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Do we need more news addicts?


Do we need more news addicts?

Picture of Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas — Director
January 05, 2017

From twitchy election needles, to VR — addiction is the hallmark of modern news consumption.

NYT’s “jittery gauge” received so much attention that the team who built it felt compelled to write a piece that explains the design. gregor aisch’s post is a fascinating insight into their design decisions because they’re not the only ones wrestling with this issue.

Take a look at one of the Newsonomics forecasts for 2017

Okay, confess: How many times a day do you check The New York Times’ Upshot, or Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, or The Huffington Post’s Poll of Polls to see the Clinton/Trump odds? You’re not alone. Yes, these are anxiety-driven must-reads, but they’re far more effective than the old daily newspaper could be. In that world, the most views a news company could count from a customer was one. So, there’s a challenge: What is it in readers’ daily lives that could encourage similar — if not as similarly manic — behavior. National or local. Remember, it doesn’t have to be just “news.” Whoever figures out similarly addicting behavior post-election gets bragging rights at reinventing the essentiality that can propel a next generation of sustainable news companies.

Think about that.

Whoever figures out similarly addicting behavior post-election gets bragging rights at reinventing the essentiality that can propel a next generation of sustainable news companies.

What will that next generation of sustainable news companies look like?

To help answer this question, we can turn to a product holy book that relatively recently entered the canon of must-reads.

Nir Eyal’s Hooked aims to explain why Facebook et al are so much better at building addictive audience behaviour in the digital era. And then help us to copy them.

To build a habit-forming product, we need to understand user emotions. We need to understand what can trigger certain behaviours in life (and in-app) to make return consumption more likely.

Triggers come in two types — external and internal. External triggers tell the user what to do next by placing information within the user’s environment (the user interface of your app or website for instance). Internal triggers tell the user what to do next through associations stored in the user’s memory.

In the example of the NYT election ticker, the external trigger would be the first time you saw the link shared on social for instance. That’s wrapped in social proof (how much you trust the person who shared it), a natural curiosity, and a fear of missing out (the so-called FOMO).

You can own some of these triggers through push notifications and loyal social communities. Think of The Guardian’s push notifications during the US election. Other triggers, like links shared via WhatsApp, you can’t own.

Once the readers are in, it’s the fear of missing out that then stimulates further engagement. If built, this engagement is deeper and more subconscious. Return behaviour is more likely.

The key to getting users addicted is converting those prompted by external triggers into people who become prompted by internal triggers.

In the NYT’s case, the social share will bring people in, but it’s the twitchy needle gets them hooked. Negative emotions, like FOMO, frequently serve as internal triggers, hence the anxiety about these jittery gauges…

How do you build a hook?

Nir Eyal’s Hook Model helps product designers to start to uncover which elements of your product might be habit-forming. Here’s how he suggests you do this for your site, publication or app: identify, codify, and modify.


First, dig into data, screen recordings and user interviews to identify how people are using the product. Where do people spend most time? What behaviours occur regularly? Which indicators of repeat behaviour can you find?


Next, codify these findings for the most loyal users. Study the actions and paths taken by devoted users. Describe them. For instance, perhaps your most loyal users spend a disproportionate amount of time watching something live, like — say — an election needle?

Once you’ve identified your power users, then identify the next rung down. The almost-loyals. What is this second group missing? For example, perhaps people only grasp the live needle once they’ve understood the data behind it?


Finally, modify the product to influence more users to follow the same path as your habitual users. Ask yourself what could I do to help people understand the data behind the needle? A tutorial perhaps? Maybe a video, or some real-life examples behind the numbers?

This is harder than it sounds. And it’s a real challenge for journalism in relation to new forms of storytelling, whether it’s innovative data reporting, virtual reality, or conversational interfaces and bots.

If these new forms are truly to become definitive for the news industry, we’ll need to build strong enough triggers to draw people from casual mobile or social consumption into a deeply immersive storytelling world. To do that, we’re going to have to rethink many things we currently do, and start building products addictive enough to behave more like Netflix than newspapers.

The ethics of emotion

Fast forward a few months. Let’s assume for a second, that you’ve solved it and you have your audience hooked. Well done! Congratulations are in order.

Or are they? Once we have our audience hooked, what’s our responsibility?

Anyone who has tried VR understands how fundamentally different it is from other experiences. It affects senses and emotion, deeply. One recalls virtual experiences with the uncanny sensation of waking from an intense dream. Where do we draw the line between desire and need, between entertainment and emotional trauma?

Similarly, does a user have to know that they are talking to a bot, rather than a human? What’s our ethical responsibility to demarcate the lines between human and algorithmic interaction? What responsibilities do we have to our audiences to use our understanding of their emotion in a way that is not harmful or deceptive, even unintentionally?

Film makers, video game creators and social networks have been redrawing these boundaries for decades. Very soon it will be the news industry’s turn to ask the question: how much addiction is justifiable in the name of new business models?

On Monday 6 February 2017, the Google News Lab and European Journalism Centre will collaborate with Sciences Po Journalism School to host the News Impact Summit Paris.

We’ll be looking at the biggest questions the news industry currently faces, with a special focus on election coverage. Join us.


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