Engaging the News: Rethinking Journalistic Presentations

By Paul Martin Lester
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Communications Department, California State University, Fullerton

Imagine a conversation with a 100-year-old woman. You ask her what she thought of when she first heard about automobiles as a child. She suddenly laughs and explains, "I first thought it was the funniest thing--how could everyone have their own train?"/1
When she first heard of cars as a new technology, she could not understand that they offered personal, flexible, innovative, and empowering movement from one point to another that trains cannot supply. She also could not anticipate that automobiles isolate people by consumer ideals conveyed in advertising, road conventions, windows, and even the radio, and that they pollute the environment. Innovations always create both new paradigms and problems.

People tend to evaluate and anticipate technology based on previous experiences--cars must be like trains. In the same way, we think of new media as extensions of the familiar--newspapers, radio, and television. But the future of mass communication may have little to do with our understanding of our past or present uses of media. Nevertheless, we are stuck for the moment thinking about how news will be communicated in the future with our traditional print and screen media blinders.

Traditional news offers a daily, edited diary of events that producers determine to be of the most interest and the most important to the most people. In other words, news is a combination of what news producers say it is and what the most heard news consumers say they want. If news producers continually provide news that is not needed or desired, consumers lose interest and subscription rates and ratings decline--a situation not unlike what is currently happening with many media entities.

News media managers that want to improve their rates and ratings have tried to incorporate controversial innovations--increased use of images and graphics, market-driven commercially based stories, live-action set-ups, special effects learned from motion picture technologies, and so on. They have focused on what people want, sometimes to the detriment of what they need.

But these commercially driven innovations are still based on a traditional model of stories and story telling--the "one-to-many" model of mass communication in which news is "shoved" to waiting, grateful, and passive consumers. The flaw in this approach is that decisions are based on the presumed generalized characteristics of a target audience (ideally people with infinite resources and inclinations toward consumerism) and not the true specific characteristics of individual consumers of news. Like train travel, traditional news media seek to take the majority of consumers somewhere close to where they would like to go. Traditional mass media managers find it difficult to conceive of other models--one-to-one, many-to-one, or even many-to-many-because these models are outside the commercial paradigm they have carefully constructed over many years in order to deliver a news product efficiently and inexpensively. Within the commercial paradigm, traditional news media function with three goals in mind--entertainment, persuasion, and informational. As long as audiences are content with this mix of traditional functions, there is no incentive to innovate. And when a new technological innovation is discovered--the World Wide Web, for example--there is no incentive to have it look and feel any differently from traditional media. Cars are trains as on the "Autopia" ride at Disneyland.

Now imagine someone 50 years from now asking what you thought of when you first heard of the World Wide Web. Perhaps you will laugh because, "How could everyone have their own newspaper or television station?"

The World Wide Web can be a tool that consumers can use to not only more fully participate in their news choices, but can influence those choices as well. And when people are given the ability and responsibility to construct their news choices, the gap between producer and consumer closes until they overlap--producers and consumers collaborate.

Social Constructivism
The first step in designing news in new ways is to understand the dynamics of human interaction when thinking of news consumers as news learners.

Social constructivism theory is employed to help explain why humans have a need to engage with others outside their individual sphere of influence. As we live our lives, social constructivism helps explain the interplay between internalized and externalized experiences. We build knowledge about our world and ourselves. As such, knowledge building is not a passive activity. Individuals are builders of their own knowledge base and are responsible for their own learning./2

The Russian psychologist and philosopher Lev Vygotsky, who died at the age of 38 in 1934, is associated with social constructivism within educational contexts. According to Vygotsky and educational psychologists that followed his teachings, learning should take place within the context that it is to be applied. Social constructivism emphasizes a learner's culture and the importance of cultural values within a larger societal context. As a consequence, learners are encouraged to work in groups to understand real life challenges and to receive rewards for the associations and the conclusions they make. These educational lessons can be used when considering news users as learners.

Social constructivism helps explain that in order for someone to learn from the news, that person must engage the content within a context that they can apply to their view of the world. For those in which this activity is not familiar, encouragement is necessary and can be provided through interactive formats. Otherwise, the news is not used.

