Introducing Newspeg — A New Way to Look at News

Do you get the feeling you're awash in a flood of news?

The internet has unleashed a torrent of news sources, old and new, that we're all scrambling to make sense of and sort out. The old convenient package of news that landed on the driveway each morning or played on TV at dinnertime has been replaced by a cacophony of sources that can be overwhelming.

Newspeg logoTo try to make some sense of the news torrent, a group of us created Newspeg, a Web and mobile social news platform that anyone can use to collect, curate and share news with others. 

You can use Newspeg to create a collection of stories for yourself on a particular topic, or to share your news interests with your friends and other Newspeg visitors. Each story you "peg" to Newspeg displays a headline, a photo and the story's source. With a click, you can read the entire story on its originating site. You can add comments or like a story, or repeg a story from someone else. 

Naturally,  Newspeg is integrated with Twitter and Facebook, so stories collected on Newspeg can be quickly and easily shared even more broadly. 

We won't lie: Newspeg is unabashedly inspired by Pinterest, which has some utility for sharing news content but really is better suited for favoriting and sharing photos, fashion, designs, recipes and other non-news items. Newspeg, as the name implies, is purpose-built for curating and sharing news. 

Newspeg home

Some of the people who've seen Newspeg have described it as "Pinterest for news." That sounds good to us. 

There are plenty of other news-curation platforms out there, but most of them are algorithm-driven newsbots. That's fine as far as it goes, but we believe the human factor is critical. Newspeg draws from the wisdom of the crowd to create an ever-changing display of news that reflects what real people think is interesting, and to allow for the creation of deep, human-driven collections of news on specific topics.

Newspeg draws on a lot of the work I've done over the past couple of decades in searching for new models for news distribution, particularly in the area of curation and aggregation, which I think is very important in helping people sort through the huge flow of information we're all dealing with daily on our phones, tablets and desktops. In creating Newspeg, I've been greatly aided by longtime friends and colleagues Bobby Phillips, Jeff Aiken and Amra Tareen, who played critical roles in conceiving and building the Newspeg platform. Many thanks to them.

Newspeg is designed to be publisher-friendly:  we're giving branded credit to the sites that produce stories and sending traffic directly back to the original stories. Some publishers we've talked to even have  contemplated using Newspeg to create vertical topic pages on the fly, curating their own content and stories from other sources. We're looking forward to seeing that happen, and to working with publishers to help customize and brand those pages and to find other interesting uses for the platform.

All that said, Newspeg still is a bit of an experiment, a work in progress. We can't wait to see how people use it, what they find, and what they tell us about how we can improve the experience.

So please try it out. Peg a few stories (and come back tomorrow and peg more!), add the Peg It button to your browser, give us feedback, tell your friends. We hope Newspeg will give you a new way to navigate the rushing river of news.

 

Falling Off the Wagon—And Into the Land of Oz

I started the Recovering Journalist blog six years ago because I believe strongly that the future of journalism involves a lot more than simply journalism. To be a complete journalist, it has become just as important to understand and appreciate the business of journalism. So I styled myself the Recovering Journalist and opined away on the state of the journalism business over the past few years—just as it hit a precipitous decline. It's been quite a ride.

Now, however, the time has come for the Recovering Journalist to fall off the wagon and return to journalism—albeit equipped with the philosophy and knowledge that fed this blog and my concurrent career as an entrepreneur, consultant and professor.

Beginning next month, I'll be serving as Vice President of Content for The World Company, the parent of the Lawrence Journal-World and other newspapers, in Kansas and surrounding states. This puts me in day-to-day leadership of the news operations of daily and weekly newspapers and their online operations—a full-blown return to journalism as it's practiced circa 2012.

Obviously, the worlds of journalism and news are very, very different than they were when I left daily journalism (with occasional return visits) 20 years ago. The Internet has changed everything; news is now social and participatory and interactive and a lot of other things; traditional business models for news are in shambles. These are the sorts of challenges I've been thinking about and working on for the past 20 years and writing about here for the past six years. Now it's time to apply all of that thinking to bringing a traditional newspaper operation into the new age.

In Lawrence, we have a tremendous head start: the Journal-World and associated sites such as Lawrence.com have been leaders in creating new models for journalism and new business models for news for the better part of a decade, under the ambitious, visionary leadership of the Simons family and pioneers such as Rob Curley and Adrian Holovaty. Very few other newspaper companies have been as progressive and forward-thinking. But as the Journal-World, like other papers, continues to struggle with the stark new realities of the journalism business, it's time to take the pace of innovation to the next level. That's what the Simons family and COO Suzanne Schlicht have hired me to do.

