The golden age of newsprint collides with the gilt age of internet news

Sitting in the Economy Class seat on a United Airlines flight, I ducked for the third time as the gentleman next to me struggled to turn the page of his broadsheet newspaper.

While he was assimilating what was happening in the world, I was contemplating the unfortunate juxtaposition of two iconic forms – the over-sized broadsheet newspaper and the undersized airline seat – and the current state of two industries that find themselves in deep financial trouble.

News stories. Crosswords. Horoscopes. Book reviews. Political cartoons. Recipes. Print-dirtied fingers. Papier mache. Stuffing sodden shoes. Wrapping fish and chips. Ad hoc packing materials. Fire kindling. These are things that I think about when I think of newspapers. And despite the fact that I could never quite physically control a broadsheet without the aid of a table, I cannot believe that this everyday artifact may go away. But according to my friends here in the digiphilic environment of San Francisco it is inevitable – you can’t walk into a coffee shop, never mind turn on a TV or the radio without hearing someone opine about economic crisis that newspapers are facing and the likely disappearance of the daily rag. I am as shocked and mortified by this as I was by the 2003 news story that bananas may be extinct by 2013.

Newspapers have a long history. The first printed forerunners of the newspaper appeared in Germany in the late 1400’s in the form of news pamphlets or broadsides, often highly sensationalized in content. In Renaissance Europe handwritten newsletters circulated privately among merchants, passing along information about everything from wars and economic conditions to social customs and “human interest” features. In 1556 the Venetian government published Notizie scritte, for which readers paid a small coin, or “gazetta”. The earliest predecessors of the newspaper, the corantos, were small news pamphlets that were produced only when some event worthy of notice occurred. In the first half of the 17th century, newspapers began to appear as regular and frequent publications. The first modern newspapers were products of western European countries like Germany (publishing Relation in 1605), France (Gazette in 1631), Belgium (Nieuwe Tijdingen in 1616) and England (the London Gazette, founded in 1665, is still published as a court journal). These periodicals consisted mainly of news items from Europe, and occasionally included information from America or Asia. They rarely covered domestic issues; instead English papers reported on French military blunders while French papers covered the latest British royal scandal. Newspaper content began to shift toward more local issues in the latter half of the 17th century. Still, censorship was widespread and newspapers were rarely permitted to discuss events that might incite citizens to opposition. Sweden was the first country to pass a law protecting press freedom in 1766. Timeliness was always an issue; news could take months to reach audiences. The invention of the telegraph in 1844 transformed print media. Now information could be transferred within a matter of minutes, allowing for more timely, relevant reporting, and newspapers appeared societies around the world. This was truly a revolution.

The Internet is bringing about an even bigger revolution: timeliness, open rather than controlled information sharing and easy access. This shake-up is bigger than any other that has been faced in the last 100 years from the likes of radio and television. Broadcast radio in the 1920’s was low-cost with broad distribution, and content delivery was often more timely. The newspapers responded by adding content that was not so easily represented through audio waves, providing more in-depth and visually vivid coverage of key stories. As the 1940’s and 1950’s came around, television appeared as the main challenger. Newspapers again responded, taking from television the short, pithy story format. Newspapers like USA Today responded with graphics and colour imagery. More generally, news publications started diversifying their content, mixing human interest stories with puzzles, crosswords, book reviews, cartoons, cooking recipes and all the good stuff we have grown to love. Newspapers became about browsing, grazing, sharing, surfing, with content that satisfied immediate information needs and longer-term general interests.

Despite radio and television, newspapers managed to retain their position in the information value chain. Not so anymore. There are three interrelated causes for this shift in the information ecosphere: internet-related innovations in news production and news dissemination; the impact of new digital devices that are changing the ways in which content is consumed; and a no longer viable business model.

