last track

I was ambivalent when I drew Yahoo News out of the basket to be my newstrack website. On one hand, I had been hoping to discover an exciting new site (which Yahoo was not), but on the other hand I held out hope that Yahoo would pleasantly surprise me.

It didn’t really.

I definitely think that Yahoo and other aggregate sites have their place in the news world for casual readers, but I think they could use that role to deliver really great content – and they don’t. The biggest problem I found was a lack of discernment. If Yahoo would be a bit more selective in what content they push out, rather than just dumping everything they receive from AP/Reuters/etc, their website would drastically improve. The biggest example of this is their photo slideshows.

They do a fairly good job of putting the serious issues (and lord knows we’ve had plenty of them worldwide over the past semester) front and center, but the “Most Emailed” box shows that Yahoo readers are generally sharing fluff pieces with each other. That seems to be true of most news sources – the most emailed on the New York Times or Washington Post are similar. I hope that means that people read the serious stuff, but then share the lighter material. I’d be very interested to see some statistics tracking pageviews per article rather than number of times emailed.

Yahoo does produce some original content, mostly in video form, but it tends to be buried under some obscure links.

After reading several of my classmate’s final thoughts on their own sites, it really seems like the online news world is full of opportunity – chances to shoot to the top in the future but also, in a lot of cases, missed opportunities. With The New York Times already behind a paywall and The Boston Globe (and who knows who else) soon to follow, online news in the next couple years is really anyone’s game. It’s going to the site that successfully manages a tricky balancing act – putting out the quality, multimedia content people want, either for free or a reasonable price; being easy to navigate; and cutting back on annoying ads while still making money – that wins.

Second Act a strong effort

While exploring parts of the Yahoo News site I hadn’t checked out before, I stumbled on another small element of original content produced by Yahoo, in the form of several videos called “Second Act.” And they are actually pretty good! All the Second Act segments (found under the “Vitality” tab on the home page) feature people who discover themselves or their talents or something they love after years of doing something else. Unlike the “Odd News” videos, whose weird tone made the veracity of the bits undefinable, the Second Act videos are all straightforward and pretty well produced. And the first one is even of a Brookline woman!

Since we have been working on our own audio slideshows and videos, I found myself being able to analyze the video, armed with information and insight I didn’t have before.

The editor quickly introduces the scene (a fighting gym) with quick, focusing shots of gloves, boxing bags and the ring. There is no voiceover narrator, rather we are immediately introduced to Cheryl Ragsdale via her own voice and shots of her in jiu jitsui gear. Then we meet her trainer, get deeper into who she is and why she decided to become a mixed martial artist, etc. The shots match up with the narration well, and in general exhibit good choices on the videographer and editor’s parts.

All of the videos (or at least the ones I watched) follow this same formula, down to the very similar music played behind each one. They all start with “I’m [NAME], I’m [AGE], and I [INTERESTING TIDBIT FEATURED IN VIDEO].” But they work.

I wonder how many people actually watch these short videos. They are the first thing under the Vitality tab, but the tab itself is an odd word choice for what lies after the click. Still, I like seeing original content, especially when its something that I now feel I could produce myself. Hire me, Yahoo Second Act!!

Libya slideshows, a comparison

Like many online news sources right now, Yahoo News is trying to incorporate multimedia along with their coverage of the Middle East and North Africa. They have a slideshow up on the homepage now called simply, “Libya.”

Photo from news.yahoo.com

This is where Yahoo as an aggregate could really shine, but they need be a little (okay a lot) more discerning. Having access to all the best AP, Reuters, etc. photographs, Yahoo could easily put together a very powerful slideshow. However, there are 139 images in the Libya slideshow. Of the first ten, three are close-ups of fighter jets either taking off or landing, one is a headshot of Obama, one is of protesters, one of congressmen and only four pictures depict rebels or combat. I would personally judge only one of the first ten pictures to be compelling (seen left).

The rest look somewhat like this:

Photo from news.yahoo.com

There are (a few) more interesting, well-composed and emotional pictures further into the slideshow, but I would be surprised if any significant amount of people see them, because the first ten are boring enough to send most people running off to Perez or ESPN.com.

The size of the pictures are also a turnoff – about 2 1/2 by 4 inches on my screen. They are tiny. They are poorly captioned. They are disappointing.

CNN.com’s slideshow, called “Photos: Civil War in Libya,” on the other hand, has only 49 images. They take up a large portion of the screen – about 6 by 10 inches on my computer. Each photo appears to be carefully chosen and edited, as they are very visually impressive.

Photo from CNN.com

The New York Times’s slideshow is equally visually stunning. It contains nearly twice as many photos as CNN’s, with 93 images. However, unlike Yahoo, I would guess most readers would be unable to stop after ten images. The morbidly beautiful photos drive viewers to continue.

