Mistakes Were Made: Journalism Still Faltering Making “Digital” Work

The dream that the iPad and assorted Android tablets were going to save the magazine and newspaper business is dead, according to stories published last week by the Verge and Gigaom. Both publications pointed to an article by Jason Pontin posted in MIT’s Technology Review that cited all of the horrors and unfulfilled expectations that was TR’s failed attempt to move to an iPad tablet version of their publication. I’ve written many times about my own frustrations as a potential news consumer trying to find publications worthy of my coin that either replicated or went beyond the dead-tree versions. The numerous missteps chronicled in Pontin’s article lead me to believe that the decline in journalism is going to continue while smaller start-ups from the blogs, like the Verge, are going to fill the vacated media-niche.

Among other things that scare me in Pontin’s narrative is that he thinks that HTML5 is going to be a better solution than building apps for all of the different devices. I know that this isn’t the exact same thing, but when I looked at the web-versions of several publications, just before getting my iPad a bit less than two-years ago, they were horrible. National Geographic, for example, at the time was all that was ugly on the web, with single column articles that left all kinds of white space on either side and tiny photo thumbnails that required that you click said thumbnails to view the images, as they slowly loaded, one at a time. There was no semblance of the beautiful page layout or image-intensity of the paper version. I only visited once.

But going back as far as 2005 I had been getting Macworld and PC Magazine in e-versions on my macintosh that were based on the paper versions from Zinio.com. So I knew that getting e-versions of the publications didn’t have to be reduced to breaking the paper version layout or clunky PDFs. When I got my first iPad I moved my Zinio subscriptions to my iPad, and enjoyed flipping through Macworld, for example, finding a link in an article or an ad, clicking on the link, and jumping out to the browser to get additional information. This goes back to the earliest versions of Zinio.com, so I’m not sure what Pontin is referring to as far as being limited to “walled gardens” that don’t offer links similar to web-versions. Also, when I became aware of the Zinio version of National Geographic, not only did it replicate the basic page layout and beautiful photography of the paper version but it went beyond and offered links to extended photo-galleries and embedded videos.

More recently I’ve compared the Zinio version with native iPad app version of National Geographic and they’re both beautifully done, offering all that the paper version offers plus additional media (photos and videos) that the paper version can’t offer. I’ve switched to the app version because by getting it directly from National Geographic I’m getting the monthly e-version plus the paper version. So I hold up National Geographic as a publication that got the iPad version right and I have no hesitation giving them my subscription dollars. Apparently Technology Review did not meet with the same success, garnishing less than 400 subscriptions for their efforts (that’s less than 400, not 4,000 or 400k!).

Among the problems listed, I think that Pontin is correct that folks do tend to expect information on the web to be free, so perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to make the e-magazine something different from a web-page. But it looks like Pontin assumed that making the iPad app would be similar to making a web-page and had to double his development budget when it became clear that it was going to require much more than clever CSS. Lest we criticize the folks behind TR too strongly, let’s remember that the first versions of the Time Magazine app and Popular Mechanics were little more than a PDF containers with no links and nothing that made them any better than the paper versions. And several other publications have wobbled when the newest iPad upped the screen resolution, thus revealing some of the shortcuts they’d been taking to move from printed to iPad app versions of their publications. Fellow blogger, Tom Lucas, has been sharing several Wired magazine articles with me over the past months to the point that I’m thinking that I need to get the Wired iPad version but I’ve heard too many negative user comments to not make the plunge.

While I’m attracted to not killing trees with my magazine subscriptions (and the associated guilt of them piling up unread), I firmly believe that publications going digital have to offer something more that can’t be done in the dead tree version. Do that, and assuming that the actual writing stands up to journalistic integrity, and I have no problem paying for the pleasure. It has to be something different from the dead tree version or the lowest-common-denominator web version. And based on the comments below Pontin’s article it looks like the trolls were not impressed with Technology Review’s attempt at an iPad app (no linking out of the app, no social networking, poor layout…). So, definitely, in this case, mistakes were made. But the truth is, journalism, newspapers and magazine publishing is rapidly changing and one has to do something because the past model is already several years gone.

 

The Financial Times is referred to as a publication that’s going the HTML5 route instead of investing in a native iPad app and based on the landing page FT acts just like an app and packs a lot of information into a reasonable page layout manner that probably translates whatever device one is viewing it on. Of course, one thing that the Financial Times and similar publications (such as the New York Times) have in their favor is that their content is so highly valued that they aren’t going to have to worry too much about the “it’s on the web, it should be free” crowd. So, I guess the problems for the smaller publishers is that as their revenue model is drying up (with advertising moving away from print) they have to invest in making a new model work. Big and small, it’s not at all clear what the journalism landscape will look like in the next year, much less the next five-years, but I hold some hope for how this will turn out. I mean, even as I’m horrified at how emaciated the daily paper-version of the LA Times looked the last time I saw a copy, the iPad version continues to improve version after version. Then there are blogs like Engadget which has to taken to publishing a weekly magazine in the iPad newsstand and the Verge, which is understands that good content needs to visually pop and offer more than retreaded stories skimmed from the ocean of bloggers trying to be heard above the din. I feel bad for Technology Review and their tale of woe, but perhaps that’s the way it’s supposed to be. This is my no means the final chapter on modern journalisms faltering steps to make digital work. Mistakes will continue to be made.

Resources:

Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps: The future of media on mobile devices isn’t with applications but with the Web, By Jason Pontin, MONDAY, MAY 7, 2012, http://www.technologyreview.com/business/40319/

Why Tech Review is ditching its iPad edition By Cory Doctorow at 11:00 am Tuesday, May 8, 2012,
http://boingboing.net/2012/05/08/why-tech-review-is-di.html

How HTML5 could beat out apps as the future of magazines By Sam Byford on May 7, 2012 08:48 pm, http://www.theverge.com/2012/5/7/3006031/html5-apps-future-magazines/

Are publishers waking up from their dream about apps? By Mathew Ingram May. 7, 2012, 9:37am PT, http://gigaom.com/2012/05/07/are-publishers-waking-up-from-their-dream-about-apps/

A Ray of Light for the New York Times by Peter Kafka, May 14, 2012 11:38AM PT, http://allthingsd.com/20120514/a-ray-of-light-for-the-new-york-times/

image: A discovery by denn, http://www.flickr.com/photos/denn/13250237/

vimeo video: Get more with the New Zinio 2.0 for iPad by Ziniohttp://vimeo.com/27027812

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