News Users and Their Needs
The first step in innovative news construction is to identify typical news users and their news needs (Figure 1).

Illustration that visually shows what is described below.
Figure 1

Broadly speaking, there are four types of news consumers as described below:/3

LEVEL 1: Disenfranchised. These news consumers are not innovative and are uninformed. As such, their news media habits do not benefit themselves or society. They are passive and perhaps a bit lazy in their news choices. They prefer their news to be obtained, if at all, through the easiest means possible. In fact, "news" to them might be what they read in a supermarket tabloid or any viewing of an afternoon confessional talk show. They are not likely to reach a higher level of news consumption without educational, economic, and social incentives.

LEVEL 2: Entertainers. This type of news consumer is innovative, but uninformed. Their level of involvement is positive for themselves, but not for society at large. Their interest in news is generally low. If they do consider news events presented by the media, (usually because of proximity or potential direct impact) they are not motivated to think of societal implications of a story, beyond immediate self-impact. Their interests are fragmented, even parochial in nature that revolve around single or localized issues like sports or an approaching storm. Their main motivation, however, would be entertainment or titillation.

LEVEL 3: Elitists. Members of this level of news consumers are not innovative, but yet are highly informed. Society is benefited greatly by their level of knowledge that they no doubt pass along to others. And although it is probably true that they receive personal benefits from such a high level of erudite contemplation (think of Henry David Thoreau reading in Ralph Waldo Emerson's cabin in the woods), in this context they are hampered personally by their lack of interest in innovation pertaining to news presentations. They enjoy traditional media presentations--The New York Times over USA Today. They probably do not own a television set. They prefer literary magazines and books. Their interest is in words over pictures and music over music videos. They respond most to intellectual and insightful presentations that exemplify the highest quality that traditional media have to offer.

LEVEL 4: Engagers. Finally, this last group of news consumers is highly innovative and informed. As such, they benefit themselves and society. They enjoy personalized, connected, interactive, intellectual, and contextual presentations. They prefer to "grab" the news and making it their own. It is this reason that members of this level are the ideal group for innovative news presentations.

Ideally, the content and experience of news should be of maximum benefit to individuals and to society. It should therefore be the goal of news managers to elevate news consumers to the highest level possible. Engagers, those belonging to LEVEL 4, are most able through their personality, inclination, and intellect to not only consume news in innovative ways, but also engage others to join them in their creative pursuit of information that is relevant and useful for all.

Technological Innovations for News Presentations
Recently, there have been several experiments designed by those interested in the future of news that offer technological solutions for engaging a wider audience in news presentations. These technologies can be divided into four groups: user augmentation, database augmentation, game playing, and trans-media simulated experiences.

User Augmentation
With user augmentation presentations, Web users are allowed by the software to input personal information, interests, and opinions in order to modify what they see on the screen. Although it is possible to easily create personalized news links using search engines and Web browser bookmarks, software innovations make the task much easier and seamless for the user.

"Crayon" is a user-augmented newspaper for the Web (www.crayon.net). Users can create their own online newspaper with a title, motto, and personalized page layout, graphics, and links. The result is a series of news and special interest Web links connected with the zip code and topics provided by the user. However, because individual stories are not presented, the custom publication does not have the look of a newspaper. Crayon is simply a way to easily put a user's favorite Web links together on a Web page (Figure 2).

An example of a customized newspaper from Crayon.
Figure 2

A more sophisticated user-augmented newspaper was developed at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1993 a prototype online newspaper for MIT students called "FishWrap" (what you wrap yesterday's news within) began publication. Students inputted personal interests and other data and the program created a Web-based newspaper that included hometown news, career choice information, entertainment options, and so on. FishWrap has since ceased publication./4

Another way of thinking about news presentations within a user augmentation context is what Ellen Kampinsky, Shayne Bowman, and Chris Willis call "Amazoning the News." The three show how "traditional news stories might be treated in the design model of Amazon.com. We contend that a successful news website is a platform that supports social interaction around the story. These interactions are as important as the narrative, perhaps more, because they are chosen by the readers." A website designed as a popular bookstore might include "guide and direct presentations, reader rankings of stories, reader comments as a part of coverage, links to similar stories, and reader questions" (Figure 3)./5

