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December 17 2010

19:30

This Week in Review: Taking sides on WikiLeaks, the iPad/print dilemma, and the new syndication

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The media and WikiLeaks’ uneasy coexistence: The current iteration of the WikiLeaks story is about to move into its fourth week, and it continues to swallow up most future-of-journalism news in its path. By now, it’s branched out into several distinct facets, and we’ll briefly track down each of those, but here are the essentials this week: If you want the basics, Gawker has put together a wonderful explainer for you. If you want to dive deep into the minutiae, there’s no better way than Dave Winer’s wikiriver of relevant news feeds. Other good background info is this Swedish documentary on WikiLeaks, posted here in YouTube form.

The big news development this week was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s release from British jail on bail Thursday. As blow-by-blow accounts of the legal situation go, you can’t beat The Guardian’s. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is trying to build a conspiracy case against Assange by connecting him more explicitly to Bradley Manning’s leak, and Congress heard testimony on the subject Thursday.

— The first WikiLeaks substory is the ongoing discussion about the actions of the legions of web-based “hacktivists,” led by Anonymous, making counterattacks on WikiLeaks’ behalf. Having gone after several sites last week (including one mistakenly), some activists began talking in terms of “cyber-war” — though GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram cautioned against that type of language from all sides — and were urged on from jail by Assange. NYU professor Gabriella Coleman gave a glimpse into the inner workings of Anonymous, and they also drew plenty of criticism, too, from thinkers like British author Andrew Keen. Media consultant Deanna Zandt offered a thoughtful take on the ethics of cyber-activism.

— The second facet here is the emergence of Openleaks, a leaking organization formally launched this week by WikiLeaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg as an alternative to Assange’s group. As Domscheit-Berg explained to several outlets including Forbes, Openleaks will act as a more neutral conduit to leaks than WikiLeaks, which ended up publishing its leaks, something Openleaks won’t do. Wired compared it with WikiLeaks’ rejected 2009 Knight News Challenge proposal, in which it would have functioned primarily as an anonymous submission system for leaks to local news organizations. Openleaks won’t be the last, either: As The Economist noted, if file-sharing is any guide, we’ll see scores of rivals (or comrades).

— The third story is the reaction of various branches of the traditional media, which have been decidedly mixed. WikiLeaks has gotten some support from several corners of the industry, including the faculty of the venerable Columbia School of Journalism, the press in Assange’s native Australia, and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy and numerous other British and American professors and journalists, both in The Guardian. But it’s also been tweaked by others — at the Nieman Foundation Thursday, New York Times editor Bill Keller said that if Assange is a journalist, “he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.”

Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald ripped what he called the mainstream media’s “servile role” to the government in parroting its attitudes toward WikiLeaks, then later argued that the government’s prosecution of WikiLeaks would be a prosecution of investigative journalism in general. Arianna Huffington also chastised the establishment media, arguing that they’re just as much establishment as media. Likewise, Morris’ Steve Yelvington listed five reasons the media hasn’t shown outrage about the government’s backlash against WikiLeaks, including the point that the segment of the American mainstream media concerned about national issues is a shell of its former self.

— All of this provided plenty of fodder for a couple of conferences on WikiLeaks, Internet freedom, and secrecy. Last weekend, the Personal Democracy Forum held a symposium on the subject — you can watch a replay here, as well as a good summary by GRITtv and additional videos on the state of the Internet and online civil disobedience. Micah Sifry offered a thoughtful take on the event afterwards, saying that longings for a “more responsible” version of WikiLeaks might be naive: It’s “far more likely that something far more disruptive to the current order — a distributed and unstoppable system for spreading information — is what is coming next,” he wrote.

And on Thursday, the Nieman Foundation held its own one-day conference on journalism and secrecy that included keynotes by the AP’s Kathleen Carroll and Keller (who distanced himself from Assange but defended The Times’ decision to publish). If you want to go deeper into the conversation at the conference, the #niemanleaks hashtag on Twitter is a good place to start.

Will the iPad eat into print?: The iPad news this week starts with the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, which released a study that suggests, based on survey data, that iPad news apps may cut into newspaper subscriptions by next year. There’s a ton of other interesting data on how iPads are being used and how users are comparing them to print newspapers and newspaper websites, but one statistic — 58 percent of those who subscribe to a print newspaper and use their iPad for more than an hour a day planned to cancel their print subscription within six months — was what drew the headlines. Alan Mutter said publishers have to like the demographics of the iPad’s prime users, but have to wonder whether developing print-like iPad apps is worth it.

