I pretty much stopped reading traditional newspapers many years ago (Caroline gets the
Grauniad Guardian every Saturday, and that’s my only regular exposure).
I am a news junkie though, and as well as listening to a lot of BBC Radio (4 & 5), I fairly regularly check the Guardian and BBC news websites, and subscribe to a whole ton of RSS feeds, which I read on my iPad and my laptop.
I don’t generally use iPad news apps. I actually did some work on the Telegraph and Economist iPad editions, so I have them on my iPad, but I rarely remember to launch them!
Recently though, the Guardian released a new iPad application, and I’ve been trying it out.
The application is perfectly functional, but the main thing that it has reinforced in my mind is just how outdated the concept of a daily edition of a newspaper feels. Most, if not all, of the iPad versions of daily newspapers religiously reproduce this model in their electronic incarnations. Why?
The front page, whilst a fine tradition in print, isn’t actually that useful in an electronic context. Yes it highlights one or two major stories, but the rest of it is filled with links to the lead items on other sections. I suspect that, like me, most of us don’t read all of the sections, so half of what the front page contains won’t be of interest to any given user. An auto-generated front page based on some combination of the popularity of current articles and a history of what I’ve read in the past would probably do a much better job for me.
The idea of taking a daily snapshot in time and calling it “today’s” news also seems anachronistic in a world where breaking news is available the instant it happens.
Admittedly, a well informed and considered editorial or newspaper article can present a much more coherent picture of a story than the sort of inane verbal diarrhoea that you normal get from rolling-news reporters “on the scene” regurgitating third hand information because nobody actually knows what’s happening.
A daily edition isn’t required for that though - all you need is some actual facts and the kind of intelligent analysis of the overall picture that a bit of distance and a few hours reflection will give. Inserting a pause for intelligent though doesn’t have to require waiting for the next day. In any case, newspapers are perfectly capable of producing drivel too if a news event happens to occur at the right point in their daily cycle where they have time to get a story in but not enough time to actually know anything meaningful about it.
The obsession with daily editions tends to shape the architecture of the applications too. You often have to download the content for a whole edition at once. This is like having to put up with the cascade of sections in a modern Sunday paper - most of which go straight into the recycling. Bandwidth may be relatively cheap, but it still feels a bit pointless that I must wait for an app to download some stuff about gardening that I will never read! The waste of resources involved in real newspapers is one of the reasons I stopped buying them - and yet we’re doing our best to reproduce that waste digitally.
Daily editions also impose an cut-off on the life of articles. If the navigation of a newspaper app forces me to choose a day first, then a section, then a story, I won’t get to see yesterday’s stories unless I deliberately choose to look at yesterday’s edition first - and why would I do that until I know what’s in today’s edition?
In a world where I already know that I won’t have time to read everything, this compartmentalising of stories into days has the useful effect of cutting down the overall volume, but it’s cutting it down using the wrong criteria. If I’m looking at the sports section and I’ve been out of touch for a week, I don’t just want yesterday’s results, but I’d be happy to never be shown anything about horse racing. Similarly if I want to read some book reviews, I’d probably prefer to pick a genre first, and not have to select them based on the date they were published.
It’s early days yet, but I really think it would be good to see newspaper publishers take a more creative approach to re-packing their content for the digital era. I do see value in some human mediation - suggesting interesting stories for me and arranging the content in a suggested order in the way that editors do on physical papers - but I’d like to see it happen in more imaginative ways, rather than continuing to work within restrictions that no longer apply.