If you receive push notifications from a news app, you’ve probably gotten more than a few that baffle you. Why are they telling me this? Why right now? What does this mean? Why should I care?
On #teamnewsapp, we think a lot about push notifications. My colleague Sam Kirkland outlined how we want to provide context with our news alerts. "We think news alerts can go beyond regurgitating headlines," he wrote, "and do more for readers than compel them to click through to a story because the alert didn't provide all the information it could have in the first place."
Our goal is to truly inform, not just get the news out in a way that might not make sense to readers.
We have another goal too: we want to make our notifications truly useful.
We take our role as editors very seriously on #teamnewsapp, but we're striving not to let our reflexes distract you as you go about your day. Judgment is a vital part of a good journalist's job description. We make decisions every day about what we show you and how we portray what's happening in the world. We don't just decide what to write about — we decide how to deliver it and with what urgency.
For journalists, the methods of delivery say something about the "importance" of an event. If you see "BREAKING" at the beginning of a tweet, or a red bar at the top of a news website, we want you think, "Whoa, I better pay attention to this."
It's part of our responsibility as editors to flag those stories for you.
Push notifications are one more way of delivering the news, of course, but with one key difference: You might not be seeking out the news at that exact moment.
Yes, something might be urgent — in the sense of this is happening (or we want you to know about it) right now — but that doesn't mean you can't read about it later.
A news editor's traditional reflex is: "I've deemed this important, so therefore such and such should happen." On #teamnewsapp, we work hard to ensure our decision-making process doesn't exclude our audience. "Yes, this might be important, but is this something they would need to know right away?" "Would someone appreciate this heads up, or find it annoying?"
It’s our job as news editors to immerse ourselves in facts and distill information into digestible chunks for public consumption. And with push notifications, we need to use an even finer-toothed comb when sifting through updates.
An example of a news event that illustrated our thinking on this: In late February and early March the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was on the verge of a shutdown.
Because of disagreement in Congress over immigration, the department's funding would have been cut. Many workers would have been forced to take days off without pay, while those employees deemed essential would have had to go to work with no pay.
If you were set up to receive push notifications from news apps during this news cycle, you might have gotten three alerts from any one of those apps: one to say the House failed to pass funding hours before the deadline, one to say a stopgap funding measure had been agreed, and one to say that a final deal had been reached and there would be no shutdown.
Will they or won't they shut down
As journalists, we can be so engrossed in the details of a story — we’re either there covering it or seeing it fill our Twitter streams — that these “news about the news” updates can take on outsized importance.
On #teamnewsapp, we decided not to send these push notifications about these "interim" updates on the possible shutdown to our alpha testers, at the time a small group of BuzzFeed employees.
If there had been a shutdown, we would have sent an alert. Why? Because it answers a question — we had been showing our readers stories about a possible shutdown over the previous week — and yes, it is ~important~. It's something we want to draw your attention to because it's a (relatively) rare event that concerns your elected representatives and your tax dollars.
When there are so many ways to disperse breaking news, it’s easy to forget sometimes that, while many updates might be appropriate for some mediums (and certain audiences), it doesn’t mean they’re appropriate for a notification on people’s phones.
Not sending a push notification does not mean the information isn't available to the reader.
That's something else we're thinking about on #teamnewsapp: a happy medium between a push alert and simply putting a story in the app. How can we alert you that there's an update you might want to check out without being so intrusive? Maybe it's an app badge or something we put in widgets or Apple's Today Extension.
Push notifications are one of the most fragile relationship news organizations have with readers.
We have to think about our responsibility as editors, and we also need to consider whether it's worth virtually tapping you on the shoulder when you're doing something that is probably much more ~important~ in your life.