An example of a newspaper that looks like the bookstore website of Amazon.com.
Figure 3

Perhaps a variation of the Amazon concept is a combination of traditional reporting by a journalist with input from online readers in the form of a Web log or "blog." A blog is a kind of public bulletin board in which users publish a personal journal on almost every topic imaginable. Ken Sands, an "interactive editor" with The Spokesman-Review used the blog concept when reporting on a high school basketball championship. Sands brought a laptop with a wireless connection to the Internet to the basketball games and filed his observations, images, and audio that readers could access on the newspaper's blog site. Through email and instant messaging, readers added their comments or asked questions that then became part of the sports story. The newspaper's editor has plans in the future to use this same technique on news stories. One idea is to change the way city council meetings are traditionally reported by allowing online users to offer real-time opinions while discussions take place./6

Database Augmentation
Sara Elo's MIT master's thesis involved a database augmentation software program was designed for the FishWrap online newspaper discussed earlier. She called her program PLUM for "Peace, Love, and Understanding Machine," although it has since been given a computerese name of "Parallel Line with Understanding Mission" by Walter Bender, director of MIT's News in the Future research consortium. To determine trends within complex stories, journalists have used computer databases, but such collections of data are not used that often to automatically include contextual information to news stories. PLUM used census data and the CIA World Factbook, among other databases, to add comparisons between a local news user's community and natural disaster anywhere in the world. For example, a student at MIT reads her personalized FishWrap newspaper that details through a traditional wire service news story a serious flood in China in which 200,000 homes were underwater. With PLUM augmentation, the reader could also see comparative facts in the form of news sidebars and informational graphics that explain comparisons between the Chinese and her local community (Figure 4). In this way, Elo hoped that readers would gain a greater understanding of the complex economic, social and environmental issues between a local and foreign land./7

An example of a newspaper page with PLUM augmentation
Figure 4

Another experimental program for the FishWrap newspaper developed at MIT is called "Doppelganger." Doppelganger explains Bender, "enables your computer to shadow you, get involved in all of the different things you do, and deliver that information to your personal newspaper. My FishWrap knows about my email, my calendar, and what I've been doing on the Web. And it uses all that information to refine my user profile constantly. Say there's an entry in my computer calendar that shows I'm traveling to Finland. Using Doppelganger, FishWrap will smell that out and add a little news section on Finland--local news and what's going on in Helsinki."/8

Finally, an innovative use of Macromedia's Flash and Shockwave software programs combined with databases, allows newspaper website producers to create high quality interactive presentations with moving images and audio that download relatively quickly for Web users who have a free player installed on their computer anywhere in the world. One of the first utilities of this software for news presentations was with informational graphics. CNN and USA Today websites offered readers interactive diagrams related to news stories of 9-11, the "war on terrorism," and "homefront" activities. One of the most striking interactive presentations from the USA Today informational graphics collection (www.usatoday.com/graphics/news/gra/gattack/index.htm) was a carefully researched diagram that told several stories of those who managed to escape from a World Trade Center tower after the aerial attacks. Users click on a red triangle located on a building's floor to read the story of the person located there that is a part of the newspaper's database (Figure 5).

World Trade Center disaster survivor informational graphic
Figure 5

Game Playing
The Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota sponsored a workshop in 2001 called "Playing the News: Journalism, Interactive Narrative and Games." Game creators, game players, journalists, and professors challenged traditional ways of presenting news stories. They discussed and developed news stories within arcade, quiz, and simulation game genres./9

Arcade Games
An example of an arcade game used for news education is provided on the website of the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. In one presentation, users can try to pilot the complicated controls of an actual Civil War submarine (www.sun--sentinel.com/graphics/entertainment). Although the playing of this game may be considered on the same level as any arcade video game, users are also guided to Web links in which information about the submarine's inventor and the Civil War can be obtained (Figure 6). Unfortunately, a user of the game must scroll through several inane "cloning" programs before reaching the educational choice.

