The iPad Lesson: Creating a News Show Across Devices
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The iPad is a crystal clear reminder of the news industry's failure to produce an effective news show online. The challenge facing newspapers today is not only to embrace the iPad's abilities in sophisticated apps, but to learn how to turn links into a consistent, continuous news show across all devices: web, mobile, and tablet. As the eyeballs leave the newspapers' web sites, this can be a major step in bringing them back.
by Grig Davidovitz
A few months ago, I took a week off in Italy. The night before flying, I remembered I didn’t have a travel guide for the country. I entered the Kindle store on my iPad and bought the Rough Guide for Italy for US$ 15, half its price in print (picture 1, right). Before going to bed, I read a bit about the first city we were about to visit, Parma.
I soon discovered that it is not so convenient to tour cities with an iPad. It doesn’t fit in any pocket.
I remembered that there is also a Kindle app for iPhone, downloaded it, and was pleased to discover that I can easily download any book I bought on Kindle to my iPhone, without any additional charge. The book was mine, on all devices.
The experience of reading the book on the iPhone was similar to the iPad except for the small screen. It was more than enough for reading 100 to 200 words about a piazza or a church.
One day, as I was entering Pizza dela Signoria in Florence, I opened my Rough Guide on my iPhone. “You are currently on location 13546,” popped up an announcement (picture 2, left).
“The furthest read location is 25960 from iPad at 11:36 PM,” it continued, knowing how far I’d read in the book and wondering if I wanted to keep reading. “Go to that location?”
THE KINDLE IS NOT ABOUT KINDLE
Amazon understood that the Kindle is not about Kindle. It’s about reading books. On the Kindle device, on the iPad, iPhone, laptop” wherever the eyeballs are, Kindle wants to be. The book is a cloud of information, accessed by the reader from different devices, while Kindle is just the bridge. The focus is on the book and on the reader, creating a similar, continuous experience” and not on the device. The device is merely “the gate” to the cloud.
The Kindle strategy looks like a perfect implementation of a paper published last year by Forrester Research on multi-channel strategy. According to Forrester’s findings, consumers are not satisfied with their multi-channel experiences, and organisations need to provide users with three Cs: choice, consistency, and continuity:
- Choice was defined as channel selection according to customer preferences and customer situation (on the go, home, office).
- Consistency as same type and level of service across channels (language, look and feel).
- Continuity as seamlessness of the experience between channels, starting an interaction on one channel and then continuing from the same point at a different channel.
Newspapers excel in terms of the first C, and the iPad is the latest example. There were almost no booths in IFRA Expo 2010 in Hamburg in October without an iPad. And it seems there is no newspaper publisher who doesn’t have, or at least plans to quickly have, an iPad application.
This is good, but not enough. Do publishers really think that newspapers can have a shining product for iPad and other tablets, while maintaining unattractive digital products on all other platforms? Is everybody going to buy an iPad and carry it wherever they go and throw out their laptops and phones?
THE JOHN DIGITAL CASE
Meet John Digital. He starts his day on his laptop, reading e-mails, Facebook, and his newspaper’s web site (picture 3, at right).
He just gave up the subscription to the print newspaper a few months ago.
While commuting he is often bored. He uses his iPhone to read some more e-mails, check some more sites, and see the latest news (picture 4, below).
He remembers two articles that seemed interesting on the web site in the morning, but he cannot find them on the iPhone app. He gives up searching for them and plays a game.
He really likes multi-tasking at work. His Excel sheets are always open, but he is much more interested in a conversation he’s having with a new friend on Facebook. Female, if you wondered.
Oh, and he is going over his news site once or twice a day. He vaguely remembers wanting to read something in the morning. Doesn’t matter.
By 7:00 p.m., he’s back home. Dinner with his wife and kids. They gave up on talking long before giving up the print subscription, and he’s waiting for the dinner to end to see some TV and play with his new iPad (picture 5, below right).
WHERE IS THE NEWS SHOW?