Several news organizations introduced new iPad apps this week, led by CNN. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow talked to CNN about the rationale behind its photo-oriented multitouch design, and MocoNews’ Ingrid Lunden looked at why CNN might have made their app free. Steve Safran of Lost Remote liked the app’s design and sociability. Also, the New York Daily News launched a paid (though cheaper than the New York Post) app, and Harper’s added its own iPad offering as well.

Meanwhile, Flipboard, the inaugural iPad app of the year, launched a new version this week. Forbes’ Quentin Hardy talked to Flipboard’s CEO about the vision behind the new app, and The Wall Street Journal wrote about innovative iPad news apps in general. The Washington Post’s Justin Ferrell talked to the Lab’s Justin Ellis about how to design news apps for the iPad. In advertising, Apple launched its first iPad iAd, which seems to be essentially a fully formed advertisement app. One iPad app that’s not coming out this week: Rupert Murdoch’s “tablet newspaper” The Daily, whose launch has reportedly been postponed until next year.

Looking ahead to 2011: We’re nearing the end of the December, which means we’re about to see the year-end reviews and previews start to roll in. The Lab got them kicked off this week by asking its readers for predictions of what 2011 will bring in the journalism world, then publishing the predictions of some of the smartest future-of-news folks in the room.

All of the posts are worth checking out, but there are a few I want to note in particular — The AP’s Jonathan Stray on moving beyond content tribalism (“a news product that refuses to provide me with high-quality filtering and curation of the rest of the world’s information will only ever be an endpoint”), NPR’s Matt Thompson on instant speech transcription (“the Speakularity”), tech pioneer Dave Winer on adjusting to the new news distribution system (“That’s the question news people never seem to ask. How can we create something that has a market?”), and a couple of paid-content predictions on The New York Times and by Steven Brill (who has skin in the game).

The prediction post that generated the most discussion was NYU professor Clay Shirky’s piece on the dismantling of the old-media syndication system. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram expanded on the idea, connecting it explicitly to Google News and the Associated Press, and asking, “In a world where the power to syndicate is available to all, does anyone want what AP is selling?” USC’s Pekka Pekkala explained why he sees this as a positive development for journalists and niche content producers.

As if on cue, Thomson Reuters announced the launch of its new American news service, one that seems as though it might combine traditional news syndication with some elements of modern aggregation. Media analyst Ken Doctor gave some more details about the new service and its deal with the Tribune Co., and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan was skeptical of this potential new direction for newswires.

Reading roundup: A few good pieces before I send you on your way:

— First, one quick bit of news: The social bookmarking service Delicious was reportedly shutting down, but a Friday blog post seemed to indicate it may live on outside of Yahoo. Here’s a short ode from Mark Luckie at 10,000 Words and a list of alternatives from Search Engine Land.

— At the London Review of Books, British journalist John Lanchester has written an essay making a case for why and how the newspaper industry needs to charge for news online. Anti-paywall folks aren’t going to be crazy about it, but it’s far from the stereotypical revanchist “Make ‘em pay, just ’cause they should” pro-pay argument: “Make the process as easy as possible. Make it invisible and transparent. Make us register once and once only. Walls are not the way forward, but walls are not the same thing as payment, and without some form of payment, the press will not be here in five years’ time.”

— A couple of close looks at what news organizations are doing right: The Atlantic’s web transformation and tips on multimedia storytelling from NPR’s acclaimed Planet Money.

— A North Carolina j-prof and Duke grad student came together (!) to urge news organizations to incorporate more of the tenets of citizen journalism. They have a few specific, practical suggestions, too.

— British journalist Adam Westbrook gave his goodbye to mainstream media, making a smart case that the future lies outside its gates.

— Finally, Jonathan Stray, an AP editor and Lab contributor, has a brilliant essay challenging journalists and news organizations to develop a richer, more fully formed idea of what journalism is for. It may be a convicting piece, but it offers an encouraging vision for the future — and the opportunity for reform — too.