What does all that mean? It's too early to say in much detail. But it means being not just "digital first" but audience first: delivering news, information and advertising to audiences at high quality in whatever form the audience wants it—from print to online to mobile to e-mail to social networks to tablets. It means building editorial products backed by strong business models that support good journalism. It means helping newsrooms rethink the way they do everything to best serve their audiences. It means building strong partnerships with college journalism departments, like the excellent one at the nearby University of Kansas. And so much more.

I'm excited to get this opportunity to, well, put my money where my mouth has been. As a member in good standing of the Jarvis/Shirky/Rosen Future of News coven, I've been bloviating about this stuff for years, as well as teaching it and helping to start and nurture companies that have attempted to capitalize on the change swirling around the news business (another of those startups is in the oven, almost ready to go–watch this space).

Now I get to put all that theory and thinking into action, in search of a model that provides great local journalism to the people in and around Lawrence for years to come, and maybe, just maybe, providing an example that can be used elsewhere—hopefully many elsewheres.

What will become of the Recovering Journalist blog? Well, it's been in semi-retirement for a while anyway, and now the name seems quaintly inappropriate for an off-the-wagon journalist who's no longer in true recovery. I may return here periodically; I may pop up somewhere else. But I've got so much work ahead of me in my new day job that I can scarcely imagine having time to blog much.

Instead, please watch what we do on LJWorld.com, Lawrence.com, KUSports.com and our various other products in the coming months and years. I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback as we—and I—head into this great new adventure, turning theory into practice.

The ruby slippers are packed, Toto's in his bicycle basket and the GPS is pointing down the yellow brick road. The Recovering Journalist is headed to Kansas—and hopefully the Wonderful World of Oz. (This time, please do pay attention to the man behind the curtain!)

A Vision for the Future of Newspapers—20 Years Ago

It's becoming hard to remember life before digital news. We now take for granted instantaneous availability of news and information on devices ranging from desktop PCs to tablets to smartphones. We now break news, add commentary and interact with audiences on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Google has put access to an unimaginable collection of knowledge at our fingertips. The iPhone and Android have put a virtual newsroom—with writing, photo, video, Web research and communications capabilities—into our pockets. We gasp at the inexorable decline of the business models of once-mighty traditional media corporations, hollowing out newsrooms and throwing thousands of people out of once-secure jobs.

In short, we're living through one of the most remarkable revolutions in history, the complete remaking of how we cover and consume news and information. It's difficult to remember things the way they were.

But some of us were there when that revolution began. And what a long, strange trip it's been.

Twenty years ago, Robert G. Kaiser, newly appointed managing editor of The Washington Post, took a trip to California to learn more about the then-developing world of Silicon Valley. While there, he was invited by John Sculley, then Apple's CEO, to a conference in Japan about the future of digital media. Several dozen movers and shakers from the worlds of publishing and technology gathered in the resort town of Hakone, outside Tokyo, to discuss what it might mean to use computers to collect and distribute news and information, something described by the newfangled word "multimedia."

What Kaiser heard at the conference sounded to him—a decidedly non-techie print newsman whose expertise was mostly in international affairs—like science fiction. On the long flight home, he wrote a seven-page memo to Washington Post Publisher Don Graham and other top executives at the paper about what he'd seen and heard—and what he thought The Post should do about it. (How much have things changed? Bob wrote his first draft in longhand, on a legal pad; I'm writing this on an iPad.)

The Kaiser memo, 20 years old this month, is a striking document, even today. (With Bob's kind permission, it's publicly available here, as a PDF, for the first time.) It shows a first-class mind wrapping itself around a topic—and a future—that was completely new and foreign. A lot of what Bob wrote about seems almost quaint now, but remember: this was 1992, when "going online" meant connecting to services like Compuserve and Prodigy via slow, squeaky dial-up modems. PCs had just made a transition to color screens, laptops were still a novelty, cellular phones were rarer (and bricklike) and nobody but Tim Berners-Lee had heard of the World Wide Web.

To newspaper veteran Kaiser—and just about anybody else—what was discussed at the Apple-sponsored conference on the future of multimedia and technology was fantastic. He wrote Graham:

I was taken aback by predictions at the conference about the next stage of the computer revolution. It was offered as an indisputable fact that the rate of technological advancement is actually increasing. Dave Nagel, the impressive head of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, predicted “the three billions” would be a reality by the end of this decade: relatively cheap personal computers with a billion bits of memory (60 million is common today), with microprocessors that can process a billion instructions per second (vs. about 50 million today) that can transmit data to other computers at a billion bits per second (vs. 15-20 million today). At that point the PC will be a virtual supercomputer, and the easy transmission and storage of large quantities of text, moving and still pictures, graphics, etc., will be a reality. Eight years from now.