Lets quickly look at these in turn. It is obvious that the Internet has revolutionized news production and dissemination. Speedy transmission of information around the globe means news can reach us as events are unfolding – hot off the keyboard rather than the press with images and video for that “being there” feeling. “Citizen journalists” give us the lay-person’s perspective on events that journalists cannot or have not yet reached. Indeed, reports from various disasters from the fires in California to the shootings in Mumbai came for many people first from Twitter, the micoblogging service that is currently the darling of the media and blogs from Iraq told us much more that we could possibly find out from our daily newspapers. The efficiency and effectiveness of this interconnected internet world cannot be denied. Production and consumption of news has also been transformed by the explosion of lightweight, wireless, internet-enabled recording and reading devices, plus the proliferation of computers in the home and in offices. Finally, the old business model is failing. The newspaper industry in the US has been generating most of its revenue from advertising for decades. The global recession and the resulting decline in advertizing revenues has dealt a possibly fatal blow; the Newspaper Association of America reports that in 2008 the total advertising revenues declined 16.6 percent to $37.85 billion, representing a $7.5 billion reduction on numbers for 2007. Proposals on the table for saving the industry now include micropayment schemes plus bailout and/or government subsidies.

I don’t feel qualified to assess the likelihood of success for the various bailout schemes from micropayments to government bailouts, and for the purposes of this column, I will not go into the importance of ensuring we don’t lose good journalistic practice. But I am really worried about what is happening in the world of news, because I am screaming for a better news reading experience on my desktop and mobile devices. What the news industry at its best did really well is missing from the online reading experience: easy navigation of well filtered content plus effective selection and segmentation of content plus a clear voice/view of the publication. Can we take the best of what we had in newsprint and create a good digital news reading experience? Here are some basics I would like to work on:

(1) information quality- can we provide better tools for the collection and management of information gathered on the ground that would aid with quality and provide guidelines for the coupling of different media types (text, imagery, video) to avoid gratuitous visuals? Let’s be active in designing better technologies for production of the news by citizen and professional journalists and editors.

(2) information architecture design: can we design better relational models so we can surface relationships between stories that are actually meaningful instead of the ‘also see’ hyperlink that takes me to a story from 5 years ago that somehow got linked to the current one? Can we design better tools for following story developments, for enabling the creation of narrative by producers and consumers?

(3) can we improve the representation of information – graphics, fonts, layouts – so that it is possible to skim more effectively?

(4) can we design for reading the news – what is next after the Kindle? Is electronic paper or Xerox’s promised reprintable paper going to be a reality so I can have the large gesture, embodied experience of the broadsheet back and decent screen real estate for laying out content?

(5) can we design anything better than the crass, ugly and inconvenient model of url bookmarking to support different temporalities of information usefulness and different consumption paces, and for slow-burn stories to persist while fast-burn stories are updated with new content?

In sum, we should more deeply address the practices of news readership. We should design for convenience and skimming. We should design filters and surfacers of quirky items or items that for some reason search algorithms find unpalatable. We should develop better editorial tools than we currently have.

I am not alone in wanting some good design heads on these problems. Addressing people’s everyday news consumption practices, a 2008 Associated Press ethnographic study cited email and internet-based sources as a mainstay many young people’s experience of the news. However, these interviewees, plus interviewees in a study I am currently running in the Bay Area all talk about the “work” of reading the news online and that “news fatigue” is increasing. What this seems to boil down to is that there are plenty of places to find news on the internet, but in all this bacchanalian information glut the shallow story dominates, often it is hard to find the follow-up to a reported news item, and there is a lot of repetition. To the last point, the Project for Excellence in Journalism observed in their 2006 State of the News Media report that 14,000 unique stories were found on an internet news aggregator site in one 24 hour period, there were in fact only 24 discrete news events. There is vastly more content available of course, and things have improved somewhat since 2006, but that other content is relatively speaking hard to find. And online content usually does not offer the structured, well-designed experience that its printed counterpart does. Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Institute blogs about his experience of a national newspaper’s online presence “…counting possible links (using a search for anchor tags in the source HTML), there are 423 other webpages linked from the front page. A more careful count, ignoring ads, links to RSS feeds and links to account tools for online readers, gives 315 content links, possible stories or sections a reader could explore from the front page. While there are almost 14 times as many pages for a reader to explore, they’ve got much less information on what links to follow: while twelve stories have text hooks, the wordcount ranges between 10 and 26 words. While there’s a good chance one of those stories might convince you to click on it, you won’t start reading it on the front page, the way you might with the 200-400 word stories in the paper edition.”