December 10 2010

17:00

WaPo’s Justin Ferrell on designing “a user experience that really adds value to people’s lives” on the iPad

We all chuckled at The Washington Post’s commercial for its new iPad app, and why not, with Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee, two guys who epitomize the best of old-school journalism, playing around on a device that many peg as the future of media. The commercial is slick, well produced and well thought out, not unlike the Post’s app itself.

They’re both the product of lots of planning, which is what Justin Ferrell, the director of digital, mobile & new product design for the Post, talked with me about a few days ago at the INMA Transformation of News Summit that took place here in Cambridge. Ferrell delivered a insightful presentation on the Post’s iPad app, saying the paper avoided rushing an app to market for the iPad because they “wanted to leapfrog, not just put the Washington Post newspaper on the device.”

The app combines a touch-friendly design that also goes farther than other newspaper apps have in incorporating social media, to allow users to share stories as well as see what others are discussing in connection to news. Ferrell said they know the Post’s brand will bring a built in audience to everything they publish, but “over time, that’s only an incremental audience and it’s going to diminish.” Hence the need to reach new readers. I spoke to Ferrell following his talk about developing the iPad app, the competition for design and user-experience talent in journalism, and how they produced that commercial. We started off talking about frustrations in developing an app and reconciling that with what’s “good enough” for the public. Check out the video or read the transcript below. (And let me apologize now for the at times shaky camera work.)

Justin Ellis: You said sort of two things that to me were interesting. One is that it’s okay to be sort of questioning how good it is, but at the same time kind of mindful of the fact that some of these things aren’t considerations that users might have.

Justin Ferrell: Right, right.

Ellis: So how do those two things work when you’re developing something?

Ferrell: So I’ll give you a real live example. You know, our app is based on a lot of feeds. You know, it’s a feed-based app, rather than like the magazine apps that are designed — you know, heavily designed and then put into the device.

So when we were talking about how to get the correct photo feeds for the sizing and everything that we wanted, it was a lot of discussion with our tech group. And there were a lot of things with the way it works currently with the site. So we were trying to take the photos that we used for the site and size and stuff for that, and use it on this smaller device. So we wanted them to be resized in some ways, which adds to the amount of volume of photos that are gonna go through and all that.

And it became apparent during the discussion that, in order to do that, we would need to buy a new server that would be able to host all these images. And short of buying a new server, we could do it the way that we did it currently, but some of the photos would not fill the frame on the app. So there would be some grey space around it or something like that.

So that’s a situation where we basically then, the editorial design team basically said, you know, no one that downloads the app is gonna understand that the reason why there’s grey around those photos is because we don’t have another server, right? They don’t care about that. They care about what do the photos look like. And so in the end, we bought the new server so that we could preserve the experience.

And that’s just like one example of the kind of thing companies go through internally when they’re creating products like this. They’re like all right, here’s the problem. How are we gonna solve the problem? We can do it existing ways. Obviously, we had pressure with — what does it cost for that new server, all those kinds of things. You have to make your choices based on the priorities of what you want the experience to end up being.

But you know, being from the design side, we espouse the user all the time. It’s sort of our job to do that and say look, what’s the experience gonna be? We have to overcome this hurdle because the users aren’t gonna care. All they’re gonna care about is what it looks like to them.

Ellis: One of the things that seems very novel about the app and something you touched on in your presentation was the inclusion of feeds and sort of the piece about engagement. Talk to us about that and why that was important. I mean, obviously you guys have a lot of content that you produce that could’ve been used in a number of ways, but it’s very important for you guys to have that social media piece, not just where people can share things, but also pulling in almost third parties, like experts around stories and topics.

Ferrell: Right. Sure. So I focused today on that part of it, and I mean the app has everything else that we do, the writing, the photography that we do, video plays right there in the app. And all that is very cool. But we’ve made a real commitment to move into what we can do with social media and journalism.

And it’s not my department, but it’s a colleague of mine who runs it, Katharine Zaleski, who I mentioned came from Huffington Post, and has a lot of great ideas about how we can increase engagement using social media.

And so that was the piece of this that we really wanted to push beyond just having Washington Post content be on the app. And so, you know, the idea there is that it’s fun for us to think sort of philosophically — the question we were thinking with the Twitter piece of it was you know, what does a Twitter publication look like? And you know, that’s not a unique question anymore.

I was just reading that article in Fast Company about Chloe Sladden, and they’re doing a lot with TV networks now too. And you know, you’ve seen in big news events with the earthquake in Haiti that people are using social media to give you real-time reporting from the ground from citizens, especially for breaking news.