(Yep, that all happened, pretty much on schedule—and now has been vastly surpassed.) 

I asked many purported wizards at the conference if they thought Nagel was being overoptimistic. None thought so. The machines he envisioned will have the power to become vastly more user-friendly than today’s PC’s. They will probably be able to take voice instructions, and read commands written by hand or an electronic notepad, or right on the screen. None of this is science fiction — it’s just around the corner.

(Most of that has happened too, though not all—I'm looking at you, Siri—but nobody back then quite foresaw smartphones, Google or Facebook, either.)

The world is changing with amazing speed, and we need to pay close attention to what is happening. … No one in our business has yet launched a really impressive or successful electronic product, but someone surely will. I’d bet it will happen rather soon. The Post ought to be in the forefront of this — not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes. We’ll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it. And we can.

Brave words—and ultimately a bit too optimistic—but an important call to arms. Kaiser suggested to Graham that The Post embark ASAP on two daring R&D projects: an electronic classifieds service (alas, craigslist eventually won that race while the Post and others were still figuring out how to get going) and an electronic newspaper. Of the latter, Kaiser wrote:

Many at the conference talked about the way we tend to use new media first to replicate the products produced by old media — so early TV consisted of visible radio shows, for example. With this in mind, our electronic Post should be thought of not as a newspaper on a screen, but (perhaps) as a computer game converted to a serious purpose. In other words, it should be a computer product.

That last was an important and smart distinction, which unfortunately got a bit lost in the rush over the next few years to paste newspapers onto a screen rather than to truly think of them as computer products, in Kaiser's apt words. But his instincts and vision were spot on.

As it happened, I was covering technology for The Post in 1992, and Kaiser shared his memo with me shortly after he sent it to Graham. I was thunderstruck. I remember walking across the newsroom from his office, reading the memo and becoming more and more excited with every step. I covered this stuff; I understood the importance of what he'd heard and prophesied; and I was thrilled that somebody in senior management at the Post "got it," as techies were fond of saying.

Moreover, I thought I knew how to bring Kaiser's vision to life.

I spent the next few days–a gorgeous late-August Washington weekend—holed up in my basement slaving over my Macintosh LC. Using Apple's then-revolutionary (and now late and lamented) HyperCard software, I built a prototype electronic newspaper that, as Kaiser had envisioned—and as much as my crude programming skills could manage—was a "computer product."

Cheekily named PostCard, in tribute to its Washington Post and HyperCard parentage, it was, yeah, a newspaper on a screen. But it had crude animations, soundbites (recorded from TV) to accompany some stories, and other primitive multimedia tricks. Computer graphics were so unsophisticated then that I couldn't even include photos on the front page, and my design skills weren’t great—but here's what one glimpse of newspaper future looked like 20 years ago:

Postcard (early version) home page

I loaded PostCard onto my new PowerBook 140 (still a black and white screen) and brought it to work that Monday. “This is it!” Kaiser said excitedly when he saw it. "This is exactly what I was talking about in my memo." Within a couple days I essentially had a new job: as the Post's in-house digital media "futurologist," as Don Graham dubbed me.

Over the next couple of years we continued developing PostCard and many other products as testbeds for all sorts of ideas about the future of media. Again, the Web didn't exist yet, broadband was a dream, and the tools were very crude. But working on our own and in partnership with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, we developed a host of prototypes and concepts that pointed toward the digital future. One idea we played with looked a bit like what Groupon came up with nearly two decades later; we had hyperlocal concepts long before that word even existed. We even built versions of The Washington Post that ran on Newton, Apple's then-revolutionary handheld computer, a precursor to the iPhone and iPad. It was a time of “anything goes” experimentation.

Postcard, with help from engineers at a secret Apple media lab in Boulder, Colo., evolved into a much slicker product over the next year or two, adding prototypical interactive advertising, text-to-speech features, personalized news, built-in news games, searchable classifieds and stock tables, online restaurant reservations and ordering and a vision for electronic sports ticketing, along with video and improved design and functionality. 

Postcard-Front Page

As someone said when they saw PostCard a few years later, "It looks like the Web." Except that, in those early days of experimentation, the Web didn't really exist yet. And we hadn't seen it.

