I’ve Come to Save Newspapers and Magazines

My friend Larry Smith is one of the most thought-provoking people I know.  We’re both members of a group called the Internet OldTimers and in a recent exchange there, he talked about being a subscriber to the print edition of The New York Times.  I’m also a subscriber to the dead-tree version of the Times and Larry set me to thinking about why I still subscribe to the newspaper.  What do I like about the print version and how is it different than online?

  • Editorial judgments are more clearly manifested.  Placement means something as does inclusion.  Online, placement is quickly ignored and all stories look the same.  And with unlimited space, there’s no judgment expressed via inclusion.
  • Layout matters.  A glance at a section front page tells me a lot in one glimpse and the reading of 50 words.  That’s much less the case online where layout is so blindingly similar from story to story, site to site.
  • Sections matter.  As I move from section to section, my mindset clearly changes.  Online is a much more random journey with few boundaries and as a result, either the mindsets don’t change very much and/or they’re jarring when they do.
  • The delivery mechanism is well-suited to the use of the product.  Paper is wonderfully portable.  I read it continuously from the bed to the bathroom to the kitchen to the train.  Online is bumpy and with few exceptions I don’t have a seamless experience across devices (although there are some interesting initiatives in this regard and I have high hopes for it once we finally bury this notion of the “three screen experience” to be replaced by the “integrated any-screen experience”).
I like what some publications are doing on the iPad (e.g. Sports Illustrated and Autoweek) and what the Times itself is doing with its Google Chrome app.  (I’m not mentioning Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily because first, I haven’t seen it and second, I don’t like talking about Murdoch.)  The Times’s Chrome app much more closely represents the newspaper experience.  It’s familiar and preserves the assets I mentioned above and brings some additional value to online via contextual linking.  But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
More importantly, I think what the good iPad publications show us is that the online news experience is not a newspaper or magazine brought online.  It has to be a multimedia tour de force that brings new elements to the publication.  It combines the best of newspapers with the best of television with the best of the Internet.  We’ve gone through this with the addition of other media.  Radio wasn’t merely reading the newspaper.  TV wasn’t merely adding pictures to the radio.  The great Internet “publication” will combine elements of all that has gone before it while adding those items that are uniquely Internet, including broad linking, commenting and sharing, creating an immersive, social experience.
Now that I’d pay for.