While reading a crime story on the Seattle Times' Web site earlier today, I wondered how important the Times' editors thought the story was. Not knowing the Seattle area, I wasn't sure how newsworthy parking-lot shootings are in Des Moines, Wash., so I wanted to find out.
Problem was, I'd stumbled upon the story via a section index page that appeared to be ordering stories by date and time alone. That didn't give me any clues as to how important the story was, relative to the rest of the day's news. And the story wasn't on the site's home page; either it had already been replaced by more recent content, or it had never made it there in the first place. I didn't know, and I couldn't find out.
That got me thinking. It'd be useful if news sites made stories' importance more obvious.
A well-refined news-judgment scale is one of the few things print newspapers still have going for them. When you pick up a newspaper, it's easy to figure out what was important when that dead wood went to press: Just flip the thing to page one. And, for the most part, the rest of the stories fall in order of priority. (With exceptions, of course, for pages deep within a section, where story placement becomes more dictated by ad space, story length, photo availability, etc.)
On a news Web site, though, there aren't many good ways for editors to communicate how important a story is. Stories sit alone, in templated obscurity, with no hint of how much more or less newsworthy they are than every other story that day, that week, or that month.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Why not assign metadata to each story that explains how important the story is? Such a system needn't be complex; producers could assign a simple, one through 10, "importance value" to each story. With that data, a site could dynamically alter a story's appearance -- using a different sized headline, for instance -- based on its importance. Or maybe it'd be more straightforward to include a small sidebar saying: "This was the third most important story on our Web site on Thursday. Click here to see stories that were more important."
This extra metadata lends itself to a few other cool possibilities: Dynamically generated "Most important stories of 2004 (so far)" pages, search results sorted by story importance, section pages ordered by story importance, breaking-news e-mails sent out automatically whenever a story has the highest importance...And the most-important story list could be cross-referenced with the most-e-mailed story list to create some sort of greatest-hits collection of editors' picks and readers' picks.
I'm certain existing content-management systems have "priority" functionality; this idea is nothing special. But why aren't news sites using it?
Related: Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman's Can your CMS do 150-point headlines?