How We Tell Stories Now

Adrian Holovaty, who founded the late, much-lamented EveryBlock:

Clearly there’s a template somewhere with a default title “Boston.com viral video page,” and the URLs are hard-coded to include “viral_page”. And let’s keep some perspective: overall, what’s important here is the news event itself, not the details of how one particular CMS titled a video.

And I don’t mean to berate Boston.com. As somebody who used to work for news sites, I have been in their shoes. There are many, many more important things for a news organization to do in this situation — vet new information, feverishly post updates and, well, keep the site up and running under huge traffic levels! And to their credit, after I posted a snarky tweet about it, a few Boston.com folks responded withinminutes, saying they were migrating videos to YouTube and didn’t have much control over their software.

But I’m writing this because I think there’s an important lesson here for makers of Web products. That lesson is: tools will be repurposed, and they should be designed with that in mind.

Whoever designed this video gallery system (sounds like it might’ve been a vendor) was too narrow-minded. Judging by the URL and default page title, it was meant to be a clearinghouse for viral videos, but it ended up being used for all types of videos. They ought to have designed for broad use, not specific use.

Emphasis mine.

When a story isn’t about kittens or a squash that looks like Nixon, there are layers and layers of extra stuff you have to do now, and the best time to think and plan is not, shall we say, when the earth is caving in. When something happens and you don’t or can’t respond appropriately, you wind up with some kind of totally preventable communications emergency sapping your staff’s energy at a time when they’re running on fumes anyway.

Think about removing the ads from your news videos about the event, so that when (as I did yesterday) people are watching the various live feeds trying to get information about people being dead or injured, they’re not delayed by commercials for furniture polish.

Think about the witty error page that pops up when your server’s overloaded or is otherwise tits-up. Is that what you want to see when you’re frantically looking for news about your loved ones? I get you want to be cute and smart-assy since that’s how the Internet works, and ordinarily, bravo, but is there a way to change it when a major breaking news event breaks you? If not, can one be designed?

Think about turning off your automated tweets, at least for the first few hours of a major national event. This applies to news orgs but also to, you know, everyone. People can read about your band, your store, your company’s new HR policy, your local award, tomorrow. It’s disconcerting in the extreme to read a hundred tweets about Boston and then, in the middle of it, “HERE’S SOME MEDIOCRE SHIT YOU COULD BUY.” “Here’s our reporter’s charming story about the world’s oldest stamp collector.”

Think about not reading random Twitter feeds on the air. That’s not a substitute for reporting. It is not that hard to send someone out into the street with a camera to interview people and I guarantee you ten of the people farthest away from the event talking about nothing will make you look more intelligent and sound more informed than reading “tweets from @bootylicious26.” This also applies to quoting what people say on Facebook. Twitter and Facebook are useful tools. They are not the job.

And mostly this applies to live national broadcasters, but: THINK ABOUT SHUTTING UP. If you’re going to start a sentence with “we don’t know any details yet” then please, don’t continue to speak. It would be better to show footage from the scene in silence. Just tell people what you do know. Full stop. Couching and hedging and such don’t cover your ass if you’re going to then interview a panel of people who think a crisis was engineered by Barack Obama and the ghost of Tim McVeigh working together to overthrow the Illuminati.

Most people think you can’t plan for breaking news, but you can. You can, should and have to think about this sort of thing before the hellmouth opens up and you’re scrambling to find your socks.

A.

2 thoughts on “How We Tell Stories Now

  1. leinie says:

    Oh to make this go viral to every newsroom in the country. Well done, Madame. Well done.

  2. BlackSheep0ne says:

    Wow, Athenae. Is there any way you could, you know, make this Federal Communications Code?

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