Photo from nytimes.com

Photo from nytimes.com

Yahoo doesn’t need Pulitzer-winning staff photographers like the New York Times has in order to get shots like this – there are plenty of incredible photographers working for AP and Reuters. But what they do need is someone willing to spend a bit more time picking some really gripping shots and discarding the repetitive and/or unnecessary ones. Until then, Yahoo will be the place I check for the latest on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, and nothing more.

Tackling serious stuff

The screen shot of this morning’s Yahoo News home page is one of the most powerful ones I have seen them produce this semester. The photograph is looming and intense. It actually reminds me of a still from an action movie. The headlines are all serious and scary – even the “Most Emailed” section shows a shift in what readers are paying attention to right now (a change from a couple weeks ago).

Yahoo has put together a very interesting page, but I still have a few criticisms. The photograph is hurt by the lack of captioning. Where is this? What is happening? For all I know, it might as well be a movie still, because there is no context given. I can make some assumptions based on my own knowledge and the article accompanying it, but I shouldn’t have to assume.

The picture I actually like the most is the smaller one accompanying the headline, “Japan nuke plant says 2 0f 6 under control.” The perspective is really neat and in this case, the headline is informative enough that a caption isn’t needed.

It’s nice to see Yahoo heeding my advice by utilizing bigger pictures and its nice to see the public taking an interest in the serious stuff happening worldwide, but as always, it could be better.

Odds and Ends

This week was a tough one, academically and work-wise. At the end of it, my brain feels a little fried. Luckily, Yahoo has the perfect content for my jellied head. They call it “Odd News” and it’s just a series of short (200-400 words) pieces on weird stories from around the globe.

There’s a bit on the backlash against the Northwestern professor who showed a live sex act to his human sexuality class, a story on what Russian footballers do and wear to survive subzero winters, plans for a colossal ferris wheel built on the Las Vegas strip and a piece on a supersized alligator gar caught by a Mississippi man (my home state, doing big things!).

The pieces were all interesting, at least enough to fit their short length, but I think they would be must-reads with one change. Visuals!! If each of these stories were accompanied by a great, well-composed photograph, they could be really arresting. (Of course, the sex act couldn’t exactly be shown, or someone might be arrested.)  But a photo of the Russians loading on the wool layers or smearing their face with cream or a plan for the ferris wheel looming over the Vegas strip would really bring these pieces to life. They may seem insignificant, but sometimes what is done with the small things can be just as impressive as the bigger, global stories.

One element they did include, however, was a video accompanying the giant alligator gar piece. It intros with the gar and then goes on to address a few more short pieces. It appears to be a weekly video actually produced by Yahoo (one of the few original elements on the site) – but mainly with footage garnered from other sources, as seen in the local news (not Yahoo) microphones the interviewers are holding.

The video seems strange to me because, although the content is all (presumably) true, it seems kind of like a knockoff of The Onion… It seems fake, even though its not. Part of that is the silly things they cover and part is that a fairly well-known comedian is acting as the broadcast journalist. I am glad to see multimedia elements being incorporated, as this is an area Yahoo lags behind other news sources in, but this particular style of video seems to be straddling the line between serious news and parody news to the point that it’s unclear which it is.

Note: I tried to embed the video and it instead inserted a weird link that didn’t work. Come on, Yahoo! Let’s get your content share-able. I’ll try to find a way to embed it, but until then, then the link above should work.

What are we reading?

One of the elements you see “before the scroll” on Yahoo! News is a “Most Popular” box on the right side. There are two options, Most Emailed and Most Viewed. I tend to check out the Most Emailed tab, using the logic that someone could view an article but not necessarily read the entire thing, but someone that emails an article to friends and family has almost certainly read the whole piece and enjoyed the writing or content enough to share. This week I wanted to see if there were any trends in the Most Popular articles typically shared by Yahoo readers, so periodically throughout the week I spent checked back with Yahoo and did a screen grab of the area. Here’s what I got:

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There’s technology (iPad 2, diesel), sex (oral sex cancer link), environment (oily gulf, megadroughts, planet in 2050) and a whole lot of just weird stuff (breast milk ice cream, man with 39 wives).

What’s missing? Revolution. There’s not one story listed about the uprisings in the Middle East or politics (unless you count Rush Limbaugh’s opinion on the First Lady’s bathing suit body… and I don’t). I’m not sure what it says about our culture that we want our friends and family to read more about breast milk ice cream than entire governments toppling, but there you are.

Practice Photo Gallery

I decided to photograph what I see on a daily basis walking from my apartment to school. Right now, it isn’t much to look at with all the melting, dirty snow revealing long-hidden trash, but I tried to capture it just as it is.

Weekend Update: See Flickr pictures in sidebar!