News online as narrative

Like many people now, I tend to read a lot of news online (mostly BBC News and the Guardian), as well as reading the occasional newspaper (mostly the Independent or the Guardian). It goes without saying that the two forms are very different, and are read in different ways.

Newspapers allow you to see lots of news stories at once, your eye quickly picking out ones you want to read. They're also published as discrete entities, published in a single volume once a day (excluding the Evening Standard).

Online news sites are published continuously - sites like BBC News publish a story every few minutes, 24 hours a day. The 'browsing' experience doesn't differ too hugely from newspapers - but more importantly, news sites can be searched, and can thus be read more actively, with the user seeking out the news they want to read about (often after hearing about it first elsewhere, eg on TV).

This is all well and good, and I haven't said anything original so far. My big idea is still to come. But first, I should mention the next important development for news sites - RSS feeds. The BBC news site has been publishing RSS headline feeds for a while now. There are different feeds for different sections of the site, such as 'health' and 'technology', allowing you to subscribe to the areas you are interested in. Combining these with a feed-reader like Bloglines means that you see the headlines for all stories in that section, even if you don't log in for a few days.

Now one of my general problems with the news generally, is that I often get frustrated by reading interesting news stories, which surface and then disappear before being properly concluded. Think about how often you read about murders, or court cases, or protests, or world developments, without ever finding out 'what happened next'. It might be, of course, that the story fizzles out, leaving the news sources with nothing to report on, or that the resolution is too boring to be reported on, or that it is reported on but you just miss it.

The thing with news is that any news bulletin, newspaper edition or internet-published story is not a stand-alone item but is part of a greater narrative. News is comparable to soaps, where every episode simply contains short scenes which advance a multitude of parallel plots as part of an overall never-ending saga. When you start watching, you're expected to figure out what's happened so far, and you stop watching when you get bored of it all.

Now, wouldn't it be great if you could 'subscribe' to news narratives as you read them, and then be kept automatically up-to-date with new developments as they happen? The whole process could be as easy as subscribing to threads in an internet forum.

Adding on such functionality to news websites could be easy. RSS feeds are the obvious choice for implementing the subscribing mechanism, although you could also develop an on-site interface. All it would then need is a mechanism built into the content production system by which reporters assign individual news stories to an ongoing narrative. This might be a bit tricky, but the BBC already does something similar. Many news stories have a 'see also' section, which links to vaguely-related past stories (probably picked out by matching up a couple of keywords).

Other stories (eg 'Blunket speeding up nanny's visa') feature an 'in depth' box to the right, which contain the most recent items within that overall story, as well as links to some background stories. This is getting close to my narratives idea, and if you click through to the default page for that 'in depth' feature (a non-comprehensive list of these is available here), you can even subscribe to the RSS feed (eg Blunket Resignation RSS).

This feature isn't particularly well advertised - why not put a link to that RSS feed on all the Blunket-resignation articles, for instance? - and doesn't go far enough. Only the big narratives are covered in this way, and some of the topics are too wide - Countryside Matters, for instance. The desire to be able to subscribe to RSS feeds for individual narratives was demonstrated by the creation of third-party tools to generate keyword RSS feeds of BBC News. Search keywords are a fairly crude way of keeping up with a news narrative though, and so a more architectured approach would be more useful for this purpose.

Implementing all this might take some time and resources, but I think that there's a clear case for doing it. Returning to the forum analogy, users keep returning to websites with forums because they are interested in the threads and can easily keep track of new posts. Allowing narrative-subscription on news sites would cause the same thing - your users will keep continuously returning, and will develop a much deeper and more trusting relationship with the site.

See Also: :-)