Newsrooms have glance journalism up their sleeves

For years I've been impressing on my journalism students the importance of microcontent. But, until smartwatches came along, I just didn't realize how micro things would get.

Microcontent is the headlines, subheads, grabber quotes and other elements in larger-type sizes of an article's layout. Online they should serve to let the reader know what the story is about and reveal salient details about the content. Why? Because readers make choices about stories quickly, within seconds. And, those same readers are on a mission. They are hunters and gatherers looking for information that matters. If your microcontent doesn't let them decide whether your story is a nutritious news snack they need now, they will move on.

And, headlines and subheads are especially important when content is atomized and those chunks of microcontent end up in an RSS feed or on a smartphone screen divorced from your story. They act as lonely ambassadors for your deathless prose.

But, the advent of wearable technology like smartwatches has ushered in what's been called "glance journalism." On smartwatches, headlines appear on a small wrist-worn screen. Those headlines can be dismissed with a tap, a swipe and button push, or by just not looking at the screen when a buzz on the wrist says some piece of news has arrived. News alerts on a wearable are completely disposable.

That's why newsrooms are beginning to give special attention to the glance. What does it mean that someone looks at your news alert when it appears on their wrist? Is the headline the right kind of microcontent to send to a wearable? If someone looks at an alert but doesn't take any action, what does that mean? And, how do you measure it?

When the editors at New York Times designed their Apple Watch app, they decided that glances matter, a lot. In fact, they think they deserve a new form of microcontent: the one-line story. That careful reduction is different from a headline in that it tries to convey more story content and is, in the Times case, accompanied with bulleted details and an opportunity to continue reading the story on the phone or save it in a reading list for later.

But, recent ethnographic research about how people consume news suggests that even when folks don't continue reading or save an article for later, they are still ingesting the news snack on their wrist, in a glance. We all know this is true. We scan headlines all the time and think, "interesting" and move on. We get the gist, aren't all that interested to know more, and continue with our day. Glances just focus our news-grazing behaviour to one snack at a time.

This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse for news operations. It's easy to count clicks, harder to register passive glances since the Software Development Kits (SDKs) for wearables don't yet let you determine the ratio of acted-upon vs. non-acted-upon alerts.

It's also going to be tricky to determine not just glance microcontent, but also its frequency and applicability. Anybody with a Pebble or Android Wear watch now can tell you that getting frequent alert buzzes on your wrist at random times is maddening. A news organ that delivers too many alerts will get banished from the smartwatch pronto. On the other hand, alerts that arrive just when you need them will be embraced. A news alert about a traffic accident on a highway you're about to drive on is a blessing. This is the superpower of Android Wear alerts coupled with Google's ability to pay attention to everything you search on.

I think that wrist buzzes (or taps, on the Apple Watch) could mean that, like messy Second World War soldiers, we'll all start wearing our spam on our sleeves. News organizations or third parties that can intelligently filter the news we need now from the "bug me later" will be huge winners. News has always been about helping people make sense of the world and has prided itself on delivering news you need now. The difference today is, the news is a sentence long and the now? It's a whole lot shorter.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Margherita J. L. Lisoni/flickr

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