Why we won’t have tablet-native journalism

December 11, 2012
declared that the reason, in part, was that tablet-native journalism was impossible.

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Last week, when the Daily died, I declared that the reason, in part, was that tablet-native journalism was impossible. And I got a lot of rather vehement pushback, including some smart commentary from John Gruber, taking the other side of the argument.

That most existing iPad magazine apps are slow, badly-designed, can’t search, etc. does not mean iPad magazine apps cannot be fast, well-designed, and searchable. Salmon says “This wasn’t The Daily’s fault” but he’s 180 degrees wrong. All of these problems were entirely The Daily’s fault.

All impossible tasks have not been accomplished; but not all tasks that have not yet been accomplished are impossible. When it comes to media, what strikes many as The Daily’s cardinal sin is eschewing the open Web for the closed garden of a subscriber-only iOS app. The idea being that you can’t win without a web-first strategy. But that’s what “everyone” said about social networks too — until Instagram came along and became a sensation with an iPhone-only strategy.

I’ve since talked about this issue at some length, with both David Jacobs of 29th Street Publishing — someone who specializes in developing iPad-native apps — and with Ben Jackson, another one of my critics. And I still think that tablet-native journalism is an idea which isn’t going to take off any time soon.

Gruber’s point, which Jackson also made, is that you can’t tar an entire platform with a few bad apps. Maybe The Daily was bad; maybe lots of Condé Nast apps are bad; maybe the people selling ads on iPad apps are responsible for degrading the experience of using them so as to maximize ad revenues. But in theory, all of these problems can be overcome — and in fact, in practice, many of the problems I cited in my post have already been overcome, at least by one or two publishers. (For instance, the Businessweek app does have search, and the NYT app will let you start reading stories before the whole thing has downloaded.)

Be that as it may be, however, no one’s been able to convince me that there even is such a thing as tablet-native journalism, let alone that it has any chance of really taking off.

Certainly there’s lots of journalism which appears on tablets, and sometimes even exclusively on tablets. The Magazine, from Marco Arment, is the most cited, but one might also point to (what’s left of) Newsweek, where something called Newsweek Global “will be supported by paid subscription” and available on tablets. In both cases, however, the main reason for moving to the tablet seems to be revenue-related: it’s just vastly easier to charge for subscriptions on a tablet than it is on the web, and Newsweek needs to have a subscription product, to prevent itself from being forced to refund all the money it’s already been paid by print subscribers.

And if The Magazine is really the best thing we’ve found so far in the tablet-journalism space, that’s pretty depressing. For one thing, there’s pretty much zero journalism in it; it’s mostly first-person essays by Marco’s friends. And then there’s the fact that it deliberately abjures all the clever things that the iPad can do, opting instead for a very clean and simple interface: what Craig Mod calls “subcompact publishing”.

Subcompact publishing helps in terms of making great writing immersive: there are no distractions, just text (and maybe the occasional link or illustration) on a white background. Once you get lost in the story, the medium becomes invisible, just like all great storytellers should. It’s taking journalism and doing to it much the same thing that Readability does, or Apple’s “Reader” button in Safari. But when all you have is text, the journalism itself isn’t really tablet-native: it doesn’t shape itself to the contours of the medium in the way that radio journalism does to radio, or TV journalism does to TV, or tabloid-magazine journalism does to tabloid magazines. You’re basically left with a high-tech means of reading the kind of thing which could have been written centuries ago.

But Jacobs makes a good point: if you look at these publications at the story level, you’re missing something very important. Jacobs has worked on apps for websites like Gothamist and the Awl, where the content in the app is exactly the same as the free content on the website, but the way that content is presented is different in important ways. Websites need to be fresh and constantly-updated; apps can be a bit more curated. And importantly what’s not there makes a big difference: one of the great things about The Magazine is that each issue is an easily-digestible length.

Marco has a lot of information, from Instapaper, about the stories people like to read on their tablets, and specifically how long the sweet spot is. Each issue of The Magazine, or the Awl’s Weekend Companion, is much shorter than the daunting downloads one might get from The Daily or Wired or Businessweek. These smaller apps are not trying to present everything; they’re acting as real editors, and serving up something much more digestible. In the case of the Awl, the value ($4 per month) is actually in the way that the editors have subtracted a huge amount of the content available on the website. Similarly, Matter publishes just one article at a time, and doesn’t even force you to use its own app: you can call it up online and then read it using Instapaper, if you like.

So my feeling is that insofar as tablet journalism is going to have any success in the foreseeable future, you’re not going to see it in elaborate downloads with glossy production values. Jackson made this point: every time someone demonstrates ability in putting together great, intuitive iOS applications, they tend to be hired (or acqu-hired) very quickly by some big company like Facebook or Google. Radio journalists know how to edit radio shows, and TV producers can put together TV shows, but there are basically no journalists who can produce an iOS app to tell the stories they want to tell, and the coders they might conceivably work with, as part of a team, tend not to work for news-media organizations.

Instead, we’re going to see universal journalism, which can be accessed — and possibly edited — in different ways on different devices. It might be free on the web, for instance, while costing a couple of bucks in the form of a simple iOS app. Maybe it will only be available on iOS, but for business-model reasons, not because it couldn’t work on the web. Or maybe, as in the case of Matter, it will be available in any format you like, for a single flat price.

I’m quite excited about what Ev is doing at Medium, in terms of creating a new and intuitive way of writing online — it’s long past time that we managed to move away from the evil tyranny of Word. And then, once a Medium post has been created, it looks great on any device. That’s the future, I think: write once, look great anywhere. Rather than anything tablet-specific.


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