A few short days ago Dan Roberts and the rest of The Guardian team did something really rather extraordinary and yet really rather simple - they opened up the news lists as Google Docs. It was extraordinary for two reasons for me. Firstly the news lists are a prized asset; less scrupulous newspapers have bribed people at competitors to see them. One way of viewing the move is that opening them up is in many ways a tacit admission that the speed of transmission of news has now reached a point where openness outweighs commercial advantage and secrecy. Advertising what you’re working on builds suspense and anticipation. The alternate way of viewing it is that it’s part of inviting the readership in; making them a part of the newspaper - mutualising the relationship and utilising the knowledge out there to improve the story. This is something that I’ve seen friends on the technology team (Charles Arthur and Jemima Kiss) do to great effect.
The second extraordinary thing and the beautifully simple thing was how they released it: Google Docs. Simple and democratic at the least, full of data and empowering of experimentation at best. I was very interested. Having worked on Open Platform from the start I was excited to see a new form of data emerging for me to remix and alchemise.
Initially I thought my evening’s play after they released it would be to make a little JSON feed to play with. Isn’t that what every developer does when they see some data in a Google spreadsheet that interests them nowadays? Then I discovered that Dan Catt had done that, which was the most lovely discovery and allowed me to play a bit further into the opportunities that much quicker. (You can read Dan’s excellent discourse about the newslists and JSON and the thing I made, The Later On Today Guardian, and small pieces loosely joined here).
What interested me first about the news lists was that there were two phases to them with the publication of the story being the phase boundary. You could “help” to inform the story before it was published and then you could “read” the story afterwards. This informed part of the design of The Later On Today Guardian which is very much an ugly version 0.1 thing. In the “help” phase, Twitter’s rather excellent Web Intents allow you to tweet the journalists with a prepopulated hashtag. One elegant addition would be to give each story a unique hashtag, akin to a machine tag, right from inception. This would allow for easier collation at a later stage of the process, scooping together the news list, the information from readers that helped to form the story and the story itself in to a capsule of process journalism.
The second thing which interested me was the fact that the newslist was itself a capsule; akin to the bundles of stories in a physical newspaper (well it sort of is the digital manifestation of the promise of a newspaper). I and many others have been long interested in the finishability and serendipitous nature of the curated bundle within newspapers. We’ve even some of us tried to make them anew. This felt like a new way to highlight the curation of news and to give you a chance to finish the news stories that editors felt were important during the day. Something that is now being rather well and rather beautifully and with deft human intervention in the new Guardian iPad app.
The progress bar isn’t there for some crazy gamification thing, it’s more of an ambient readout of how far through the news day they - the journalists - might be (the matching is currently imperfect and misses stories and has the occasional false positive). It also gives you an idea from visit to visit as to whether there is anything new for you to look at. You can remember a percentage complete (roughly) or the position of a bar far easier than you can remember everything you’ve seen on a page.
I’m enjoying looking at it occasionally, I have yet to make the columns work really nicely on a tablet device or on Google TV (and the webfonts break on Google TV), but there is something interesting about something which jogs your peripheral vision about news things. Something like these things below which atomise news and curate temporally in a persistence of vision type way, but that’s a post for another time.