We were learning quickly how digital media differed from print. We still had no real idea of how we would deliver these whizbang products to anybody—the Internet wasn't really ready for primetime yet and our mutimedia visions bumped up against pre-broadband reality—but PostCard was a great vehicle to use to demo the future. Legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee, seeing PostCard presented at a Post company board meeting and grasping how it could be used to provide all sorts of contextual and supplemental content to support news stories, growled, "My God, it will take all day to read this thing." I think that was a compliment. Shortly after, the Post's board created a new division of the company to build digital products, the beginning of hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate spending to chase the vision of the future that Kaiser had written about and I had crudely prototyped.

We certainly weren't the only ones in the news industry doing these sorts of experiments. The Wall Street Journal had its own HyperCard-based experimental newspaper. CNN had an amazing multimedia CD-ROM news prototype. Knight Ridder's Roger Fidler, working in a lab literally next door to Apple's Boulder office, had a rudimentary but fascinating prototype of a newspaper-tablet computer. (Although the Fidler "tablet" consisted mainly of a printed page pasted on a board, accompanied by a clever video simulation, elements of it anticipated the iPad so presciently that it has become a flashpoint in the ongoing Apple-Samsung patent litigation over who first came up with the idea for an iPad-like tablet.) Others, notably the San Jose Mercury News, were starting to experiment with building actual online news products on platforms like AOL.

We all know how digital media history played itself out after these heady early years. These early experiments coalesced into newspaper Web sites in the mid-90s—WashingtonPost.com went live in 1996—and ran smack into more nimble, creative challengers like Google, craigslist and many others.

Overly cautious newspaper managers, convinced that the print golden goose was immortal and immutable, failed to fully exploit most of the opportunities presented by the new medium. They simply didn't innovate nearly as much as they should have, leaving the field open to upstart competitors until it was too late. One of Kaiser's most accurate prophecies, alas, was a dire warning near the beginning of his memo: "We do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured—or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism."

Mistakes were made, and they were doozies. The Washington Post, for its part, callously passed on opportunities to be an early investor in the likes of AOL, Netscape, eBay and Google. Oops—and there were similar horror stories inside all big newspaper companies. The history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is, unfortunately, a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future.

(Contrary to popular myth, by the way, there was no "original sin" of newspapers somehow failing to think to charge subscriptions for online editions in those early days: in fact, we talked about paid-content models all the time, and Kaiser’s memo even suggested that money could be made selling individual stories to thousands of readers for pennies apiece. Indeed, many early newspaper online products and sites, including The Post's first online service, Digital Ink, did charge for access. But they ran up against technological barriers and audience resistance that generally made subscriptions unworkable. The alternative was the old newspaper revenue fallback, advertising, which proved to be less than effective because of the end of media scarcity and competition from the likes of Google, craigslist and many others for the ad dollars newspapers used to dominate. Believe me, if we could have figured out to get people to pay us directly for digital news back in the early days, we would have done it.)

Where are we, 20 years after Bob Kaiser's memo and the creation of the Postcard prototype in August 1992? We all know the answer to that. Newspaper Web sites, while popular, still aren't fully "computer products." Their innovation has generally stalled—and is now being further outpaced by the advent of social media and mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones. The best ideas in newsgathering, storytelling, audience engagement, distribution and advertising are mostly coming from outside the traditional news business. Print circulation and ad revenue are down dramatically at most papers. Staffing has been cut; quality is on the decline.

And even though online newspaper audiences are far larger than their print counterparts, monetizing those audiences has proven extremely difficult—though Google and others have done it far better than newspapers. In sum, we're still grappling with the titanic changes that Bob Kaiser identified in his memo 20 years ago.

For my part, that memo changed my life: I've had the privilege of spending the past 20 years trying to figure out how to bring those visions of the digital media future to reality, as an entrepreneur, consultant and executive. It's been a wild, thrilling ride, which I've chronicled periodically on this blog. And for the past 20 years I've carried Bob Kaiser's memo with me as inspiration—first, as a dog-eared copy in my briefcase; more recently as a digital copy on my iPad and iPhone. As a glimpse into the roots of the adventure the newspaper business has been on for the past two decades, it remains a remarkable document.

 

 

Newspaper Next, Five Years Later

Everybody in the newspaper business needs to read and think hard about Justin Ellis' Nieman Lab post mortem of the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project from 2006.

Then ask yourself: Why are you still thinking about it as the "newspaper" business? Because that means you weren't paying enough attention.

Newspaper Next had its flaws, principally that it didn't go far enough in its "blueprint for transformation." (At the time, Jeff Jarvis correctly carped, "the project seems to be trying to move a big, old barge five degrees when we need to blow up the barge and pick up the pieces and build new boats.") But it still was a manifesto for change in a hidebound industry that was—and sadly, still is—staunchly resisting transformation.