From the newspaper industry perspective, there is good news and bad news in the story above. The good news is that unlike in the past, the customer can access the newspaper’s information in almost any given moment. The bad news is that at any junction, the competition is just one click away. Furthermore, newspapers are no longer only competing with one another but with all the possibilities on the web: e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, games, and others.
So the issue is not only about creating a consistent, continuous experience on different devices, but also what kind of experience should it be? How can newspapers make users spend more time on their sites?
In December 2008, the Columbia Journalism Review published a study conducted for the Associated Press that examined news consumption by young adults around the world. The main finding was that many young consumers craved more in-depth news but were unable or unwilling to get it.
“The abundance of news and ubiquity of choice do not necessarily translate into a better news environment for consumers,” concluded the researchers in their final report. “Participants in this study showed signs of news fatigue; that is, they appeared debilitated by information overload and unsatisfying news experiences. ... Ultimately news fatigue brought many of the participants to a learned helplessness response. The more overwhelmed or unsatisfied they were, the less effort they were willing to put in.”
And the numbers tell a pretty clear story. People are spending less time on newspaper sites, often looking for news on other platforms such as Facebook. According to Nielsen data, American users spend less and less time on newspapers sites – about 30 minutes a month in the first quarter of 2010, as opposed to almost seven hours a month on Facebook. One of the most important questions facing the industry today is how to bring these eyeballs back. The iPad is hinting at the answer.
There are many reasons that led to the great enthusiasm in which the newspaper industry adopted the iPad. One of them is that the iPad showed that it is possible to create a journalistic show on a digital platform. Sites or news applications no longer have to look like a bunch of boring links tightly grouped together. Instead, they can take the form of an appealing package of information, one that has a good chance of captivating the reader/user.
Newspapers and TV stations understood long ago that journalism is not about creating an executive summary of the news.
Consider a newspaper from the mid-19th century (picture 6, at left).
The front page is the most-read page, the editors thought, so we might as well publish as many articles as possible there, tightly grouped together.
Change the words “front page” with “home page” or “first screen” and it turns into the strategy of many news sites today.
Yet almost no newspaper works like that today.
They have learned more is less, and most newspapers don't carry more than five to seven items on the first page (picture 7, below right). These items are grouped hierarchically, creating pages with well-defined identity.
It is extremely clear which is the main story, the secondary story, the main picture, and the smaller stories. And it is dynamic.
The last thing the editor wants is to create the same page, in the same structure, every day.
This goes both for the front page and for the other pages or double spreads.
MOVE THE TEMPLATE TO THE ARTICLE LEVEL.
There are many elements that combine to create the news show. Two of the most important are creating drama when needed and highlighting the best elements of the article.
Creating drama when needed: Newspapers know how to live in a graphic paradox. When something dramatic happens, they change their normal look and feel (picture 9a, below left, normal front page of The New York Times) to a dramatic look and feel (picture 9b, below right, The New York Times on 12 September 2001).
The paradox is that on the one hand the dramatic version is very different from the regular one; on the other hand, it maintains the newspaper’s graphic identity. In the last few years, this need is understood by more and more news sites.
The solution found is to develop “special templates” for dramatic events. Consider El País’ normal home page (picture 10a) and its home page at the peak of the general strike in late 2010 in Spain (picture 10b).
The different, dramatic appearance is very important. The readers understand that today’s main headline is much more important than the average main headline. But even more important, readers can feel that something dramatic happened. It’s a show, not an executive summary.
But this binary dramatic/non-dramatic system is not enough. The need for a news show is always present, not only when big events occur.
Highlighting the best element of the article: When an editor is building a newspaper page, he builds it around the best journalistic element in his arsenal, may this be a picture, a graphic design, or a headline.
Consider The Courier Mail’s souvenier edition (picture 11, below), which covered huge sand storms in Australia a year ago.
The editors built the front page around the biggest journalistic asset they had: the incredible picture. The entire front page was printed on it.
This is a very important principle. As people scan through the newspaper, they see every story in its best outfit, “jumping” out of the page into the reader’s eyes. The fixed templates that most news sites have today make this impossible to implement. The way an article looks is determined mainly by its location in the site. This article has a great picture? Publish it on the “picture spot” or tell the users about the great picture they will see if they will enter the article page. Hiding the best element from the users is anti-journalism, and it has to stop.