A Civil War-era submarine arcade game's controls
Figure 6

News quiz games, as part of a larger story can again engage users to understand more fully stories that traditional media presentations cannot. CNN offers a quiz on Beatles trivia (www.cnn.com/2000/SHOWBIZ/Music/09/04/beatles/index.html) and MSNBC and the Scripps Howard newspaper chain offers a "spelling bee" game based on the rules of the National Spelling Bee ( www.msnbc.com/modules/DL_spelling_bee/game/) (Figures 7 and 8).

A Beatles quiz game example
Figure 7

A spelling bee quiz game example
Figure 8

The MSNBC website contained a simulation game "Fuel the Future" in which users tried to solve the energy needs of the United States by the year 2020. As part of a larger context of energy awareness and the complexities involving traditional and innovative energy options, the simulation game challenges users to think of how energy is obtained and at what cost (Figure 9).

A simulation game called Fuel the Future
Figure 9

With a $15,000 grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, The Herald newspaper of Everett, Washington created an interactive multimedia simulation program called the "Waterfront Renaissance Project." The website for the project stated that it "is a multimedia endeavor to stimulate community involvement in the future redevelopment of four major pieces of public property along Possession Sound and the Snohomish River. We hope to engage readers through journalistic forms of print, broadcast, video, the Internet and a town hall meeting. We want to reconnect the community through teaching, listening and reporting and will encourage residents to talk to one another. Consider this your ticket to a place where you can dream about what Everett's waterfronts could look like in 10 or 20 years" (Figure 10).

The Everett, Washington Waterfront simulation
Figure 10

"Playing the News" workshop participants came to the conclusion that game playing as a part of news stories should give users a better understanding of the issue, a greater involvement in the story, test the user's knowledge about the story, and keep users on the news entity's website--a realistic marketing consideration because website revenue is often determined by how long a user "sticks" with a site.

Trans-Media Simulated Experiences
One of the most innovative and potentially promising news presentations is the trans-media simulated experience. News users learn of a journalistic story through all possible media of presentation--graphic design, informational graphics, photography, motion pictures, television and video, computer programs that use virtual reality technology within immersible environments such as museums.

Trans-media experiences is a hybrid of presentations that contains information about stories with relevant content and interest for a passive consumer, but is presented in such a way that even the most cynical and uninterested person becomes engaged. An object of good journalism is to help people understand how their view of themselves and their place in the world is a part of a larger societal context, technology should be employed not only to help people know of a story, but to help them feel the story. Creators of this type of media presentation understand that one can only feel a story if he or she is the story.

Networked interactive presentations based on recent news events employ techniques that come close in recreating for a consumer the situation and emotions of an actual experience. Creators of the Kuma\War website, for example, allow users to participate in simulated scenarios based on actual news events using lifelike 3D animation techniques. In "Mission #24," a player can imagine he or she is Sen. John Kerry riding a swift boat during the Vietnam War and protecting his fellow troops that led to his Silver Star medal (Figure 11)./10

Kuma\War homepage showing links to simulated battle scenes
Figure 11

Another example of an overpowering trans-media simulated experience is demonstrated by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Even the museum's architecture signals a relationship between the exhibits and the subject matter. Architect James Ingo Freed, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners writes, "Its architecture is intended to engage [emphasis added] the visitor and stir the emotions, allow for horror and sadness, ultimately to disturb. It must take you in its grip."/11

For example, design features in the Hall of Witness "summon more directly the tragic themes of the Holocaust. Crisscrossed steel trappings seem to brace the harsh brick walls against some great internal pressure. Inverted triangular shapes repeat in windows, floors, walls, and ceilings. The Hall's main staircase narrows unnaturally toward the top, like receding rail tracks heading to a camp. Exposed beams, arched brick entryways, boarded windows, metal railings, steel gates, fences, bridges, barriers, and screens--all 'impound' the visitor, and are disturbing signals of separation" (Figure 12).

Picture of an interior of the Holocaust Museum
Figure 12

Creating an immersible environment on a single subject in which a visitor becomes a participant is no doubt costly. But the lessons learned by the ways a complex story is told within a museum environment can be translated to smaller gallery spaces and with online computer presentations. Trans-media simulated experiences hold the most promise in turning passive news viewers into active news engagers.

