How To Write A Newspaper-Saving Story
So now we can add this to the canon of newspaper-saving stories: App Out Of It, Paper-Boy! At over 6,000 words and starring many of the city's brightest meta-media bylines (John Koblin, Matt Haber, Gillian Reagan and Doree Shafrir), this should -- finally? -- be the think piece that identities the problems and presents the solutions. However, if you read closely, it's more of a "throw everything against the wall" approach than a cohesive web strategy.
Some of you might recognize the rhetoric. It feels like one of those "brainstorming sessions" that marketing/editorial execs love to hold. If you've ever worked for a big media company, you know exactly what I'm talking about: every six months, it's the same dozen people trying to predict the future. (I enter a guilty plea: I've held as many of these as anyone. You know why? Because if you work for a lumbering big media company long enough, the only catharsis is trying to imagine the impossible.)
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's first admit that this story is fighting the good fight. This sort of cultural rhetoric is juicy and readymade for the <blockquote>:
The media of the 21st century is one that is blogged -- not a negative thing, see later in the piece! -- and merged with the users' own experiences and viewpoints synthesized with the original. If postmodernism came to literature in the '80s, it's got to come to journalism now.That sounds right! But what does this future look like? That's where you start to see the gaudy side of postmodernism, a pastiche of the greatest hits of the past decade. It's basically the Girl Talk version of product development, including all of the following:
+ Personalization. "How about customizable home pages for users? So when they go to NYTimes.com, it will display, say, only international news and science headlines, and eliminate maybe sports- and style-related articles. Users could set preferences to display more new podcasts or video posts and drag and drop any reporters' column into a specific space on their home page."
+ Hyperlocal "A combination of local news and location-based technology has the capacity to be the foundation of this kind of distribution system."
+ Audio Stories. "Maybe Times reporters should file mp3s of their articles, reciting their reporting, along with their print stories, so people riding on the subway, and listening in their cars can participate."
+ Flashy Advertorial. "FlipGloss, a California-based ad start-up that just launched their beta site last week, is one company offering a model for high-end publishers and brands. Their interactive Web advertising translates the visual experience of flipping through a magazine on the computer screen."
+ Mobile. "The idea is this: The news must go mobile."
+ The Live Web. "Everyone in the new world has a status. Newspapers can take a lesson from 'status culture' by integrating it into their sites. What are readers reading right now? How many people have their eyes on one story? Who are they emailing it to? Where are they blogging it? How are their friends using the site?"
+ RSS Readers. "If they want their Twitter feed or del.icio.us links integrated into their home page, so they can see what their friends are reading, let them set that preference as well."
+ Audio Comments. "Users could comment on the article, by calling into the Times and record a comment, which will be automatically transcribed and posted on the website."
+ Subscriptions. "Premium access -- one better than the failed TimesSelect project -- will bring in revenue."
+ Applications. "The Times already has an application that is free for download on various devices including the iPhone and the BlackBerry -- with simple headlines and easy reading. But applications with added data, personalized content and social media would be more valuable."
+ E-Ink. "Perhaps more newspapers should be meeting with mobile device manufacturers and designers to make sure they are catering to consuming news on the go. Can you imagine the next Google/New York Times Android-powered portable reading device?"
Although none of these are bad ideas (some are quite good!), none are particularly novel. It presents this mashup as innovation, even though all of them have been around for a decade. But nostalgia-as-futurism is not really the big problem with this story. The fundamental concern is more prosaic: this story proposes that doing everything is the solution.
This spaghetti-throwing exercise accidentally reveals the actual looming problem inside media companies. Contrary to popular belief (propagated entirely by people who have never worked there), good ideas are not in short supply within big media companies. (You want to meet an aspiring futurist? Stop by the online department of a media company.) By far the biggest problem is focus.
Let's put this simply: there's a management problem inside big media, not an innovation problem.
But in fairness to this story, I am glossing over the prevailing thesis, which does deserve some attention: applications are the future of news. ("If news sites entered these other areas -- became social, hyperlocal, mobile -- perhaps they could retake the center stage and bring paid readers and advertisers to the same place?") That bit of futurism is worth contemplating, but it also deserves some scrutiny. We have some hardware-as-future precedent to discuss. Until recently, the software industry also thought it should build itself into hardware. But Google came along and nuked all of that. If the Mountain View idealists taught us anything about application development (and the word "Google" appears 27 times in this story, so they must, right?), it's that the browser is still the king. iPhone apps are cool, and they undoubtedly should be explored, but will newsy-retrofitted hardware and custom applications ultimately be the savior? TimesReader, anyone?
Despite all of this, I still recommend you trudge through the theorizing in here. The industry quotes are decent, and the thesis holds up most of the time, except when it's subverted by its own gizmo doohickey fascination. There are clearly some good ideas in there, if you can dig them out from the busy thicket.
p.s. This piece also happens to coincide with a lackluster redesign of Observer.com. It's unfair to hold the writers up to the mirror of the tech/biz units of a company, but it also makes the whole thesis a little suspect.