The problem with online media

… is that there is no ending. There is no sense of having “finished the newspaper”.

And there is no context. You see the homepage of a major newspaper, and you see a bunch of headlines leading to links. Occasionally there are section headers that tell you which broad section of the newspaper they come from (news/opinion), but that context is usually far inferior to what you see in print.

So addressing the issues one by one, the first “issue” with online media which no website (AFAIK) can solve is that online news is an online process (apologies for the pun) – as news comes in it needs to be displayed on the website, without really waiting for “editions”. This means there is a conflict between “importance” and “recency” – what kind of news do you show near the top and in bold? Stuff that came in latest or stuff that you think is important?

This means that you need a “live editor” (might be replaced by a bot very soon) all the time who takes a call on what comes on top. Yet, if I’m checking the news after a day, what might be “important” for me is very different from what might be important for you who is checking the news after half an hour. You most definitely want the latest stuff, while I possibly want to know everything that’s happened in the day. And a simple news website cannot cater to both.

The other problem is the lack of context and information before clicking through. In an offline newspaper, there is a large amount of information you have before you “click through” to an article. There is the page it appears on – if you are a regular reader of the paper, you know the kind of articles that appear on each page.

There is the author – you have most definitely built a model over time on which authors to not miss and whom to avoid. There is the length of the article. And there are articles that appear around it. And all these put together provide you enough information on whether it might be worth reading the content on an article.

Most of this is missing in online media, where you need to make your decision to read on headlines. Which can sometimes be click-baity and not all that informative. And so the chances of regret having clicked through to an article is high. Which means that you need some sort of external cues to make you want to click through and read an article.

And so you start consuming news through social media – articles that your friends recommend, with possibly some more information and context on what it’s about. This information and context would have in an offline world been given to you by the newspaper itself.

And so as you consume more and more news from social media, you have the usual problems of echo chambers, and not even glancing through the headlines of news you don’t like (notice how a traditional offline newspaper makes you go through most headlines, whether you like it or not!).

Finally, in an online newspaper there is no concept of having “finished” the paper, of having consumed all the news. As you keep consuming news, you find new pieces of information being thrown at you. Not knowing when to stop, you simply give up!

Context sensitive and context free journalism

My wife thinks that most of my writing for Mint is incredibly boring, and of a significantly inferior quality to what I publish on this blog. Initially I thought it was because I was taking myself too seriously for Mint (a national newspaper and all that), but despite my attempts to “loosen up”, and write my Mint articles “in flow”, the criticism continues.

Now thinking about it, one reason why my writing for Mint might be boring is that in the beginning of each piece I try hard to provide context. I write without assuming that my readers know exactly what I’m writing about, and so I spend some time giving sufficient background so that my readers appreciate my articles (and most of my pieces appear with minimal edits).

This, I realise now, is not how Indian journalism usually works, for in a large majority of pieces it is assumed that the reader has context. Many a time I find myself reading a piece and not being able to make the head or tail of it, and then going back and trying to figure out the context. The point of several articles I’ve read has become clear only in retrospect, when I’ve found something else that this article was referencing (but didn’t link to).

On the other hand, a “newspaper” like The Economist mostly does context-free journalism. Every piece comes with sufficient background for the reader to know what is happening. There may not be links to find out more, but the limited context provided is enough to understand the point of the piece. Maybe that they are a weekly, and cover news from all over the world makes them want to provide context?

In any case, I find context-sensitive journalism (like what most daily newspapers practice) irritating. Or maybe it is that they haven’t really made the transition from print to digital? Print is a medium where the publisher controls what articles are seen together by a reader, and so one article can provide the required context to an adjacent article.

There is no such “togetherness” in digital. This strengthens my belief that journalism is still yet to “get” digital.

TV Punditry

Those of you who might be following me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIN) might know that I’ve started a career in TV Punditry over the last week. Well, it’s not that much of a career – I still need to figure out how to get paid for it.

Anyway, so I was on News9 once on Saturday (analysing exit polls) and again on Tuesday (analysing the election results). It happened pretty much at random, from a random twitter conversation:

And so Mathang (who I’d first met in 2004 when he had interviewed me for Education Times) set me up with Anil Kumar from News9, who presently asked me for my number. A couple of twitter DMs, a couple of emails and a couple of phone calls later, I had been asked to come to the News9 studio at 5pm on Saturday.

Saturday’s session was really enjoyable, and I spoke a fair bit on the process of conducting an exit poll, the importance of sample sizes and representative samples, the process of converting votes to seats, etc. A 5 minute monologue on sampling process got the anchors interested in me, and they kept coming back to me. As is my wont, I summarised the import of my arguments for Mint.