Creating a Culture of Engagers
Without massive governmental aid in the form of educational and economic incentives, members of LEVEL 1, the disenfranchised will not proceed to higher levels. However, through a concerted effort of educational innovations with encouragement from peers and mentors, LEVEL 1 news consumers can learn to use the news in less passive and more enlightening way.

Likewise, the elitists of LEVEL 3 will probably resist new forms of news presentations until they can be assured that technological innovations can mimic and enhance the media formats they currently use. Portable, flat-screen, wireless remote devices that maintain the look and experience of reading paper-based books and journals may be the only presentation format that will appeal to these news consumers.

However, many of the news innovations described above would be immediately appealing to LEVEL 2, the entertainers and LEVEL 4, the engagers--by far the most numerous and consumer-oriented of the four levels of news users. And with continual contact and encouragement, the entertainers can join with engagers in becoming not only informed users, but also innovative producers.

Mass communication and journalism instructors should take the initiative and meet with instructors from other disciplines that in the past have been separated by traditional modes of thinking. Theatre, art, music, computer science, philosophy, and other instructors and students should work together to produce trans-media collaborations. Grant applications should be completed to obtain funds for equipment, instructor time, conferences, and new media centers.

At its best, journalism engages a reader, viewer, user, and/or consumer with the facts and people involved in a story presented. Within the context of a story, engagement can lead to connections between users, the people that are a part of the story, and the producers of the story. But that's not all. Engagement also can lead to what has been described as "the good life."

Albert Borgmann in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life writes, "... the acquisition of skills, the fidelity to a daily discipline, the broadening of sensibility, the profound interaction of human beings, and the preservation and development of tradition. These traits we may bring together under the heading of engagement. The good life, then, is one of engagement, and engagement is variously realized by various people. Engagement would not only harmonize the variety among people but also within the life of one person."/12

When consumers become producers, unanticipated relationships are established. There is more interactivity between producers and consumers, between producers and producers, and between consumers and consumers. Such engaging interactivity perhaps can lead to an increase in:

1. a person's self worth,
2. societal, environmental, and cultural understanding,
3. the overall population's knowledge base on a wider range of topics,
4. technological innovations that foster interactivity and empowerment, and
5. what has been called "the good life."
Technology, then, can become a tool that "promotes excellence and engagement."/13

1. Inspired from a personal conversation with the author's great-grandmother, Grandmama.
2. Bender, W., et. al. "Enriching communities: Harbingers of news in the future" available at www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/mit/sectionb/chesnais.html.
3. The four categories are roughly inspired by the work of Ron Stampfl, San Diego State University and presentations made during the "Playing the News: Journalism, Interactive Narrative and Games" workshop held at the University of Minnesota, November, 2001, available at www.inms.umn.edu/convenings/playingthenews/main.htm.
4. Bender, W., et. al. "Enriching communities: Harbingers of news in the future" available at www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/mit/sectionb/chesnais.html.
5. Kampinsky, Ellen, et. al. "Amazoning the News" available at www.hypergene.net/ideas/amazon.html.
6. Outing, Steve. (March 13, 2002). "Interactive News is Newspaper-Wide Effort in Spokane," Editor & Publisher and Ken Sands' blog coverage available at www.spokesmanreview.com/sections/sports/stateb/2002/blog/blog.asp.
7. Bender, W., et. al. "Enriching communities: Harbingers of news in the future" available at www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/mit/sectionb/chesnais.html.
8. Interview with Walter Bender available at www.fastcompany.com/online/04/news3.html.
9. "Playing the News: Journalism, Interactive Narrative and Games" workshop held at the University of Minnesota, November, 2001, available at www.inms.umn.edu/convenings/playingthenews/main.htm.
10. "Kuma\War website available at www.kumawar.com.
11. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum available at www.ushmm.org/museum/a_and_a/.
12. Borgmann, Albert. (1984). Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 214.
13. Albert Borgmann, Professor of Philosophy, The University of Montana, personal communication, March, 2002.

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