And so, I think it’s more than that. And what Katharine sort of came up with that really crystalized the concept was that we want to give you all of the Post content — we want to give you the value that that provides — but we also want to give you the conversation that it inspires, and that’s where the social media component comes in, and so that that was the original idea.

Ellis: At this point in terms of tablets and tablet apps for newspapers, do you believe that the focus should be on experimentation, should it be monetization? Where do you think things should be going at this point? What should be the idea?

Ferrell: Yeah so, you know, I have a lot of thoughts about the big picture. I’m kind of a big picture person, and I lead a team of specialists. But that said, you know, I am also very aware that, you know, we’re the design group and our primary focus should be creating novel interesting experiences, right? If the design group is not doing that, which group is going to do that, right? So, you know, what the Post ultimately decides about how you are going to monetize things and all of that is not specifically in my realm. I have opinions about that. But my focus is really on, if we create a user experience that really adds value to people’s lives, surely we’ll be able to sell that in someway, right? And so, you know, my focus is on the front end of that, very much like what the startups do, you know, I mean what the Flipboards and the Pulses do. I mean, Pulse charged when they first came out, but now they don’t and, you know, they’re building a following. And if you have a following, you create a market for what it is that you provide, then you’ll be able to figure out, you know, what you’re going to do with that information.

Ellis: Do you think that there is a race now for talent in finding the people who can help develop these types of apps? That’s one of the things that you talked about obviously trying to find talent from within journalism but also outside of it.

Ferrell: Yeah, you know because it is such a new medium and because most of the decision makers of big media companies have been there for a long time. You know, you’re looking for young people that don’t have a lot of experience but that you can, you know, sort of guide and also trust their ideas, and I think that’s a real culture change for a lot of newsrooms. But yeah, it’s difficult. You know, we have a lot of good relationships with schools, you know — we have a lot of people from Chapel Hill in our design and graphics department because the multimedia program there is so good. So I generally reach out to schools first and then also try to find people who, you know, have already done really interesting work, but maybe that’s the only thing they have in their portfolio and try to see what the potential is.

But I absolutely think you have to go looking for these people, and then you have to figure out that whatever hire you make, you know, you prioritize the skill set that you are looking for, but there is always something that like you as a manager will have to fill in the gap for. And so I feel pretty confident, because I am the type of manager that can help my people build relationships in the newsroom — put them with the right people in order to create interesting ideas, you know whether they are reporters or editors or photographers or whatever, because that’s the way I always was as a designer, and I have those relationships at the Post, you know, and it can be difficult for someone to come in — it’s a big place — and not know who to talk to and how to get it done. And that’s actually one of the great things about being in a place like The Post is that you can always, you know, if you have a great idea, you can always find experts who can add to that idea, make it better, and help execute it in their particular expertise.

So anyway, yeah, it’s hard to find right people and even trickier than finding like you know, recent graduates or young journalists is — you know, I think we need people who are not in journalism. And I’ll give you an example: We were looking for a UX designer right now. We never had anyone who has expertise in training specifically in UX. We’ve always had, you know sort of generalists as web designers, and a lot of them have created their own sites from scratch when they do freelance or whatever, and so UX is part of that. But I really want someone who has like a master’s degree in human computer interaction. And so I contacted a professor at IU because they have a degree program in that, and it’s well known. And so he’s reaching out to his students. And these are folks that are not journalists by in large, right? And in some of the conversations I’ve had with those people it’s really sort of selling — from my end to get them interested — it’s really sort of selling the public service that we do.

I mean, there’s so much that you can do in web design right now. And you might go to a commercial site that you know, sells clothes or shoes, or whatever it is that they sell, and it’s the coolest site you’ve ever seen. But there are people who don’t want to sell a product, who want to contribute to the public service of journalism. And I think we have an opportunity to bring on people who are interested in that value system. And so that’s one of the things I try to do.

Ellis: Finally, let’s talk quickly about the ad or the commercial I guess, for the iPad app. That made a big splash and seemed to be floating around on the Internet for a while — people were very amused by it. Two things that struck me: one, that it’s funny, and two, that you guys wrapped in a lot of the personalities and people that are known from The Post, and folks that probably might be more known in journalism circles. How do you think those two things helped to sort of guide people, walk them through what the app offers and also what kind of Washington Post content that you get with it?

