Bad Ideas at the WSJ, Customization Edition

Jon Fine had a long chat with WSJ editor Robert Thomson, and got some interesting statements out of him:

Also coming: extensive customizing tools for readers to find, through search, much more Dow Jones content. (In Thomson’s groan-worthy formulation, "In the contemporary age of content, the customizer is always right.")…

He also says "we’re not there" in terms of figuring out what should or shouldn’t be shortened. He cites Spanish dailies El País and El Mundo as favorites for their "hygienic" look–a description that cracked him up as soon as he voiced it–saying both "understood the relative weight of word and image."

I’m highly suspicious about this whole customization thing. It’s been tried before, many times; it’s never really worked, and it largely defeats what a great newspaper should be all about.

Is it the purpose of the WSJ to provide news to its readers? Maybe, kinda, on the most basic level. But in a world where news is increasingly commoditized, that’s not remotely enough. A newspaper takes the just-the-facts news and adds value in three main areas:

  1. It turns news into stories: well-written, well-edited, not-too-long pieces which provide perspective and context and a bit of analysis too.
  2. It takes those stories and prioritizes them: important stories get big headlines on the front page; less-important stories are relegated to the back. A newspaper provides a crucial editing-down function, providing a way of navigating the sea of news by pointing out the most significant landmarks.
  3. It takes those prioritized stories and turns them into a finely-honed object, a newspaper. That’s what Thomson is talking about when he praises the Spanish newspapers – they’re very good at intuitively guiding the reader around the universe of news, making full use of photography, illustration, typography, white space, and all the other tools at a newspaper designer’s disposal.

Historically, the WSJ has been good at the first, OK at the second, and dreadful at the third. Murdoch papers, by contrast, tend towards the opposite. But it’s hardly surprising that the WSJ is getting a long-overdue redesign, of both the physical paper and the website.

The problem arises when you try to add customization into the mix. Someone customizing their WSJ stories is left with nothing but #1: customization essentially emasculates the editors and designers – and as a result a customized newspaper adds much less value than an un-customized one. This is one reason why readers, given the choice, tend not to customize their news sites very much: not only is it unreliable and unpredictable and quite a lot of work, but it also means you lose a lot of the point of having a one-stop news shop in the first place.

There’s no mention in Fine’s piece of things like external links or embeddable content; we’ll see how many such forward-thinking ideas get incorporated into the redesign when it launches. But if Thomson is really thinking along the lines of customization instead, I fear he’s barking up a fruitless tree.

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