As Ellis notes, even Newspaper Next's fairly timid recommendations had limited effect, further blunted by what he describes as newspapers' "near-extinction level event in 2008" (I wasn't aware it was limited to 2008—it's still going on!). The industry's dire financial problems and the massive staff cuts that followed choked off just about any of the kind of creative thinking about new products that Newspaper Next recommended.

As a result, five years on, newspapers haven't taken the kind of bold steps that Newspaper Next—much less bolder visionaries like Jarvis—prescribed for them. There's been a lot of talk, and too little action by an industry still gripped by fear of change, multiplied by unprecedented financial woes. The newspaper of 2011 isn't really radically different from the newspaper of 2006. Just thinner. Meantime, rivals like Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and the mobile revolution portended by the iPhone have flourished in the same period. At best, newspapers are playing catch-up—from farther and farther behind.

Worse, there have been unfortunate rollbacks of the sorts of interesting projects that Newspaper Next advocated, like Gannett's idiotic and ham-handed snuffing of the once-excellent MomsLikeMe initiative a couple weeks ago. John Paton, with his Digital First initiative at Journal Register and now the MediaNews properties, is doing by far the most interesting work in the field, but its results remain to be seen, and it feels too little too late. The time to act was long before Newspaper Next's 2006 manifesto.

Steve Buttry, part of Paton's Digital First team and an architect of Newspaper Next, has his own reflections on the project's legacy; he's disappointed, too. You should also read James Rainey's LA Times' analysis of the Philadelphia Inquirer's ill-fated effort to sell its own custom tablet, which on one hand is the sort of bold move Newspaper Next might have been applauded, but on the other hand was so ill-timed and botched that it just looks boneheaded. ZDNet's "How Not to Launch a Custom Tablet" story sums up the Philly fiasco nicely.

Newspapers, as Jarvis said five years ago (and before), don't need small experiments and test projects and niche products. They need rethinking from the ground up, with every single facet of the product and business severely questioned and cold-bloodedly scrapped if they're found wanting, with creative new products and approaches put in their place. Do you need every single feature you're stuffing into the paper? Do you need to print every day of the week? Are you selling to the right advertisers? Are your readers moving inexorably to the Web while you're still stubbornly trying to keep them on a printed product? (Hint: yes) These are all fundamental, foundational questions that newspaper managements need to be asking themselves (and their advertisers and readers), then truly listening to the answers and acting on them. That's what Newspaper Next, at its heart, was trying to encourage.

Jarvis was right five years ago, and he's even more right today: Blow up the barge. Build new boats.

I'll double down on what I said at the beginning: Still think you're in the "newspaper" business? Then you're part of the problem.

Is the Alacarticle the Answer to Selling Content Online?

Could it be that publishers are looking at the notion of charging for online content all wrong?

To date, just about all the talk and experiments with paid content have involved selling online subscriptions or, on the iPad, individual issues. Makes sense, since that's how publishers historically have sold their print versions. Or, actually, it doesn't make sense, because many of us believe that online customers who can find equivalent free content elsewhere will simply ignore the publishers' subscription/single-copy offers.

We need more empirical evidence to prove or disprove these theories and settle this religious debate, but so far, only a handful of specialized sites have made online subscriptions work, the jury is still out on The New York Times' much-watched Web subscription effort and single-copy magazine sales on the iPad started strong and then sputtered in most cases.

But maybe there's another model: selling content by the article.

Last week, Fortune magazine published a big takeout on Apple—and held it off the magazine's Web site. Instead, it made Inside Apple available as a downloadable file for Amazon's Kindle, at 99 cents a pop. 

By all accounts, it sold like hotcakes, even reaching the Top 10 in Amazon's Kindle bestseller list. Behold: the a la carte article. Let's call it the alacarticle.

The alacarticle may not be the ultimate answer to legacy media's online revenue woes—no one solution is. But Fortune's experience, while a limited sample, of course, seems to indicate that readers will pay by the story, under the right conditions.

For years, some publishers have babbled hopefully about "micropayments," a term none of them really seemed to be able to define. Theoretically, I think, it meant that any article could be sold for a few pennies, but the publishers could never quite figure out how to actually collect those pennies (long-established online payment systems like, oh, PayPal, Amazon and iTunes being just a tad too futuristic for these publishers to grasp, apparently). 

For all the talk about the micropayment idea, the problem is that, even with the long tail, there's not a big market for the vast majority of articles, and too much free competition. Advertising is still a much better bet for mass-market online publishing revenue, as it always has been in print.

But there may be a market for certain, high-interest, high-value articles, as Fortune is demonstrating. If the (excellent) argument against online subscriptions is that readers can usually find pretty much the same news and information elsewhere, for free, then maybe Fortune's alacarticle experiment shows that there may still be specific stories or packages that could be held off the Web and made available as Kindle or iBook downloads, or apps.