And so I got invited again for Tuesday’s post-counting session, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it that much. As the elections threw up a hung assembly, the politicians on the panel spent their time shouting at each other. I was seated in an inappropriate place – right between a loud JDS spokesperson and a loud BJP spokesperson. I recused myself from much of the discussion and was only brought in because the anchors probably thought I should be “given some lines” – an opportunity I used to comment on the parties’ election strategies.

So two TV appearances later, I must say I quite like the format – it’s good footage (literally) if not anything else, but it can be a bit painful. Writing is easy in the sense that you just collect your thoughts and deliver them at a time.

Video means that you are virtually participating in a group discussion, and need to butt in to make your point. You might have something insightful to say, but need to wait for an opportune time to interject. You might be in the middle of a long point but get interrupted by another panellist. You might wait for ages to say something but the opportunity never comes. At other times, you might get a question that you’re not prepared for.

The worst thing as an analytical guy on TV is that you need to keep referring to your data, and your analysis. So there was one occasion on each session when the anchors asked me a question to answer which I’d to write some code to answer. So each time I mumbled something and bent down to my laptop, and got bailed out by the anchor who got someone else’s view in the time I took to get the requisite data.

In any case, I want to do more of this. I also hope that like with my writing, I can some day hope to get paid for TV appearances – this is a hard job since panellists representing political parties don’t charge anything – it’s in their parties’ interests to be represented on the show.

But, some day..

Algorithmic curation

When I got my first smartphone (a Samsung Galaxy Note 2) in 2013, one of the first apps I installed on it was Flipboard. I’d seen the app while checking out some phones at either the Apple or Samsung retail outlets close to my home, and it seemed like a rather interesting idea.

For a long time, Flipboard was my go-to app to check the day’s news, as it conveniently categorised news into “tech”, “business” and “sport” and learnt about my preferences and fed me stuff I wanted. And then after some update, it suddenly stopped working – somehow it started serving too much stuff I didn’t want to read about, and when I tuned (by “following” and “unfollowing” topics) my feed, it progressively got worse.

I stopped using it some 2 years back, but out of curiosity started using it again recently. While it did throw up some nice articles, there is too much unwanted stuff in the app. More precisely, there’s a lot of “clickbaity” stuff (“10 things about Narendra Modi you would never want to know” and the like) in my feed, meaning I have to wade through a lot of such articles to find the occasional good ones.

(Aside: I dedicate about half a chapter to this phenomenon in my book. The technical term is “congestion”. I talk about it in the context of markets in relationships and real estate)

Flipboard is not the only one. I use this app called Pocket to bookmark long articles and read later. A couple of years back, Pocket started giving “recommendations” based on what I’d read and liked. Initially it was good, and mostly curated from what my “friends” on Pocket recommended. Now, increasingly I’m getting clickbaity stuff again.

I stopped using Facebook a long time before they recently redesigned their newsfeed (to give more weight to friends’ stuff than third party news), but I suspect that one of the reasons they made the change was the same – the feed was getting overwhelmed with clickbaity stuff, which people liked but didn’t really read.

Basically, there seems to be a widespread problem in a lot of automatically curated news feeds. To put it another way, the clickbaity websites seem to have done too well in terms of gaming whatever algorithms the likes of Facebook, Flipboard and Pocket use to build their automated recommendations.

And more worryingly, with all these curators starting to do badly around the same time (ok this is my empirical observation. Given few data points I might be wrong), it suggests that all automated curation algorithms use a very similar algorithm! And that can’t be a good thing.

Why Twitter is like Times Now

One reason I stopped watching news television about a decade back is because of its evolution into a “one issue channel”. On each day, a channel basically picks a “topic of the day”, and most discussion on that day is regarding that particular topic.

In that sense, these “news channels” hardly provide news (unless you bother to follow the tickers at the bottom) – they only provide more and more discussion about the topic du jour (ok I’m feeling all pseud about using French on my blog!). If you’re interested in that topic, and willing to consume endless content about it, great for you. If not, you better look for your news elsewhere (like the <whatever> o’clock news on the government-owned channel which at least makes a pretence of covering all relevant stuff).

One thing that made Twitter attractive soon after I joined it in 2008 was the diversity of discussions. Maybe it was the nature of the early users, but the people I followed provoked thought and provided content on a wide array of topics, at least some of which I would find interesting. And that made spending time on twitter worthwhile.

It’s still true on a lot of days nowadays, but I find that Twitter is increasingly becoming like a modern news channel such as Times Now. When there are certain events, especially of a political nature, it effectively becomes a one-topic channel, with most of the timeline getting filled with news and opinion about the event. And if it is either an event you don’t care about, or if you’ve moved on from the event, Twitter effectively becomes unusable on such days.