Ferrell: Yeah. You know, that was another thing that Katherine really managed and got together. And the director of that project, we hired him as a freelancer — Rufus Lusk is a friend of The Post and a really talented guy. He brought in his team and they did it in the newsroom — really from the idea we had, to do it was sort of at the end when we were about to launch, and got the whole thing done in about a week and a half.

She tells a funny story, Katherine, that when she first emailed Bob Woodward about it she said is it possible on Monday that I could have four hours of your time to do this, you know, in the course of their conversation. And he emailed back and said I thought that was a typo — four hours? Because it’s not like he just gives up four hours of time. But what ended up happening was they really got into it and he spent all day there in the end, filming it.

The idea was to show people that yeah, these are the people that you know from the Post because everybody, most people know the Post for Watergate. You know, Bob still works with the Post, Ben still comes to work every day. He’s part of the corporate office now, but he’s still there, he eats in the cafeteria, he’s around. And we wanted to show you that the Post that you know of old can also be new. And that we’re doing this new thing. And we’re on board with it. And it’s not sort of stodgy old media. And so it was funny to have Ben be the one who’s showing Bob how to do it.

And then we were pretty — you know, we went through it scene by scene and figured out what we wanted to say about it in the course of Bob walking through the newsroom. And you’re right, there are some jokes in there that are really funny to us that other people might not know, like when the one that says was that Robert Redford? You know, because of the movie. And those two women who are sitting there who say that are our celebritologists, so they’re the ones who cover celebrity and everyone doesn’t know that, obviously.

And Dana Priest is the one who’s sitting there and says “it’s about bringing them into the newsroom” And of course Dana’s won two Pulitzers, but people outside of journalism don’t know who Dana Priest is necessarily. So yeah, we tried to bring in our big personalities — Chris Cillizza is in it and Dana Milbank, and some of our well-known individual personalities.

But each little scene shows something they can do with it. And even you know, the sports folks who are talking, they’re showing the clarity and the sharpness of what photos look like on there and things like that. So yeah, I thought it ended up really great. It totally accomplished what we wanted it to, which was we wanted people to pick it up, and send it around. And so it was good for saying that our app’s out there. But I think it’s also really good for showing people that hey, you know, the Post is a pretty cool place and it’s not just a big media, big old dinosaur media or whatever people like to say about us, so. It was a lot of fun.

September 22 2010

16:30

NYT’s Opinion Pages continue the march toward app-inspired design

Above is a screenshot of The New York Times’ opinion section, whose redesign went live a few hours ago. Looks sharp, doesn’t it? It also looks like it’s itching to be put into a different context:

The web redesign looks an awful lot like an iPad app: stories set into big touchable-looking blocks; non-standard web typography; more white space and more room for graphics than 99 percent of newspaper websites offer. And below the area in the screenshot above, the selector for moving between different Times columnists is all done in Ajax, so each click seamlessly shifts between content, much as a nice menuing system in an app might. Even the ING Direct ad in the upper right looks like the sort of small display ads some apps use. In some ways, this redesign more closely resembles the original NYT iPad app previewed in January than does the app the Times eventually shipped.

The redesign is limited to the Opinion front door; the actual story pages are unchanged. But this is the strongest sign yet that the design motifs news organizations are using in app development are bleeding back into the web, as I’d predicted back in April. Twitter’s recent redesign, of course, had a similar app-to-web feel.

Part of this design trend is driven by technology: more people using modern browsers that can handle Ajax; faster connections for big graphics and larger page sizes; the arrival of Typekit as a de facto standard for non-standard fonts. But I think it’s also driven by the desire to present easier navigation choices for readers and the sort of graphical class that lets you stand apart from the increasingly info-cluttered corners of the web. (Compare the Times’ new opinion page to, say, its politics page.)

I think this is important in ways that aren’t just about aesthetics. Simpler, bolder design also helps news organizations push back against the notion that the web demands more more more — more stories, more updates, more exhausted reporters. In the comments to Nikki Usher’s post on the “hamster wheel” a few days ago, a few of us had a mini-discussion on the subject. After C.W. Anderson described “the ‘needs’ of the internet” as “bottomless needs,” I said:

I’d just like to put a signpost in the ground for the argument that the needs of the Internet are not “bottomless needs.” There is not a single human being who consumes everything The New York Times produces online in a given day — or even the amount that The Dallas Morning News, or The Toledo Blade, or The Podunk Gazette produce. (Okay, maybe The Podunk Gazette.) Aren’t there any number of successful online content businesses built around strong but not overwhelming-in-quantity content?

