The Future of Newspapers

When I was a young newspaper reporter in Scotland, back in the 1960s, old-timers had a great put-down for any youngster who got too full of himself/herself after filing what they thought was a particularly good story:

“Son, they’ll be wrapping fish and chips in that tomorrow!”

And it was true, of course. The traditional Glasgow “fish supper”, bought from the local “chippie”, (which means a fish-and-chip shop in Scotland), was so swimming in deep-frying grease you needed something to absorb it. Glasgow and the West of Scotland was known back then as the Heart Disease Capital Of The World…

I love newspapers. Good ones, like the Scotsman (for which I worked for 12 years), or its Scottish quality competitor, the Glasgow Herald – or the New York Times, Washington Post, and so on – do an amazing job of monitoring a huge amount of news every day, checking it, focusing on what’s most important, writing it in a way that’s readable, and laying it out with good typography, photos and so on.

The news organizations they’ve all built over the years are amazing, but cost a fortune to run.
Anyone who believes all information should be free should be forced to take a walk through a busy newspaper editorial department about an hour before edition time…

Anyway, much as I love newspapers, the “paper” part of what they do is an anachronism that surely can’t survive the Digital Age. The number of trees that have to be cut down and pulped just to satisfy one day’s demand is insane, in a world of global warming. Within a few years we’re going to need every tree on the planet just so we can breathe…

I know there are issues with the resources the computing industry uses, but it is becoming more conscious of them and beginning to do something about them.

I’d like to see good news organizations survive by adapting, and creating a successful online business model for news.

Reading on the Web is still nowhere near as good as it can or should be. I’m not the only one who believes that; it’s clear from the evolution of Web standards like Cascading Style Sheets that many people feel the need of better typography and more sophisticated layout. See the CSS 2.1 spec at:

There’s a lot that needs to happen in addition to better layout. Layout needs to become adaptive, so I can read on any device and still get the best-possible experience.
And scrolling’s still a horrible thing to do to someone who’s trying to read.

The geeks who invented the Web and the first browser at NSCA hadn’t a clue about readability. I remember back then; the “Model T” option – “You can have any typeface you want, as long as it’s Times…”

Putting text into a bottomless window through which readers could scroll was done merely because it was the easiest option – a lot easier than doing the right thing, which was paginated content in a multi-column layout.

But just because it’s easy, that doesn’t mean we should have to live with substandard readability until the end of time.

This page is a great example. To read this, you’re scrolling down a single column of text – and most of the display shows nothing but white space.

We also need to be able to read our “newspaper” when we’re offline. We need to be able to manage all the different “subscriptions” we’ll have. I’d like the New York Times, Newsweek, The Economist, The Scotsman (for sentimental reasons and to see what’s going on back there), MSDN magazine, and probably quite a few other publications.

The best implementation of an onscreen newspaper I’ve seen so far is the New York Times Reader, built on the Windows Presentation Foundation graphics which shipped with Windows Vista (and also runs on Windows XP).

The English Daily Mail and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have also done WPF-based readers. You can find them on their websites.

The WPF team has just released a Software Development Kit which anyone can use to build a reader of their own. There’s also source code for a Microsoft Developer Network magazine reader, and a Subscription Center application where you can manage your subscriptions.
See my colleague Tim Sneath’s blog for details and pointers to all of this.

These WPF readers synchronize news at regular intervals and cache it, so you always have an edition you can read offline. The NYT Reader even keeps a seven-day archive for you.
I use the NYT reader almost every day. Sometimes, I read on my Tablet PC in landscape mode, sometimes in portrait mode. The layout adapts beautifully whichever I choose, to give me the best layout. But it doesn’t work on my cellphone – which is often the place I’m most likely to read the news.

These readers also support advertising. There’s not much expertise out there yet in building WPF-based adaptive ads, but the concept is very powerful, and promises much higher quality adverts – which also means more revenue for publishers. So maybe “newspapers” and “magazines”, at least, can support their content creation staffs and systems with advertising, which would allow free content.

I still can’t see an advertising model that works for books.

Having said all these positive things about WPF-based readers, you still have to have a pretty good software engineer or two to create one from the source code that’s provided.

What about the rest of us who’re not programmers and just want to put content on the Web? The power of Desktop Publishing, which appeared in the mid-80s – I was there – was that it opened up the power of quality publishing to far more people.

The Web needs to evolve to support similar standards of readability, offline experience, adaptive layout, etc., and allow anyone to create content.

The CSS 2.1 flurry of activity was sparked by people who saw the NYT Reader, and asked “How can we do this on the Web?”

We’re not there yet, even with CSS 2.1. But within a few years we will be, if I have anything to do with it đŸ™‚


One thought on “The Future of Newspapers

  1. Web Design Quote

    Hi,Recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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