The number of potential stories that fit this model is small—they probably have to be major and exclusive—and there's a calculable tradeoff in lost traffic and associated ad sales. But the Fortune experiment points to a new way of selling content that lets customers buy just a story they want, rather than a broad subscription they may not care for. Other examples are appearing as well: Long-form journalism site Byliner is also selling content by the story for Kindle and iPad, incidentally. And ProPublica's "Wall Street Money Machine" investigation was just made available as a 99-cent Kindle download.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because there's a parallel in the recent evolution of the music industry, which found its favorite form of distribution, the album, unbundled by iTunes so that customers could buy just the songs they wanted, individually. The music industry is still grumbling about this, but selling songs a la carte is preferable to not selling albums at all. Maybe that's also true of selling alacarticles, as opposed to subscriptions. It's giving the customers what they want, at a price they're willing to pay. What a concept.

 

 

 

The Instant iPad App

For publishers, iPad apps are all the rage these days. Everybody's developing whizbang apps to take advantage of Apple's popular tablet—even though, when you get right down to it, most of the apps aren't huge improvements over the publications' existing Web sites, which are just a touch away on an iPad screen. Still every newspaper and magazine wants to have its own iPad app, so they're spending zillions to develop them, business models be damned.

But do you really need to build your own app? It turns out there are other tools out there that can create good-looking apps, from publisher's feeds, at minimal cost. Three of the best-known ones are Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, which create slick, high-quality iPad publications from various combinations of users' Twitter and RSS feeds. Good stuff, and I'm surprised we haven't seen publishers license private-label versions of these platforms to create cheap, easy iPad apps for themselves.

And now WordPress has made creating a news app—or at least an iPad-compatible blog—even easier. Got an iPad? Got a WordPress blog? Check out your blog in Safari on the iPad, and prepare to be amazed. (If you don't have a WordPress blog handy, here's a good hyperlocal one, by my friend Dan Woog, from whom I first heard about this trick. Sorry, I can't help you if you don't have an iPad!)

Blog-ipad1
Very quietly, WordPress has rolled out a nice iPad "Onswipe" theme for all 18 million of its blogs, automatically making them iPad-friendly. You get a nice title page, an iPad-like layout of posts, and the ability to swipe across the screen to change pages—all requisite features of any good iPad app, all automatic for any WordPress blog. The popular blogging platform has had a similarly good-looking, simplified mobile version for smartphones for a while now. No muss, no fuss—instant compatibility with the latest in mobile computing.

The point is, you don't need a team of developers to create a good-looking iPad app or iPad-friendly site for your publication. Why waste the money building a custom app? WordPress, like Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, is proving that a simple, universal iPad-in-a-box solution may be a much better way to bring publications quickly and easily into the tablet age. 

 

The Daily Snooze

The hype around Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.'s new iPad news app, The Daily, is deafening. And baffling.

"The newspaper hits the information age," headlined TechCrunch. A "digital renaissance," crowed Murdoch. "New times demand new journalism." (His Fox News even broke into coverage of clashing protesters in Cairo to cover The Daily's introduction today.) "The app appears rich and magazine-like," wrote Damon Kiesow on Poynter. "This is a significant launch," wrote Insanely Great Mac. 

And then there was this breathless gem, also from TechCrunch: "Provided the content quality stays high and the news value is there, this could be the first iPad app to beat Angry Birds and, more important, truly bring journalism into the 21st century." 

Really? Seriously? Actually, The Daily barely brings digital journalism into the late 20th century, much less the 21st. I don't think Angry Birds has anything to worry about. Maybe—to steal a comment from Jim Brady (thanks, Jim!)—Murdoch's bigger problem will be Angry Readers.

Unfortunately, the Daily is yet another example of a newspaper pasted on a screen—in this case a tablet screen—that epically fails to acknowledge or take advantage of the way people use and interact on the Internet.

There are virtually no links in The Daily. Its interaction with social tools like Twitter and Facebook is perfunctory, at best. There are symbols hinting at Facebook, Twitter or e-mail sharing, but when you tap them a warning pops up that says, "This article is only available in The Daily app." Gee, helpful. Comments seem to be attached to pages, not individual stories. The interface is pleasant, but a little clunky and stiff. And don't even think about aggregating content from The Daily. It's largely verboten.

The journalism itself? Brief and superficial, sort of a Time magazine/USA Today hybrid. Yawn. Missing in action: Business and tech news. Huh?

