Real-time news reporting is an exciting proposition. It’s also a process fraught with problems, both for the journalist and the reader.
For the journalist, there are myriad platforms that facilitate fast and accurate news gathering. But in order for platforms like Live Stream, UStream, YouTube Live to effectively expedite news field reporting, the backend, or CMS, must talk to all those third-party services.
For the reader, the problem isn’t ingestion; it’s consumption. A big story breaks, the reader is alerted, clicks on a link and is directed to the breaking story. But because the story is still unfolding, the reader is told to check back later for “updates.”
The problem, of course, is the reader rarely comes back. Instead, she turns on CNN or runs to Facebook/Twitter to watch the story develop in real time on her mobile device.
But what if there were a platform that addressed the problems of both the journalist and the reader by replacing the current “live blog” format with a fresh, constantly evolving mobile-first experience? And what if that platform accepted high-quality news field reports without the journalist having to master a complicated back-end CMS?
I recently sat down with Randy Abramson, director of Audio and Video Products at the Office of Digital and Design Innovation at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), to learn more about Relay, their recently released “breaking news” experience that purportedly does just that. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: I know it’s still early days, but what can you tell me about Relay?
Randy Abramson: The Office of Digital and Design Innovation is committed to reimagining news gathering tools, enhancing workflows and developing future-looking, consumer-facing experiences for the networks of the BBG (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Office of Cuban Broadcasting and Middle East Broadcast Networks). With Relay, we want to blow up the “live blog” format and replace it with a fresh, mobile-first experience that allows journalists to report quickly from the field, and allows users to quickly assess what coverage on a story is available as well as offer multiple entry points into that coverage through their mobile devices.
What problem are you solving?
Abramson: We know that when most people learn about a breaking news event, they often rush to their social media feeds or TV to keep up with coverage. The problem is that being tied to TV is not always practical, and wading through social media for accurate, timely news can be difficult. Plus, when news consumers step away from the coverage, they are often forced to sift through lots of information when they re-engage.
So how does Relay work?
Abramson: For the news consumer, the timeline user interface is intuitive and familiar, allowing users to swipe through content in chronological fashion or jump to individual points. For our reporters in the field, Relay leverages existing creation and distribution tools that our journalists already use. YouTube Capture, SoundCloud, Flickr and Live Stream are familiar to our journalists, so why not allow them to use these tools for submission to the Relay platform without burdening them with the normal content management workflow? Of course, email submission is probably the easiest platform of all. And one of the great features of Relay is that reporters can simply use email to transmit coverage without having to log into a CMS.
Who else is doing what you do?
Abramson: News organizations publish live blogs all the time to keep users informed during developing stories. But the typical live blog format, with its vertical design and text heavy layout, does not engage users who are used to more dynamic multimedia-driven experiences on mobile devices. With Relay, we set out to remedy this issue by creating an experience that feels and functions like your favorite mobile apps.
How do you do it differently?
Abramson: The design is built on a ‘card’ metaphor. Think of how you swipe though iPhoto where each piece of content sits on its own, devoid of competing ‘related links’ or distracting advertisements. There is also a unique timeline that allows users to scroll back and forth through content and catch up on coverage that they may have missed. In addition, users can sign up for email alerts — SMS alerts are coming soon — to keep them connected and engaged with our ongoing coverage. All of this is built on a responsive design that is visually optimized for the mobile devices that users are using in off hours as stories continue to develop. And the journalist never has to open a content management system. That ease and speed is key since it allows the journalist to concentrate more on reporting and less about the process of publishing.
And what would say is your “unfair competitive advantage?”
Abramson: Our advantage is our journalists. We have content creators all over the world who are looking for the best way to get their message out, and are dedicated to trying new products and open to new ideas.
So who’s using Relay now?
Abramson: Our first official event took place last Friday with the Voice of America Urdu team in Pakistan. In an about an hour, the Urdu VOA team published two text updates, two photo cards, a Google Hangout and a live video standup about how Pakistan is reacting to the passing of Nelson Mandela. The Urdu team was extremely happy with the results and is already lining up more stories on Relay.
Who is your customer?
Abramson: Our primary targets are our journalists, and their targets are their audience, so we have to anticipate the needs of both.
Serving multiple audiences can be tricky. How do you plan to successfully do that?
Abramson: Listen and iterate. The journalists in the field will provide key feedback in how they use the tool and how it can be made better. The product really lives and dies with them.
How will you make money?
Abramson: As a government organization, there is not a financial element to this product. One of the great advantages we have from a design perspective is that we didn’t need to use valuable real estate in the UI for ads. Content truly is king in Relay.
If money isn’t your key metric, then how will you measure success?
Abramson: Our first metric will be how often our journalists turn to this tool. Are our reporters coming back to tell their stories, or are they turning to something else? Are they using all the features? If not, which ones are working and which ones aren’t? Additionally, we want to measure success from the end user — the journalists’ audiences. Return visits, time spent on the tool, and social sharing will be our key performance indicators. We’re also very focused on the number of alert subscribers since the return visit metric is highly dependent on the alert functionality.
What is your biggest risk?
Abramson: Our biggest risk is that we don’t adapt the product over time. We need to constantly be on top of the newest and best creation and distribution platforms and make them serve as inputs into Relay. We also need to constantly monitor the experience on the ever-changing array of mobile devices. Even though this is a web app, we want it to feel and function like the apps that are native on your smartphone and tablet now.
What makes you think you will be successful?
Abramson: Relay helps make sense of a developing story. For our journalists, we believe that they are going to appreciate being able to publish quickly from their mobile devices from the platforms that they are most comfortable with. News consumers on the go will appreciate that Relay gives them a logical interface that will help them catch up with coverage of stories that are important to them.
How comfortable are you with failure?
Abramson: You’re never happy when something fails. But if you are truly agile, you learn from it, adapt, iterate and come back with a better product.
What happens when Google decides to do what you’re doing?
Abramson: I’d see that as a huge success and would welcome any organization or group that could learn from what we’ve done and also improve on it. Our code is up on GitHub for the sole purpose of having other people help us make the product better.
It’s a very interesting product, indeed. Who’s helping you make it a reality?
Abramson: We have an incredibly passionate team working on Relay. Adam Rasmussen handles all the back-end development; Ariane Gordon is in charge of the front end; Sultan Kokcha manages our storage, permissions and development environments; Steve Fuchs is the ODDI design studio lead; Kelly Ann McCann is our day-to-day designer; and last but not least is Ashok Ramachandran, our project manager. Together they have built and continue to manage the project masterfully.
What are the best ways to get in touch with you?
Abramson: You can reach me directly @randyabramson and firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow BBG’s Office of Digital Design and Innovation on Twitter @BBGInnovate and BBG at @BBGgov. And I’m sure Rob Bole, who runs ODDI, would welcome any feedback @rbole.
So what do you think? Is BBG’s recently released news aggregation and distribution platform, Relay, a true innovation, or just a clever iterative solution to the problems facing mobile journalism?
As co-founder of an award-winning internet startup (Stroome), a former development executive (DreamWorks, VH1, HBO), independent producer (Blaze Television), and advertising/marketing executive (Adworks), Tom Grasty currently resides at the junction where media and technology collide as the principal at The Grasty Group, a consulting firm specializing in early-stage startups in the content creation space.