Newspaper Essentials for the iPad

Though I will be perfectly happy to run current and enhanced applications on a new Apple tablet device with a higher-resolution, 10-inch color screen that will read multiple finger swipes and be tethered to the Internet, like many of my ilk, I will be most interested in its impact on journalism – more specifically, the newspaper industry. Coupled with the iTunes retailing environment, the iPad, should enable newspapers to easily and more reliable charge for content. But it will be up to the print-publishing industry (lets include magazines) to generate the kind of compelling content for which digital-generation consumers will pay.

One imagined version of the Apple tablet

I’ve tried out many of the newspaper and magazine readers for the iPhone and have to say The New York Times comes closest to getting it right. It is fast, and intuitive to navigate (via headlines and categories), updates as news breaks and includes images. Stupidly, almost no other newspaper does the latter. I travel considerably and consume newspapers religiously. I cannot tell you how many “photo projects” I’ve seen in recent months that lost their impact because the photos were published out of register (color plates are not lined up, producing a “ghosting” effect). The Internet is where photos go and can be viewed at their heavenly best.

I hope it goes almost without saying that newspapers on an iPad must constantly be updated. Gone are the days when one, two or three editions of a paper and published and the day is done. Because of the Web, news cycles now are 24/7. This would be a starting point for me to even consider installing a newspaper app – for free – on my new device. Otherwise, I’m happy with the NYT (I’m a print subscriber which probably means I will be grandfathered into any new, digital offerings) and excellent news apps from the Associated Press, CNN and National Public Radio (NPR).

To get me to pay for a subscription via iTunes, newspapers also will have to offer:

News Judgment Reflected in Intuitive Layout

That’s a mouth full, I realize. Though a lot of people are tired of the newspaper industry’s we’re-smarting-so-we’ll-tell-you-what-you-should-know approach, there still is an expectation of some guidance through a massive world’s daily events while everyone is living their lives at 100 mph. Curation is a buzz word in online journalism these days. Yes, journalists should be more in touch and therefore able to at least point others in the right direction, as opposed to ramming standards and points of view down people’s throats.

So, on a 10-inch screen, I expect to see some kind of layout, similar to the way the news is laid out on paper. I expect to see that layout change as news event dictates, minute to minute, if need be. I also expect some alternate layouts – stories listed by time and date posted, for example, or clickable headlines listed in order of importance (as of course decided by human editors). I further expect to be able to navigate to categories or sections. For a decent example, check out Esquire Magazine’s iPhone reader, developed by Iceberg Magazine. You can flip or flick your way through the book, page by page, or call up a list of contents, which can be sorted several different ways.

Yes, Let Me Also Decide

Yes, I mean some form of customization and not just sorting options. I should, for example, be able to designate my favorite teams, newsmakers and, even, writers. When David Pogue posts his witty gadgets column for the NYT, maybe I want that offered up before all other news. At some point, some genius will come up with a system of allowing users to assign a weight to their news priorities, allowing software to “lay out” a page that’s uniquely yours or mine. The Glenn Nelson version of the New York Times might have a Seattle Mariners story stripped across the top, with a big image of a Victoria’s Secret model anchoring the page, a politics story down the right rail, Pogue’s column on the left, with a movie or dance review and fashion story sharing the bottom of the page. We can dream …

Images – Still and Moving

I will expect pictures – lots of them. My mission as a journalist is to take people places they cannot go; I expect other journalists to do this for me as well. That can be done with words but, let’s face it, we’re reading fewer and fewer of those online. I will expect to be able to tap a photo to isolate it and make it full screen, to pinch to shrink or use two fingers to expand and zoom. Maybe two taps will reveal a whole photo gallery, or an audio photo gallery.

Some photos should be specially designated screen grabs from video that is brought to life with a tap or three-finger swipe or some such gesture. And the video cannot the kind of choppy, unedited crap that I’ve heard some newspaper “multimedia” gurus argue that consumers will accept. That’s rubbish. The point of reference for younger consumers, in particular (and even budding geezers), are their Nintendos or X-Boxes – or Avatar. Newspaper videos don’t have to be Jack Bauer on steroids, but they should be well-shot, edited, emotional and, yes, in high definition. Think Travis Fox’s work for the Washington Post. The barriers to this kind of work (financially and otherwise) have all but vanished and the only limitations are the story-telling abilities of today’s journalists.

We Can Hear, Too

Audio is part of the immersive, take-me-there experience. What does the subject sound like – even if it’s just the answer to one question? What does war sound like? How about Game 7 of the NBA Finals? I think audio even is a great way to get a quick take on a subject matter from a non-writing expert. One cannot misspell an audio clip (though they certain can butcher grammar).

Context and Digging Deeper

One of the beauties of digital news delivery is that all content continues to live and is relatively easy to access. Important people and terms should be hyperlinked to other content. If I’m reading about, say, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), maybe I can find out what he looks and sounds like by clicking on his name, which pops up a profile box. Come to think of it, I also should be able to do this with, say, any SI swimsuit model. Every story has the potential to have a related content box imbedded or at the end. This in fact could, in time, change newspaper writing to a more consumer-friendly style. Honestly, though perfectly rational to a journalist, the alien-just-landed style of writing which assumes a reader is tackling a subject for the first time ever is getting old and makes a lot of writers feel unapproachable and disassociated from a lot of readers.

I also would go the “related” route a bit further. Newspaper chains can offer alternate takes on topics from a writer or columnist in another city. The L.A. Times, say, could offer a Chicago Tribune story on the same subject. Or a newspaper such as The Seattle Times, which has relationships with dozens of hyperlocal blogs, can offer those as a companion to a particular story. What makes this all powerful is the context, not the “additional content” as a value-added proposition.

In Conclusion

This is not a definitive list by any means. My point is that newspapers cannot merely offer up their websites for pay on the iPad. They have to do what they probably should have done 5-10 years ago and tailor their content to the digital age and tastes. Someone, somewhere, will exceed the expectations outlined above, and blow everyone’s minds. That, to me, is the most exciting aspect of the Apple reveal in San Francisco on Wednesday.

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Comments

  1. Nice analysis, Glenn.
    As much as I love newspapers, I look forward to the day when the word “newspaper” joins the ranks of terms like, “town crier.” By the time we get the right-priced device, the formatting, the business model and the suite of print, sound, video and, dare to dream, smells, this service will be unlike anything that has come before it. It will be like my Google phone, which on some days spends more time as a flashlight. The tablet products won’t be newspapers or even magazines. They’ll be content streamers, or cloud riders. I can imagine some pretty good couch time with one of these.
    Eric

  2. I love your take on this, could not agree more.

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