Maybe most incredibly, The Daily truly is…daily. It gets published in the morning, and that's basically it. While the world is riveted today by the violence in Cairo, the premier issue of The Daily leads with an outdated story about yesterday's peaceful million-man march in Tahrir Square. This is intentional, apparently. While The Daily's app supports more frequent updates, PaidContent quotes The Daily's editor, Jesse Angelo, as saying, “I don’t want another site that’s constantly updating.” (Okaaay. Good luck with that.)

Despite its vaguely slick veneer, The Daily is yet another symptom of a running problem with traditional news people trying to bring traditional news products into the digital age: They just don't seem to understand the current state of the technology and the way audiences use it. They seem to think multimedia glitz is all that's needed, even though, in digital news, we've been there, done that.

Whenever I see the latest whizbang attempt to create a news app for the iPad, I wonder whether the creators were paying any attention to what was happening in the early '90s, when the first multimedia CD-ROM news prototypes and products were showing up. CNN, for instance, had a terrific CD-ROM news prototype in 1992 that was every bit as good as the overhyped Sports Illustrated tablet prototype that surfaced in late 2009. Newsweek published a quarterly CD-ROM product in the early '90s whose presentation and features weren't very far removed from what The Daily is doing. The delivery method is different—tablets vs. clunky desktop PCs—but the products are remarkably similar. It's as if multimedia news presentation concepts have been frozen in amber for 15-plus years—and completely ignorant of the revolution in interactivity and social connectivity. The digital world has moved on; news providers apparently haven't.

Murdoch is hoping that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, will download The Daily's iPad app and sign up for a subscription, and that advertisers pay to reach that audience. (Jeff Jarvis crunches some numbers on The Daily's economics.) But even at 14 cents a day, I can't imagine actually wanting to pay for The Daily when the two-week free trial runs out (I'll bet that trial period gets mysteriously extended. Yep, thought so!)—and I should be the ideal customer for The Daily: a news junkie with an iPad. Sorry, no thanks. The Daily just doesn't break any ground in digital news, nor is it a product that I can imagine anybody coming to rely upon for a regular news fix.

Want to see some nice work being done on iPad apps for news? Look at Pulse and Flipboard, both designed by smart tech people, not news people, to leverage technologies like Twitter and RSS feeds, in an attractive package with loads of social features. Maybe these apps don't have The Daily's cute graphic of a plane landing on the screen to illustrate a travel story, or live Sudoku and crosswords—but they're infinitely better as news products. And isn't that the idea?

Fortunately, not everybody has bought into The Daily hype—especially folks, like me, who've actually tried The Daily and found it wanting. Scott Rosenberg nails it: "Reading it feels like a spin in the Wayback Machine." And Seth Weintraub on 9to5Mac wrote: "Was anyone else as underwhelmed as we were? … I seriously don't get it." Neither do I.

Smart Stuff

I haven't posted in a while because, frankly, I got tired of repeating myself and because I'm more and more frustrated by the media industry's inability to make the fundamental changes in product, technology and business model that are needed for survival. The shift from traditional media to digital continues, inexorably slowly, and at this point I'd rather work to make it happen than yammer about it.

But others are saying smart things, and if anybody's still reading this blog, you should click over to these posts by a couple of the smarter people on the subject of the future of media:

  • Judy Sims, continuing to fight the good fight against shortsighted newspaper executives and the lies they tell themselves (and employees and stockholders): Newspaper Execs: Still Denying, Still Crying and Still Lying to Themselves
  • And John Paton, the smartest newspaper executive of all (mostly because he refuses to define himself as a newspaper exec), with a progress report on the massive changes he's pushing through at once-moribund Journal Register. (If you want the summary version of John's presentation, Matt Ingram has it here.)

Judy and John are saying (and doing) the things that I've been railing about for years. If you care about the future of journalism and the media business, you have to read and learn from them. They're telling the truth about what's happening and what desperately, urgently needs to happen.

As Judy says, "As [newspaper] execs dilly-dally with pay walls and iPad apps, I can only say that things are getting worse, not better."

And as John says: "What is painfully obvious to the outside world apparently is blind to many on the inside of our industry."

It's astonishing and frustrating, nearly 20 years into this revolution, that there aren't more John Patons running media companies, or that Judy Sims, like so many others, has fled the newspaper business in frustration with the slow pace of change. Or that Jim Brady had to bail out of TBD.com because of classic, tired old-media/new-media tensions and clashes.

Can't we just skip all this nonsense and get to the inevitable future? That's what smart people like Judy Sims, and John Paton, and Jeff Jarvis, and Jim Brady, and others are trying to invent. That's where the action is. And that's why I'd rather concentrate on trying to figure out how to make it happen than just keep ranting about it.

