Every day, readers are faced with a firehose of news online. News organizations realize this, and they’re trying a bunch of different ways to make the news more manageable — creating chatty summaries of their own stories or publishing extra mobile-friendly content like short Q&As.
Some publishers are juggling apps and newsletters. The New York Times’s popular morning and evening briefings originated on the NYT Now app, but have since been made available in other formats like the email newsletter. BuzzFeed’s news app, which launched this past June, imports features from its newsletter, and both the newsletter and app are evolving publicly on Twitter through the hashtag #teamnewsapp as well as on BuzzFeed’s blog.
Other publishers have gotten creative with newsletter strategy. Vox’s Sentences avoids the morning flood and arrives in inboxes at 8 p.m. ET. Quartz’s Daily Brief is a clean, text-driven summary of news with a few simple categories.
Some publishers focus on a “finishable” experience. Yahoo News Digest is an intricately designed app that uses an algorithm and human curation to create two digests a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. The Economist’s Espresso app, the first daily product in the publication’s 172-year history, provides a “very tightly curated bundle of content” built around an even shorter reading experience of just a few minutes.
I asked these news organizations about their approaches to slimming down a day’s worth of news into manageable forms for their readers. The responses below have been condensed and edited for clarity.
We have a pretty good system in place. We call it ’24 Hours on #teamnewsapp.’ Millie works with Claire Moses to make sure we’re creating an excellent product for our subscribers every day. Everyone on the team contributes to it by suggesting links, writing some of the short background snippets, and coordinating with one of our reporters or editors for interviews, Q&As, and recommended reads.
In the same way, everyone on #teamnewsapp contributes to the app. We all have ‘app shifts’ that include a lead editor and what we call a ‘back editor.’ The lead editor on duty is responsible for keeping the app updated, coordinating with the different BuzzFeed News desks on big and breaking stories, and deciding when and whether to send push notifications. The ‘back editor’ keeps an eye on the overall app presentation and experience, and is also responsible for pitching stories to add to the app, helping with the ‘A Bit Of Background’ snippets, and updating our timelines.
Because BuzzFeed News is a 24-hour operation, we use a system of handovers to ensure that whoever comes on duty knows what’s been happening and what’s scheduled. On #teamnewsapp, we’ve got people in New York, Los Angeles, and London, so we also use handover emails and regular messages in our internal Slack channel to alert each other to what needs monitoring and what’s been going on. Every editor ends their shift with a handover note.
Our job is to read and watch everything newsworthy on the Internet and then decide how and whether to present stories to our audience. We use Feedly, Twitter lists, and everyone’s own personal workflows for keeping an eye on what’s going on around the world. We look for items that are trustworthy, interesting, relevant, accessible — and mobile-friendly. There are about 15 to 20 pieces in the app at any time, and how often we update those really depends on the news flow. In a fast-moving news situation, we might be adding or updating elements every few minutes.
We always include a mix of formats and sources. The BuzzFeed News app natively supports embedded tweets, Vines, and GIFs, and we’ve built our own formats too, like the timelines. A key question for us is ‘will this help our audience catch up on what’s going on right now?’
The app process is not so different from what we do with the newsletter, which has some additional constraints because it’s email — but each process informs the other. With email, the formats and interactions are more limited, but those limitations help us push what we have further, and sometimes those pushes lead to new ideas for the app.
An example is ‘Quick Things To Know,’ which is a very short and simple list of news that you don’t really need more than a headline to catch up on. It was a way for us to condense the length of our email, but still provide a lot of information to our subscribers. We’ve taken that idea and have been experimenting with similar thematic ‘quick things’ in the app. That information density is the sweet spot we’re always striving for. The email format pushes us to play and learn, then apply those lessons to other platforms.
We’ve switched on the most-requested feature, which is the ability to tap on one of the bulleted sentences in the ‘Quickly Catch Up’ section and be taken to that story. We’re working on a couple of cool features around how we present related stories and packages in the app.
We’ve thought about the p.m. mailing a lot. We’ve done six or seven A/B tests where some people get our email at 6 a.m. and some get it at 8 p.m., and consistently, people open it more at 8 p.m. The flip side of that is, we’re running that test against a population that has selected an evening newsletter. The fact that most very successful newsletters are in the morning is strong circumstantial evidence. It’s something that we still think about. We wonder if there’s some way to personalize it, let people choose the time they receive it.
Hailey Persinger, editor of Yahoo News Digest:
Often, the algorithm will give us something it thinks is going to become a big deal. It’s our job to figure out how to marry what the algorithm has given us with what’s actually happening. Most recently, our algorithm picked up a story about whiskey being delivered to the International Space Station, hours before I saw it anywhere else.
We try to stick with seven or eight stories in the digest, though at times we’ve had up to 11. We can’t control the news cycle. But if, say, we included a review of Straight Outta Compton and something else had broken that day, we probably would kick off the review, because we have to give the right weight to certain stories. We can’t just keep certain stories because we’ve decided that we need an entertainment story. On a regular day, though, we try to balance those categories.
Since we prepare two digests a day, if a big story breaks after the digest has gone out, our editors need to decide if they’re going to add the story. Since we have plenty of users on the West Coast, we might update the digest until about 11 or 11:30 a.m. because it’s only 8:30 a.m. in California. We want to give someone on the other coast the same breaking news thoughtfulness that we’re giving to people in our own time zone. For something big and breaking later in the day, we’ll track it and might wait to give readers instead a story that includes some deeper analysis of what it means.
We have to focus on getting the right amount of information to readers, because this is a mobile product. We try to steer away from stories with anecdotal leads. Long reads do work on mobile, but long reads don’t necessarily work in this mobile product. We didn’t tell users they were going to be reading a 6,000-word story on a Monday morning, so it wouldn’t be fair of us to make them do it.
With the homepage for any news outlet, you’re trying to keep people on the page by getting them to click on stories, slideshows, and other items. With the app, we want to get people in and out quickly. We’re not eschewing the homepage, but we don’t want to recreate it. We want to turn the app into a habit for people.