I just replicated his analysis by looking at three online papers. He’s right.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves or judge too early. We are only at the beginning. Right now we are at the stage the car was in the last 1800s and early 1900s – in shape and form reproducing the horse drawn carriage, not yet having found its own aesthetic reflective of its infrastructure and capability.

Newspaper companies are on board with enlisting others to aid in the design of the next generation of news forms. In early 2009, the New York Times Developer Network hosted its first API seminar so we can start designing and building new forms of content provision. The aim is to make the entire newspaper “programmable”. Programmers will be able to mash up the paper’s structured content — reviews, event listings, recipes, and so on. This is a great opportunity for those immersed in information and experience design.

Some are for example pushing on really nice “read later” and bookmarking facilities. This is a good start. But you still have to know how to search for content, and spend time doing that. In my opinion, today’s aggregators/algorithms and automatically updated webpages are in no way shape or form replacing the work done by a good editor and a good layout designer.

As I have been thinking about news, I conducted an informal review of a couple of local and national newspapers. Bearing in mind that I am only am interloper who is curious because reading the news is integral to my identity, I took a quick review of the differences between online and print versions. I could not discern any consistent re-representations between online and print. I wonder: Are there standard reformulations and standard channel “jumps” for different content types? Who is making those decisions and how? How is the “shelf-life” or temporal relevance affected by the channel or the medium? And…… what of the services that were once the purview of the local newspaper have not been reformulated or replicated? What has happened to the content that once constituted the local daily paper? How has it morphed and reformed? Finally, and of course, I note that I have not seen many people argue for the fact that the very form of the newspaper, it’s affordances (size not withstanding), may be missed. No indeed, the print form of the newspaper still has affordances that cannot be matched by the digital medium. These are, to me at least, complementary forms, but perhaps I am in the minority; I still print things out rather than reading them on a screen.

And, there is another affordance about paper. It gets left lying around, apparently discarded but ripe for re-reading. That is not the case with contemporary digital devices, although who knows where the future may take us as device manufacturing gets cheaper. Information left lying around for others to consume is important. It allows others who are idling to encounter than which they may not have otherwise; to be literal, if I sit on a subway train and out of curiosity read the newspaper that has been discarded on the seat next to me, I am encountering something I did not choose, that was not filtered for me. And just perhaps, I will learn something unexpected.

Addressing issues in the creation and dissemination of news is important; it is not enough to say that late adopters or those who not actively seek the news as opposed to having it literally pushed through the letter box should catch up with us digerati and get those phone applications downloaded. Making it harder to get access to information affects civic engagement. Following the closure of the Cincinnati Post in late 2007, Princeton University economists Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido showed a decline in people voting in elections, fewer candidates running in opposition to the incumbents, and less knowledge of and debate around issues and policies supported by the incumbents. If democracy in some sense depends on an informed electorate, then making it harder for people to easily find digestible but detailed and well-balanced arguments is a serious problem. Even if you don’t agree with everything you read in a newspaper, encountering things that you have not actively selected broadens your outlook, the flip-side of how filtering and narrowing can save time. Specifically, filtering saves time, but also shuts down challenges to assumptions, and it is those challenges that help us grow and create the debate of a functioning, democratic society. Newspapers can of course do the opposite; they can function to bring a community together in a shared narrative (whether they agree with the narrative or not will drive whether then accept or fight it). Moving to purely digital forms, some say could increase ‘discovery’ problems for the non-digerati, and thus the number of ‘news dropouts’.

So, I confess that personally, I love the materiality of a good broadsheet newspaper and of the magazines that I read. And it annoys me just a little that, thanks to my beloved Kindle electronic reading device, I don’t have newspaper lying around the house to stuff my rain sodden shoes. But I am also looking forward to a world with better designed digital news formats. What we need is some technical savvy, a design sensibility and a deeper human-centered understanding the Gestalt of news consumption in practice between and across representational forms. We need something more that the current state of the art, which offers us only the most superficial, easy to implement, of technical convergences. We need more than the horseless carriage of digital news.

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