One more quote from John Paton:

Stop listening to Newspaper people.

We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the Web and as an industry we newspaper people are no good at it. No good at it at all.

Want to get good at it?

Then stop listening to the Newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world.

And, I would point out, as we have done at JRC – put the Digital people in charge – of everything.

Find new voices and let them push you around.

 

Stop Pasting Print Publications onto the iPad!

They're doing it again.

One of the biggest longstanding criticisms of newspaper and magazine efforts on the Web has been that many of them seem too much like print publications pasted onto a computer screen. Text-heavy, constricted by old-fashioned layout conventions, generally unimaginative—these sites have failed miserably to take advantage of the advantages and differences offered by the new medium: interactivity, video, community, search, what have you. 

And now comes a new digital medium, the iPad, and…yep, they're doing it again.

Some of the biggest names in publishing have made a big splash with the introduction of Apple's new tablet by releasing iPad apps for their publications. Alas, too many of them have fallen into that same old trap, trying to replicate a print experience on the iPad's screen. 

The iPad turns out to be a great device for casually consuming all sorts of media—text, video, audio—and it's already seeing some creative multimedia informational (you know, media) apps from non-media sources, such as Major League Baseball's excellent At Bat 2010, Elements Collections' dazzling The Elements: A Visual Application and Atomic Antelope's wondrous Alice for the iPad children's book. These are apps that truly use the power of the iPad to present information in new, imaginative and attractive ways.

Not so the apps from the likes of The New York Times, Wall Street JournalUSA Today, Time and Men's Health. They're back to pasting newspapers and magazines onto the iPad's crisp, glossy screen, and in the end, these apps are distinctly inferior to these publishers' own Web sites. That's a real problem, especially because many publishers see the iPad as some sort of a savior for their business, a platform for which they can charge readers. Good luck with that, given the products so far.

The Journal, for instance, thinks it can charge $17 a month for access to its app, after an initial free trial. Are they kidding? I wouldn't use this piece of crap for free (I'm a big Journal fan, but I couldn't delete it from my iPad fast enough). It's hard to navigate, it's only updated once a day, it's full of bugs and it offers little in the way of interactivity. Ditto the New York Times Editors Choice app, which is free for now but is reputed to be a cornerstone of the paper's plans to charge for online access. The Times app is a painfully cutdown version of the paper, with truncated stories, missing sections and hopelessly retro newspaper-like navigation. Fail. It's not the Times' design that's great about the Times: It's the journalism. Why sacrifice that to pretty fonts and layout?

USA Today's app is a bit better, but again, it's missing comments or any other kind of interactivity, and even underscores its pasted-on-the-screen design by lamely imitating the serrated top edge of newsprint. Puh-leeze. (And USA Today plans to charge for its app, too.) The Time and Men's Health apps—like Sports Illustrated's mythical and highly overrated tablet demo—are way too much like magazines pasted on a screen. Boring. Oh, and they want you to pay $4.99 an issue. Not gonna happen.

Bottom line: All of these publications' Web sites are all far better than their apps—and on an iPad, hello, the Web is just a screen-touch away. Not surprisingly, these apps get fairly low user ratings in the iTunes app store. Customers know when they're getting shoddy products.

To be sure, there are some interesting, if still unspectacular, iPad efforts from some traditional publishers. Entertainment Weekly's app focuses on the magazine's popular weekly "Must List" of media recommendations—and attaches direct links to purchase the videos, music and books it touts. Craven, but useful. The Guardian's Eyewitness app is devoted solely to photography, presenting one great hi-res photo a day from around the world. Not flashy (and it really needs some community and interactivity), but simple and very good-looking. 

Marvel comics' app brilliantly moves comic books onto the iPad screen—pasting them there, yes, but with a clever navigation scheme that allows readers to flip smoothly from scene to scene. Very cool. And Epicurious, Conde Nast's Bon Appetit- and Gourmet-based cooking app, presents clear navigation and a deep database of recipes. That's very handy as we begin to understand that the iPad is a really great device for casual computing around the house—indeed, Epicurious + iPad finally fulfills the longtime promise that a PC in the kitchen would be a great recipe reference. 

We're still very early in the game for publishing on the iPad, of course—the device has only been on the market for two weeks. It'll be a while yet before software developers really get the hang of it and create apps that take full advantage of the new power and user experience the tablet computer (and its coming competitors) represents. But publishers looking to the iPad as a miracle cure for their business problems are going to have to do a whole lot better than just pasting their publications onto the tablet's screen. That didn't work on the Web, and it sure doesn't work on the iPad.