Saturday, 10 November 2012

Future of newspapers, reading online,

As I get my head back into a focused research space, articles and other things I'm reading keep triggering me to write. I tapped out the following on my iPad in response to an article in the weekend paper – as I start writing, the response to the article leads to clarity in what I'm thinking about more broadly. I started blogging again to encourage this free writing process.

Day, Mark 2012, 'Read all about it: There's no shortage of readers, so can newspapers survive in the Internet age?' The Weekend Australian Magazine, Oct 27-28, pp. 20-23.

Mark Day started his journalistic career as a copy 'boy' at Adelaide's offices of The News in 1960. In this article he argues that although newspapers are not dead yet, "there is a general acceptance that the rising tide of internet-based digital services will eventually swamp them." (21) The current debate is therefore about how and when this digital transition will take place, and trying to predict precisely what form digital news publications will take.

Day explains that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for newspaper publishers making a digital transition was a miscalculation about how advertising would work online. Over a decade ago, many publishers began giving their content away free online because they thought advertisers would pay to reach growing online audiences. Day explain that this didn't happen: 'The price of online advertising was driven down by limitless space and intense competition, not only from other publishers but also from new players in the digital field. Where the need for costly printing presses and distribution systems once provided a tall barrier to entry for potential publishers, the internet gave a cost-less voice to millions of bloggers. Those who were able to attract large audiences began to also attract a trickle of advertising, automatically placed by new gorillas on the block, the internet giants such as Google.' (22) what happened was essentially a new advertising currency: 'In Australia, a digital dollar is valued at 18 cents. In other words, you need more than five times the volume of online advertising to replace a dollar's worth of print advertising. (22) However, by the time this print-digital advertising disparity became apparent, it was too late for many publishers to change what they'd set up – as Day puts it, 'how to unscramble the omelette? How do you get people to pay for something they've been getting for free for a decade an a half?' (22) It's not all dire news, Day lists 'encouraging signs' in examples of papers such as the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times driving up their circulation revenues even with an online pay wall – Day states that pay walls are delivering more committed readers and beginning to deliver more and higher paid advertising. The great benefit of online advertising for the advertiser is the potential to track where and when and by whom their ads are viewed: 'digital data is precise. ... That kind of information allows advertisers to target their message with rifle shot accuracy – far more attractive than the old shotgun mass media approach of firing off both barrels and hoping to hit someone.'

Day set himself a week-long experiment, living a 'fully digital life' by giving up print and relying on his laptop and iThings to connect with the world. While accepting the ease and availability of finding online info, his reflections were common to those of the print media persuasion: 'It's not the same. There is something deeply satisfying about sitting down with a cup of coffee, a piece of toast, the radio on softly in the background, digesting a newspaper.' The above quotation mentions nothing of the material form of the newspaper. I often do just what Day describes, using my iPad. I use Zite, which is a digital news source that customizes stories according to my preferences (using an initial survey of my interests that I inputted when I joined, and constantly refining these interests with my feedback on articles – I can give things a thumbs up, down, or request more about very specific topics or from particular writers or publications using a small popup menu). If I don't have time to read everything over breakfast, I save things to Instapaper, another app, which will download and store a story so I can read it later, even if I'm not connected to the Internet, which is handy for the train trip to work. I could just take the paper with me,  but I don't have the origami skills to read a broadsheet on public transport. The draw back is that I have a glut of articles I thought important enough to save for future reading lying dormant in Instapaper because I can't find the time to get to them (by 'simplifying' my news reading habits I have inadvertently added to my time-management anxiety, but that's another issue). Moreover, in constantly narrowing my 'interests', I'm slowly removing the potential for serendipity in my reading life. Day recognizes some of these issues. He points out that newspaper editors curate news for us, and that 'the serendipity involved in turning a page and finding something unexpected and interesting is a wonderful part of the newspaper-reading experience.' (23) 

The terms 'curation' and 'serendipity' are haunting me at the moment. These are two aspects of the digital media environment that create tension in my teaching and research practice. Teaching students to conduct critical design research is increasingly difficult. One might expect that the Internet, with its mind blowing access to all kinds of images, is a gift to design students – rather than having to walk almost 4 minutes from our campus to the university library, pace up and down shelves of beautifully produced design books (curated by academic and library staff – hello, serendipity) and then have to use a content page or index and manually turn to a page, an image can be pulled up in a variety of sizes and from a range of contexts in a single click. Sarcasm aside, it is infuriatingly common to find some selfish degenerate has cut out the image or even section of a design book or magazine that you are looking for, or be disappointed by small or poor quality reproductions in print publications, but the promise of easy access is a false one. The problem with the Internet is unless you understand how to search it efficiently, it throws up an unbearable amount of rubbish. Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, the search process can be overwhelming. To help them manage, we get first year students to 'curate' a shared image archive using the free online tool Pinterest, with an emphasis on the importance of annotating why they have chosen to 'pin' a particular image. We set them books to read and point them to blogs, websites and archives of cultural institutions that are thoughtfully curated. I try to lead by example, keeping thoughtfully annotated Pinterest and Delicious accounts, and writing posts like this to reflect on how the digital environment affects the way I work and think – but I just 'quickly' check an email, or get stuck in a Google time warp while cross referencing something, and so easily lose my place in what I was doing. What Day doesn't mention about print that I think is crucial is that it is fixed, and still. Once inked on the page, the content stays there. For news, this may be a drawback – being able to update stories as they develop is an asset, but reading something that is fixed in time and place demands a still and focused kind of reading. A printed page is only one thing. It be used to access your email, distract you with popups or other small entertainments. You can desert it for years and come back to find it essentially unchanged. It demands nothing other than that you to look at it, and offers nothing more than what you can see. And what you can see – the forms the ink makes on the page - is what the writer, editor and designer have 'curated'.

Back to Day's article, of particular interest for designers, he succinctly explains the value of editorial design:
'it may not occur to you at the time, but you're also getting subtle hints about it. You can tell at a glance what is important by its placement on the page. Expert design and layout will lend your eye to explanations do why it matters. You can't do that with another line of breaking news headlines in an online scroll.' (23)

What Day calls 'subtle hints at it' is what literary theorist Gerard Gennette calls a 'threshold of interpretation'. The design of a page offers a threshold the reader passes through in order to interpret the information. The primary goal of the publication designer is to add an unobtrusive layer of visual hierarchy to the text (both word and image - still or moving) so that the reader can quickly and easily interpret the content. What is still lacking from much digital publishing is thoughtful design that allows the reader to cross the threshold of the screen. Website design has come a long way in the past decade, but tablets and other smart reading devices are still in 'incunabula' stage of development. 

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