Amazoning the news

We underwent mild coronary arrest upon witnessing the illustrations (of a fake sports story and a fake news article) exemplifying Ellen Kampinsky's action-packed serial, “Amazoning the News.” It's the online version of a presentation she gave at some conference or other, but, praise be to God, we're not dealing with quickie HTML exports from PowerPoint. (Has any tool in the history of the world so constrained your creativity? Even a hammer lets you do more than pound a nail.)

Though inconveniently subdivided into five little chunkettes (Nielsen decreed we cannot read long texts, right?), Kampinsky provides real-world examples of adapting new- and old-media tropes to online news.

It isn't completely original. It doesn't have to be. (Great, sudden divergence from immediately-antecedent history, while thrilling to Ayn Rand acolytes who identify dreamily with iconoclast Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, is a false standard when it isn't active fraud. Even Roark's buildings still looked like buildings. Not much of an iconoclast, if you consider the original meaning.) Kampinskyism combines an actual news story with metadata and interface techniques like user ratings, associations of the people-who-liked-this-also-liked-that sort, customized agglomerations (“My Newspaper” – a bit iffy, this), and, to our annoyance, E-commerce links (buy the official jersey!).

The claim, which Kampinsky mostly gets away with, is that Amazon's approach is the most successful true-to-the-Web storytelling approach. As she sees it, stories online require these features:

  1. Sharing
  2. Informing
  3. Creating
  4. Entertaining
  5. “Transacting”

She also offers us five Nielsenian Rules of Engagement, extracted from some book or other she's plugging, only one of which has legs:

Personality: This is something people tend to forget about on the Web. As we're all try to figure out the new rules, everyone ends up looking like everyone else. But when you consider the immensity of the web, the billions of pages out there and the ubiquity of information, perhaps the only thing that's going to set you apart is creating a personality: A tone a voice that mirrors who you are. That's why successful sites have a personality, why a Suck is different from a Yahoo and from, one of my favorites, a

(As usual, when someone else says what we've been yammering on about for months, they get the credit.)

Kampinsky's visual examples are admirably resourceful and combine existing techniques to produce a gestalt. Everything she suggests is attainable today. (It has to be. She's mixing and matching existing tropes.) We recognize that she adapted the Amazon graphic and interface design to prove the point that solely Amazon does it right, but even so, we are very sure indeed that such a design is wrong! all wrong! for a news story. Maybe if it had been invented just for this purpose it would not suffer that taint, but it screams “one-click ordering.” Objectivity may be a myth, but it isn't that much of a myth.

Kampinskyism could emerge as a new online presentation format, after the manner of Weblogs, which in many respects they resemble. (Weblogs weren't entirely original, either. And they they didn't need to be.)

But let's consider the real world. We are dealing with Web authors who don't even provide ALT texts for graphics and with journalists accustomed to hammering out plain-text stories at the equivalent of dumb terminals (as the abacuses wired into newspaper compositions really are). The only way to produce the exceedingly rich metadata and the complexity of interface Kampinskyism needs is to hire troupes of young kids to do the work. They're pretty much the only ones who get the net.

Young kids are lousy journos (talent is an asset, but experience is a greater one), and in any event they never get hired into positions of power at your news cartels. Kampinskyism requires a vast infrastructure and huge resources; it isn't an Am I Hot or Not? that relies on the handiwork of one or two people. Most worrisomely, all the “assets” to which we would link in such a format are tightly held by the news cartels, and you'll never find CNN linking to stories on competing sites. So we're stuck.

Who will be the first smart cookie to hire Kampinsky to turn this broadly fabulous idea into a demonstration project? Could it be... the Beeb?

Posted on 2001-03-17