I have no data to prove this, but I think there’s a chart to be drawn somewhere that features both quantity of content output and loyalty of audience, and I don’t think they line up 1:1. I don’t think the hamster-wheel model makes a lot of business sense for even a lot of online news outlets, whatever journalism sense it may make.

The hamster-wheel urge to produce more more more is happening at the same time that audiences are feeling more overwhelmed than ever with information. There aren’t many Americans who, at day’s end, lament: “Man, I just wish I’d had access to more content today.” There’s a role to be filled by providing simplicity, a more limited universe of choices, and information underload.

I’ve called it before a New Urbanism for news, and I think designs like this are a step in that direction.

April 06 2010

16:00

Full screen ahead: WSJ iPad ads fuse logic of print, online

Yesterday, Josh analyzed the design choices news outlets have made with their iPad apps. But what about the ad design?

The (free) New York Times app sometimes features a banner ad at the bottom of its screen, bigger display ads on article pages, and occasional interstitials when you want to read an article. The USA Today app features a small display on its homepage, with no ads on its article pages. The NPR app features sponsorship messages at the bottom of the screen, which link to audio messages just like you’d head on “All Things Considered.” In other words, for the most part, the ads featured on the news apps unveiled this weekend are familiar infrastructural carryovers, from either the web or the news org’s native medium.

One exception we noticed: The Wall Street Journal’s news app, which puts a more dynamic spin on traditional approaches to online advertising.

The app makes rather bold use of interstitials — an old form that, online, has inspired much (much, MUCH) annoyance — in a way that may make them more palatable to users.

Each article in the WSJ app is branded with an advertiser; at the moment, those include iShares, Capital One, Oracle, Buick, FedEx, and Coke. On the first article page, there’s a small toaster ad in the bottom-left corner, sometimes using “Sponsored by” language reminiscent of NPR. Swipe to the next page of the article and that toaster ad may pop up to show something more like a banner ad. And when you’ve swiped past the end of the article, you get a screen that functions, essentially, as an interstitial: a full-screen display for the advertiser in question. One more swipe gets you past that ad and to the next article, which carries its own branding.

“It’s intrusive but not necessarily interruptive,” says Daniel Bernard, chief product officer for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network. “You can look at it, and if it pulls you in, it pulls you in — and if that one happens not to be for you, you move on to the next one. But you’ve still seen it, and it’s made an impression on you.”

When it comes to the WSJ app’s full-screeners, “we don’t really think of them as interstitials,” Bernard says. The iPad’s UI so changes the calculus of the ad experience that the conventional wisdom about such ads — essentially, to paraphrase legions of web users, that interstitials suck — doesn’t apply as readily to iPad ads. “If you’re online and you’ve got a full-page thing between every article, it might start to feel overwhelming — because you’re online,” Bernard points out. On the iPad, though, it’s different: The swipe has more in common with a print-based page-turn than an online click; what rankles online may fade, and fairly seamlessly so, into the user experience on a touch-based platform.

(In contrast, the New York Times app’s interstitials require you to find and tap a tiny “skip this ad” button to get past the ad without waiting. It’s a small difference from the Journal’s swipe-the-ad-away model, but it feels a lot more like an intrusion.)

In other words: the Journal’s ad-in-app strategy takes a cue from print, mimicking the check-it-out-or-flip-past-it optionality of the newspaper — and, in particular, the magazine — consumer experience. “The best of print doesn’t just mean the editorial judgment of how you lay out all the stories and show their importance,” Bernard told me; “it’s also the ability to have this full-page advertising.” And full-page ads, he notes, are “really impactful, they resonate with users, and advertisers find that they work for getting their message across, as well.”

At the same time, the iPad’s much-vaunted “immersive experience” offers marketers an opportunity to re-imagine that advertising — and, perhaps even more importantly, to encourage consumers to re-imagine their expectations for what that advertising will entail. It’s an obvious point, but one that isn’t repeated enough: Our annoyance — or, for that matter, our satisfaction — when it comes to our consumption of marketing messages is always a function of our expectations for what those messages should be. Marketers and publishers — and, indirectly, editors — have an interest in recalibrating those expectations. The iPad offers one way to do that.

