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Musings about News Games from Ken Riddick

Ken Riddick, VP for Interactive Media at the Charlotte Observer, is one of my favorite go-to guys not only for great folksy aphorisms ("If I was any better I'd be twins"), but also for fine, focused thinking about whatever unfocused idea I've been working on.

The latest example was sent to me after a phone call to Ken and Steve Gunn, his editor for innovation and new products, about a brainstorming session on news games we are planning here in March. Our thought-provoking phone conversation was followed up with this message which really lays out some of the challenges, and opportunities, news organizations might face / embrace if they really want to figure out ways to "gamify" the news experience.

Ken said I could share this with you: Here goes -

A few things occurred to me after we hung up yesterday and I wanted to get them down before the day's crises fragmented my memory chips.

I was thinking of all kinds of concepts: semantic/search, HTML5, usability, continuity with new sites, business models and costs, etc., when, early this morning, NPR did feature pegged on Microsoft challenging Jeopardy to a game. NPR decided to simply try Google and some of the other search engines to see how they might compete against the Jeopardy champion that will test Microsoft. He was correct near 80% of the time. Well, it turns out that Google returned the correct answer on the first page of returns more than 70% of the time, while Bing did slightly worse but still well. This really got me thinking.

Business model:

How do you monetize these kinds of tools on a news site? Certainly, you can do some advertising ride-a-long and sponsorship. But the relative audience numbers, while loyal, would likely be relatively small and difficult -- on a local level, anyway -- to sell. So, what else? What "value" other than direct monetization should we consider? If the games are engaging enough, I think you could really build a community around them, including registration and e-mail databases. E-mail monetizes at a higher CPM than almost all other products we currently sell. And it remains among the most effective of conversion tools. It's also a way to remind our readership to engage often. The right kind of game could help build that valuable consumer database. It's a good symbiosis of audience and advertiser.

On the expense side, the technology would have to keep the ongoing costs and maintenance to a minimum. Think about iPad/iPhone development. It is currently so expensive and time-consuming that even minor changes have to go back to developers and then re-submitted to Apple. This is a time signature that our audience would not tolerate and that our contracting resources could not support. So, the tools have to work well -- seamlessly -- with current systems. Remember that most of these will be local efforts and, as such, will have a finite ability to monetize. That means the other side of the P&L must be more than frugal. You also want something so simple to deploy each day that a highly-taxed newsroom can fit it in without groaning under the tools' weight.

Technology:

I keep coming back to the fact that, for this to work -- as a business and an audience generator -- it must not be proprietary technology. Again, as with iPad/iPhone development, what role might HTML5 play to simplify and open-source this effort. Keep it accessible. I believe HTML5 promises to turn pad and smartphone distribution on its head. It will open up a whole new world of contributors the way the web shifted from proprietary applications to HTML very early. If the gaming technology is proprietary, it will be difficult to work with existing systems. But that poses some challenges for the developers' business model. He would normally sell license to his technology, knowing that you had to deal with him going forward. How do you make it work for him, too? Maybe very small revenue shares across a wide swath of publications. His swath is wide enough to create material revenues but leaves the local share large enough for the economics to work there, too.

Audience:

As I mentioned yesterday, I'd be really surprised if newsreaders would broadly adopt games that took much time. I think we've learned that one key difference in news consumption between print and Internet is that Internet consumers are looking to get in, get satisfied and get out. Clearly, our goal should be to keep them engaged longer and with more satisfaction. But if they begin on our sites with this "efficiency" motivation, there certainly would be a limit to their tolerance. The games should account for that, allowing readers to engage at whatever level and time their coffee break might allow. Maybe even letting them come back later and continue but having increments of success and satisfaction so that whether they return or not, they have a sense of completion. The way you complete a visit with a friend but know you'll see her again soon.
It needs to be relevant and fun to the audience -- not the newsroom. Relatively few people are going to engage in a game around some arcane political issue. Remember the business model requires scale. But it also must play to our reporting strengths. Sports, lifestyles, personalities are probably great places to start.

It needs to be constantly fresh, brief and recalled. I've talked about brief but the fresh part, I'm afraid, will take some human intervention. The "recalled" part is easier. One of the many lessons I learned from my friend Matt Thompson is about engagement and choice. The game should be portable, so you can play on your phone, on the site, via e-mail, maybe even in print. Exploit people's lifestyles to catch them when they want it. And create that community actively. Reward the audience for more engagement (Karma points on Vita.mn) and more personal information or if they bring others to the trough.

Search?:

So, I keep coming back, especially after this morning's piece on NPR, to something that exploits really effective search. It is not necessarily dependent on proprietary technologies, which leans it toward "open source." With rudimentary semantic (text mining) technologies we were able at Hearst to use back-end search to automatically build out small sites daily, with virtually no human intervention. And pretty effectively. It also allowed us to anticipate certain news events (the death of some celebrity circling the drain, for example) and automate rudimentary page building based on search of wires, our archive and noise on the search engines. Those technologies have come a long way in a short time and many are now open sourced. The Jeopardy/Google experiment hints that you could do a wide variety of things just with effective search.

I know it's not this simple. But it's a start. I'd be interested in your feedback. After all, as Nigel Tufnel said, "It's a fine line between clever and stupid."

K

Ken Riddick
VP/Interactive Media
The Charlotte Observer