Recently my attention has been drawn to the Dutch news website www.en.nl. Wilbert Baan, interaction designer for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, told me he wants to see “what we can do with news, social networks, wikis and more.
“I think you might like the experiment we are doing,” he wrote.
And bloody hell was he right.
The first thing that strikes you about the site is the bar chart across the top of the page, replacing the traditional masthead. This is a newsriver:
Down the outside column is a list of articles from the past hour:
That’s culture shift number 1.
At the bottom of the page you will find recent images, social bookmark sites, most commented articles from the past 24 hours, most important and most viewed.
Culture shift number 2 is the list of incoming links to this article – something built into the very fabric of blogs (pingback) but so far either anathema to mainstream publishers (“send our readers elsewhere?”), or difficult with current content management systems.
And with one simple move the site demonstrates it’s part of the conversation.
The ‘most important’ list is also worth looking at. How did they decide what was “most important?” I asked.
“We are using around ten variables to decide what’s important news. The variables we’re using right now are pageviews, visits from external websites, unique referrers to an article, comments, votes (4 options) and the press agency urgency variable (3 options; normal, high, very high).
“By showing it next to the most viewed we can easily see how it works and adjust the settings to make it better. It’s not perfect yet, but it already works remarkably well.
“We could extend this even further (tags, edits, tag removals) or skip some. All the variables are connected to points, we can set a default amount of points to a variable and define or redefine the value for the website.
“We also made a tag sniffer at http://www.skitch.com/wilbertbaan/8733/en-tag-sniffing – it scans the text on certain names and auto tags the article.”
Wilbert’s next step is building a community that can contribute to make this website better with ideas or criticism. The newspaper is already conducting a conversation with readers on a NING social network where users can contribute new ideas and discuss the website (in Dutch), but clearly this is just the start.
“For example we could connect a popular social network to the website and use what your network reads to alter the presentation of the news. Or make section pages, or a frontpage?
And all this is possible because of a Holovaty-esque focus on the power of databases.
“The most important object is the database,” he writes on his blog. “We designed the database from a view that almost everything is possible with the data. We store a lot of information that might be valuable in the future. This allows us to experiment freely with the design and think up new features. The database is the most valuable asset of a news organization.”
And this means they can do “Almost everything. We can make mash-ups, feeds, aggregated pages. Hook in to social networks, extend the wiki functionality, and more. Technically everything is possible.”
Keep an eye on this one.
UPDATE: Wilbert writes: “We have added feeds for every tag, latest news and breaking news. We have also added a personal feed that can be created by selecting the tags you like or don’t like. Very rudimentary, but it is a first experiment with personalization (My feed: http://en.nl/en/my_rss.php?editorId=3) and you can take it anywhere you want.
“With these feeds we are encouraging developers to experiment with news sorting and make their own interface or mash-up.”