In fact, a few of my twitter breaks in the last 2-3 years have followed such periods when Twitter has turned into a “one issue channel”. And on each of these occasions, when I’ve joined back, I’ve responded by unfollowing many of these “one-issue tweeters” (like this guy who I don’t follow any more because he has a compulsive need to livetweet any game that Arsenal is playing).

That Twitter becomes a one-topic channel occasionally is not surprising. Basically it goes like this – there are people who are deeply passionate or involved in the topic, and they show their passion by putting out lots of tweets on the topic. And when the topic is a current event, it means that several people on your timeline might feel passionately about it.

People not interested in the topic will continue to tweet at their “usual rate”, but that gets effectively drowned out in the din of the passionate tweeters. And when you look at your linear timeline, you only see the passion, and not the diverse content that you use Twitter for.

Some people might suggest a curated algorithmic feed (rather than a linear feed) as a solution for this – where a smart algorithm learns that you’re not interested in the topic people are so passionate about and shows you less of that stuff. I have a simpler solution.

Basically the reason I’m loathe to unfollow these passionate tweeters is that outside of their temporary passions, they are terrific people and tweet about interesting stuff (else I wouldn’t follow them in the first place). The cost of this, however, is that I have to endure their passions, which I frequently have no interest in.

The simple solution is that you should be able to “temporarily unfollow” people (Twitter itself doesn’t need to allow this option – a third party client that you use can offer this at a higher layer). This is like WhatsApp where you can mute groups for just a day, or a week. So you can unfollow these passionate people for a day, by which time their passion will subside, and you can see their interesting selves tomorrow!

Of course it’s possible to manually implement this, but I know that if I unfollow them today I might forget to follow them back tomorrow. And there are countless examples of people in that category – who I unfollowed when they were passionate and have thus missed out on their awesomeness.

 

The problem with premium ad-free television

I watched snippets of the just-concluded ICC WorldT20 final using an illegal streaming service, which streamed content drawn from SkySports2.  The horrible quality of the streaming aside (the server seemed to have terrible bandwidth issues), the interesting thing to note was that it was completely devoid of advertisements.

With the quality of cricket coverage in India currently being abysmal due to the frequent cutting for advertisements (I remember getting thoroughly pissed off with the cuts for advertisements before the replay of a wicket was shown during the India-Australia series earlier this year), it made me think about the economics of a separate premium service that is ad-free.

The infrastructure for delivery is in place, given that internet-based legal streaming services are fairly common now (the likes of HotStar). Internet-based delivery also makes it easy to charge pay per view, so payment is also not a problem. This raises the question of whether it is a good idea for channels to monetise the demand for ad-free cricket by providing the service through online streaming, leaving the mainstream broadcast to be monetised via advertisements.

While in theory this appears like a good idea, the problem is with the kind of people who will migrate to the new service – they will be people who have the ability and willingness to pay for a higher quality broadcast. Such people are likely to belong to two overlapping categories – loyal fans of the game and people who can afford to pay a premium.

It is unlikely that the┬áunion of these two sets will comprise of too high a proportion of the overall viewership of the game, but the point is that these are the two groups who are likely to be most lucrative to advertisers – the loyal fans watch regularly and the people who are able to pay have more disposable income.

Moving such customers to an ad-free online channel might reduce the supply of advertisements which can be used to reach them, and this might not make advertisers happy. And given that television channels have cosy relationships with advertisers (or at least media buyers), they are unlikely to piss them off by moving the most lucrative customers to a premium platform.

Of course if this segmentation (between ad-free and free broadcasts) is implemented, it will also impact the price of advertisements in the free broadcast. That will need to be taken as an input while setting prices for the ad-free service. In other words, pricing is going to be a challenge!

If some television channel wants to work on this, I’m available for hire as a consultant. I’ve done a fair amount of prior work on pricing and dynamic pricing, am pretty good at quantitative methods and am in the course of writing a popular economics book.

Bleg: News sources

I’ve decided to take yet another social media sabbatical (long time readers know I do this once in a while), and since I’m currently living abroad, one of the downsides of this is that I now have no direct access to news (social media did provide news, but came along with extremely fierce commentary and outrage).

I use Flipboard to curate some news, but the way I’ve been curating it of late means that I don’t get much news about India. Online editions of newspapers are there, but I find that most simply use them to archive stories, and the curation that is present in newspapers is missing.

So I’m basically looking towards curated sources of news that i can read and be satisfied that I know what’s happening in this world. I currently subscribe to two newsletters – the Economist Espresso that arrives in the morning and tells me all that’s happening in the world, and Matt Levine’s newsletter that arrives in the afternoon (Europe time) and tells me everything that’s happening in world markets.

Do any Indian newspapers have good curated content in the form of newsletters? Or any third party newsletter aggregators in India? Do let me know (by leaving a comment here or reaching me directly – if you don’t have my contact details, you can use the contact form on this blog). Thanks in advance.