90WPM

Why Are We Debating “Tablet-Native Journalism”?

My last post got Felix’s attention and he updated his article with a link to my thoughts, as well as Gruber’s take:

The second part I agree with. The Daily’s failure had nothing to do with it being iPad-only and everything to do with the fact that it just plain stunk.

But what’s foolish about publishing on a single platform? I publish only on the web, and Daring Fireball seems to be doing OK. Marco Arment’s The Magazine publishes only for iOS and is doing well enough that he’s already expanded to hire an editor. In fact, I’d go so far as to say The Daily’s success proves the opposite of Salmon’s conclusion: that an iPad-only daily news app could be a success.

First things first: The Daily proves nothing, because it is a single data point, not a representative sample. That said, Gruber and I are likely splitting hairs. But since we just watched News Corp. flush $30M in development costs plus $500,000 a week in operating expenses down the drain, I believe these are hairs worth splitting.

What is a Platform?

Is the web a platform? Yes. Is Facebook a platform? RSS? Mobile? Android? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There are platforms built upon platforms, platforms fragmented into sub-platforms, and platforms that aggregate data from a bunch of other platforms.

Platforms all the way down.

Audiences rarely use one platform exclusively; a casual gamer might split time between Words With Friends on a smartphone during a morning commute, Farmville on a laptop computer during the day, and Angry Birds on a tablet at home.

Gruber says he publishes only on the web; yet his blog has an RSS feed and a Twitter account. One could easily read Daring Fireball without ever contributing a single pageview just by sending links from the feed or Twitter to a read-later service.

We have a choice.

You Can’t Reach All of the People All of the Time

But you can reach most of them, most of the time.

You’ll reach most of your potential readers, some of the time, by designing exclusively for a single platform. But to reach them most of the time, you have to offer your users a choice, even if it’s a simple one like “Web site or RSS”.

Going mobile-first is a valid design approach. But even Instagram allowed users to share a useful atom of content with their friends who did not use the app before the company rolled out web profiles. The Daily offered a static image of an article — practically useless for written content.

Still, there’s one example which seems to turn this logic on its head.

What About The Magazine?

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about tablets and publishing these days without bring up Marco Arment’s nascent iOS-only publication, The Magazine. The app is about as bare-bones as it gets, and runs on a subscription-only model. Users can read, and they can share small snippets of articles, and occasionally the entire text, though it’s unclear when the limitation is lifted.

Marco was very clear during the launch that The Magazine was not meant to be a blanket solution for digital publishing, and the audience is intentionally limited to “geeks like us”:

There’s room for another category between individuals and major publishers, and that’s where The Magazine sits. It’s a multi-author, truly modern digital magazine that can appeal to an audience bigger than a niche but smaller than the readership of The New York Times. This is what a modern magazine can be, not a 300 MB stack of static page images laid out manually by 100 people.

The Magazine appears to be doing well enough; as he noted in his own post-mortem of The Daily, it quickly reached profitability, and Marco has hired a full-time editor and raised the writer payment rate. But let’s not kid ourselves; the publication’s overhead during the initial issues was likely limited to the app’s design and a token fee paid to the authors, most (if not all) of whom are friends with Marco. While readership may be off the charts, we don’t know either way, as the “profitability” goal is relative, and relative sales numbers are essentially worthless.

The Magazine does not pretend to be a general-interest news publication. But while the content is niche, thus far very few of the writers appear to be doing any actual reporting. This has caused some to write off the entire format, when really they just aren’t interested in the content that The Magazine publishes, which is closer to long-form blog posts than “traditional”, research-based journalism.

Marco appears to be working on this, having stated his intention to eventually fund “more in-depth articles and even investigative pieces”.

What the Hell is Tablet-Native Journalism?

There seems to be a bit of confusion about What Journalism Should Do Next as the post-PC era begins to take shape. Now that we have all of these amazing tools at our disposal, how can we adapt our writing to take advantage of them?

This question, however, is misleading, since it frames the problem in terms of the technology rather than the story being told. The question is not How can we take advantage of these new tools?, but rather How can we tell stories in ways that take advantage of these new tools?

Contrary to popular belief, journalism did not begin with Gutenberg and the printing press; mass-media journalism did. What was the original marathon if not an extremely dangerous, physically demanding breaking news alert?

Socrates lambasted the written word, lamenting the negative effects it would have on learning and memory (and thus the oral storytelling tradition). But did the ancient Greeks engage in spirited debates over the nature of “writing-native journalism”? Probably not. If history is to be believed, they accepted that the written word was here to stay, and kept on telling stories. This decision seems to have worked out fairly well for the human race, and we discovered that some forms of expression, like poetry, can be given new layers of meaning through the act of writing.

So then, let us ask ourselves: what kinds of stories are we telling today? Do they work well on the tablet? If not, let’s fix that first — tablets aren’t going away, after all. If they do, it’s time to start thinking about what we can build to make them even better.

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