a data type, as common as icons and pictures. The advent of new image-based or video-based data operations will be important for searching and organizing large repositories of visual information.
This will allow for efficient searching of video news stories based on text transcript and content conveyed in the audio and video stream. Imagine being able to find a news story based on an audio search for a certain phrase, or based on the composition of a still frame of video.
One of the largest challenges for the future of interactivity is bandwidth, or the capacity of our information networks to carry data. A truly interactive universe for all information and news consumers would mean many streams of sporadic data, something that our circuit-based telecommunication systems are not fit to handle.
Internet2, a special research project that promises to increase the speed of point-to-point communications 100 to 1,000 fold, promises to be the solution. Internet2 not only promises greater bandwidth, but it also brings lower latency, or delay, in the network. This will allow real-time applications, such as videoconferencing, among multiple parties to become a reality.
While the creation of more interactive products will hinge on technological advances, the issue of usability is the most important. Personal computers are notoriously tough to use and maintain. Many folks believe that the solution will be information appliances - computing devices specialized to perform fewer functions than personal computers, but perform them more reliably and intuitively. This will allow an entire sector of non-computer literate types to embrace the technology. After all, interactivity is valuable only if people find it easy to use.
As we end the century of the information age, communications over the global Internet will take an increasingly important role in storytelling and the news. Organizations that employ rich interactive methods in their products will be at the forefront of innovative content for the next millennium.