There is a simple way of solving this problem online: the template of the site has to move to the article level. Facebook is a good example of that. Every “article” on Facebook gets a template suited to its needs – be it a link (picture 12, below)...
a video (picture 13, below)...
or status. (picture 14, below)
A link will appear with its headline and a picture, a video with a headline and a video player, and a status with a simple headline. There is no fixed template to Facebook. The final template of the site on the newsfeed page is the combination of the different templates, suited to the content’s needs.
One of the journalistic solutions for moving the template to the article level can be a site that is built from a main news column, displaying different templates. This structure is already popular today, used for instance by Le Figaro (picture 15, below), Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel in Germany, and The Financial Times in the United Kingdom. But it is misused.
It is misused because most of these news sites use their potential freedom today in a very limited way. Articles can get a big or a small picture, or no picture at all. The flexibility is extremely small.
The potential is substantially bigger. There could be templates with a video player (just click the arrow and it starts playing), infographics (live graphic from the stock exchange), and more.
The templates can also differ in their dramatic level. The more dramatic a story, the bigger the template used. Changing the template of the first article to a more dramatic one will change the look and feel of the whole site, serving the paradox made in the first point above. Finally, the templates can connect to each other to create information packages, another aspect of the news show.
Consider the Spirala site, an experimental project at an Israeli College, designed by Ronen Mizrahi and programmed by Biranit Goren according to the ideas expressed in this article (picture 16, below right).
Each article can have a different template according to the content (picture, video, no media), according to the drama level needed and to the information packages displayed.
The one-column system is not the only method of moving the template of a news site to the article level.
Another is the bi-dimentional grid, used by the iPad application of The New York Times (this method will not be covered in this article).
MOVING THE NEWS SHOW ACROSS DEVICES
After creating an effective news show, the challenge, again, is to enable the users to access this “news show cloud” from different devices.
Facebook does a very good job in duplicating its information architecture across devices.
The motto here is to be different in order to be the same.
When approaching Facebook from an iPhone, for instance, the same familiar news feed is available.
Each of the templates discussed above is changed slightly to create the closest experience possible on the small screen. They are different to be the same (pictures 17a, 17b below).
The same principle can apply when translating the news column to the small screen. Each template is translated once to a parallel template that best fits the small screen. Once the information architecture of the cloud is created for the web, it will be automatically and effectively translated to the small screen.
If changes will be needed for the mobile product, they will be the exception to the rule, preserving the familiar structure while creating a consistent experience.
Again, some news sites have started to use these advantages to create similar sites for the web and for mobile. For example, Le Figaro’s coverage of the Polish disaster in Russia in early 2010 (picture 18, below).
But there is still much to be done. For some unexplainable reason, the main headline of the web site and the mobile site of Le Figaro (below) are not the same. Do mobile users want a different article on the Polish disaster than web users?
It is important to stress that the goal is not necessarily to duplicate the same content on each device. Some changes might be needed. It makes complete sense to present in the main headline area a location-based article when approaching a site from mobile. In the same way, the iPad application should use the advanced graphic and fun and friendly user interface capabilities of the iPad.
The point is that over all, the information architecture of the cloud should be similar and familiar.
The question is this: After an entire day with the web and mobile versions of The New York Times, would John Digital really want to consume a completely different version on his iPad?
SET THE EDITORS FREE
The iPad should be seen as a reminder of the failure to create an effective news show online. The moral of this failure is not to create the news show on the iPad alone.
The industry needs to understand that in the digital age, users approach the information cloud from different devices across the day. The news show is needed on each of them, and it can be only produced if the editors are free from the inflexible templates that create most news sites today.
Many newspapers have integrated newsrooms, able to effectively produce news for all platforms. This was a process focused on the organization. It is now time to face the customers and move from integrated newsrooms to integrated platforms, producing a captivating news show.
If your site is just a bunch of links, don’t be surprised if your users read you on an aggregator, an RSS feed, or just simply wait for your articles on Facebook.