The strategy comes down to leveraging the space between delivery platforms, Bernard says, “to make really great advertising that you can’t necessarily pull off online or you can’t pull of in the paper.” Whether it will prove successful, financially or otherwise, remains to be seen; the hope for the ads, though, at this early stage, is that they’ll fuse “the best of all worlds” — and take the result to the bank.

April 05 2010

14:15

Three iPad design choices that will influence how we read news online

So we don’t have to guess about what news apps on the iPad will look like any more. With Saturday’s debut of the device — which is, oh by the way, amazing — we now know how about a dozen major news organizations have chosen to present themselves on Apple’s new platform. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen no revolutionary apps to this point — solid, competent, but not revolutionary — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t already some important lessons to be learned from what’s already out there. After a weekend of playing around with all the news apps I could find, here are three design choices that I think are worth taking a closer look at.

Story-to-story navigation

Web-analytics types push time-on-site and pageviews-per-visit as measurements of a reader’s engagement. It’s fine to have someone following an occasional link in Twitter, but the real money, some argue, is in dedicated readers who spend lots of time with your content. And to that end, a number of sites have been working on their internal website navigation to push users from story to story, rather than asking them to head back to a list of headlines first.

On news iPad apps, that story-to-story navigation has become the norm. The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Associated Press, USA Today, NPR, Reuters — their apps all allow (and in some cases emphasize) swiping or tapping from story to story rather than Back and Forward, web browser-style. (The New York Times’ app is an interesting exception.) I suspect that’ll lead to more stories consumed per session — and I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t see more news companies taking that lesson back to their websites.

Diving right in

Similarly, just about every news website created in the past 15 years has pushed users down a similar path: show them a whole bunch of headlines, arrayed into a variety of design styles, then expect the user to choose one of them and begin what the site hopes will be a lengthy run of clicking on stories. It’s a decision tree: Here are your options, now make a choice.

The very attractive BBC app takes a key step away from that pattern. When you launch the app, you’re not confronted just with a bunch of headlines — you’re also thrown immediately into the text of the app’s top story, without so much as a click. And once you’re reading one story, the act of flicking to another one seems closer to a default act than when you’ve just selected from a menu of options.

It’s a model that makes perfect sense from a broadcasting background; a BBC radio or TV show doesn’t wait to ask which story the listener wants first. It just dives right in. Considering how many news website users never get past that list of initial headlines, dumping the reader directly into a story might be a way to push browsers into readers. The BBC may not rely on in-app advertising to pay the bills, but for sites that do, it’s a model worth watching.

The Times’ cyberclaustrophobia

There’s been a hearty debate among a certain breed of techie over whether the iPad’s existence as a closed ecosystem of apps makes it somehow evil. I think that argument’s more than a little overblown, but using The New York Times’ Editors’ Choice app, I was surprised at my own reaction to the closed universe of Times news it presents.

The free Editors’ Choice app includes a limited sampling of Times stories; presumably, that’s because the full New York Times experience is being held back for a subscription-only app to come later. But the experience of using the app is markedly different from going to nytimes.com, because it has an endpoint. Give yourself two minutes and you can easily read every headline, with five swipes and four taps. Not too much longer and you can read all the stories you’re interested in reading.

On one hand, I’ve heard print-centric people complain that one reason they prefer newspapers over their websites is that, with a newspaper, you know when you’re finished. Turn that last page and you know your news-collection job is complete. With a news website of any size, there’s always one more place to click, always one more link to follow, always one bit of breaking news that dribbled in since you started reading. Maybe an approach like the Editors’ Choice app’s can give a jolt of emotional satisfaction to those users.

But for me, the Editors’ Choice app just gave me a weird case of cyberclaustrophobia. It’s like swimming in the river of news only to find it ends not at a lake but in a parking lot. It’s like reaching the end of the Internet.

I can’t knock the Times, or pretend my reaction is logical. They are giving away around 50 stories at any given time, nytimes.com is still a click away in the iPad’s web browser, and I’m glad to see them (and others) experimenting with paid-content strategies. But at a gut level, reaching the end of a Times digital project still feels wrong after more than a decade of training.

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