Digital in harmony with print: what news organisations can teach the book world

Digital in harmony with print: what news organisations can teach the book world

As a primer for his panel at FutureBook 16, The Bookseller's creative editor Danny Arter explores how the news business is attempting to adapt to the digital age - and what book publishers can learn.

Ahead of the panel discussion 'Print vs Digital: Together in Perfect Harmony?' that I'm moderating at the FutureBook conference in two weeks time, I thought it would be fruitful to look askance at our publishing colleagues in the news business, who have been debating this exact question.

A recent Politico article, 'What if the newspaper industry made a colossal mistake?' provides some interesting parallels, although the mistakes are enlightening. The article amply fills the bingo-card of feel-good print stories: readers “prefer” print; print advertising revenues still dwarf their digital equivalent; newsprint reaches more readers and remains a superior user experience; the tactility of a print offer imparts a feeling of value. And so on. 

But if this really were the case, why are most losing money? Why do newspapers remain endangered? Why—as someone who works in and has a keen interest in the practice of journalism, editorial design, and global news—have I bought just one issue of a newspaper this year? 

The misunderstanding of terms begins in the headline—in the first four words, in fact. The piece focuses on newspapers as a print object; not the news business. It bemoans the contraction of “legacy” news institutions but fails entirely to note the remarkable rise (and monetisation) of digital-natives—Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vice, Medium, etc—or the success of those who have pivoted. Was the Daily Mail the largest English-language news outlet in the world pre-Internet? (In a recent piece for the FT, Edward Luce wrote of Twitter—which, with 313 million active users, is larger than the world’s combined English-language newspaper readership: “Had Twitter been funded by venture capitalists from somewhere other than Silicon Valley… the world would judge it a success”.)

Such bleary-eyed nostalgia over print is, frankly, almost as infuriating as the solutions offered in the Politico piece. News(paper) institutions should “accept that much of their loss of audience is beyond their control”; “accept that few of them can possibly pursue a successful online strategy and adjust their distribution battle plans accordingly”; “accept that the days of 25%–35% profit margins will never return”. It also describes investing in their online offer as “throwing good money after bad”. I’m not so sure anyone should “accept” any of the above.

The reason the newspaper business has been so adversely affected by the rise of online news is that its strengths very quickly became weaknesses. Fact-checking, accuracy, depth, analysis, editing, astute design and photography/illustration; these were hindrances to an audience that valued speed. In a TED talk I recently watched, a journalist stated that the equivalent of the population of Australia was tweeting about the death of Amy Winehouse before a single news organisation had reported it.

It’s also the case that online networks have enabled niche communities to network and swell, many of which have print offsprings that are eating into all-encompassing newspapers’ readerships—and revenues. (Relatively low-cost design software has opened up and democratised the role of ‘publisher’, too.) Of a weekend newspaper, for instance, would buyers necessarily read its all of various sections—Arts, Sports, Housing, Finance, etc.—or opt for an alternate publication dedicated to the section that most appeals to them? Many (often independent) publications have ploughed this niche, with great success. I recently pointed to ‘soccer’ publication Eight by Eight as one such instance; for football reportage there are a number of others, among them The Green Street Journal, Howler, The Blizzard, to name just a few. Though I have bought only one newspaper this year, I buy such magazines (not merely “fitba” ones) regularly, and at a far higher price point.

It didn’t help, either, that many news sources struggled with the curation and design of their web “edition” (a number adhered to the flip-page PDF, a simple transposition of print processes into a different medium that flattered neither), and thus ceded ground to the digital outlets mentioned earlier. Some still struggle: the Independent’s recent migration online remains a puzzle, given its slow loading speed, erratic homepage and—most strangely of all—its truncation of headlines when the site is displayed on devices of a certain size. Why would a news business literally cut back upon its most valuable resource for attracting readers’ eyeballs?

The Guardian's infographics

in fact, many such online news sources seem to have disregarded centuries of honed expertise and best-practice (in effect, “UI”) in the belief that online habits are so fundamentally different from print habits. Yet the principles of information design remain; when a digital “news” offer is designed well, one doesn’t miss its print sibling. And there’s the rub: like siblings they are similar—in keeping with branding, typography, tone—yet distinct, optimised for the medium through which it is read. I’m thinking of the Economist espresso, or even the Guardian’s morning briefing email; relatively speaking “basic” in functionality and appearance, but incredibly efficient.

It’s easy to forget that the Internet, compared to newsprint, is barely potty-trained. A degree of experimentation, of trial and error, is expected—and welcome. If its user-experience is inferior to print’s, well, it’s had vastly less time to perfect it. And it’s an iterative process, one that will change with each generation (indeed, faster). How we read and intuit information digitally remains to some extent up for grabs, with experiences and outlets so disparate and vast, yet the prevailing school of thought appears to be that short-form, “clickbait” or somehow less “worthy” stories (the Mail’s Sidebar of Shame, for instance, or listicles) are the key to digital success.

This may be true (for now), but it’s not to say that long-form writing, when presented and executed well online, cannot thrive. It’s this distinction that is at odds with the Politico article’s ethos—“let’s nobly perish in our ivory tower while the masses satiate themselves on throwaway content!”—and it’s baffling why “legacy” institutions should shruggingly hand over that ground. Because the attributes that were, and are, its strengths in print are essential to the creation of successful long-form content and, it follows, digital monetisation: advertisers worth their salt surely realise value lies in an engaged audience, rather than simply a large one.

Some companies are practicing this expertly. The New York Times led the way, in many respects, with Snow Fall, a multimedia feature that won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2013; it continues to practice, hire, experiment and excel in the area, too. (The NYT’s ‘future’ is chronicled on an excellent blog, well worth a read.) The Guardian publishes a variety of interactive infographics, a practice that appears to have been catalysed by the abundance of online information, by concentrating data and giving readers the vital information at a glance. It is, in some respects, a meeting point between the web’s tendency towards immediate visual gratification and the erstwhile, exhaustive practice of “legacy” journalism: information-gathering. 

The New York Times's Snow Fall

These are two “newspapers”; equally impressive is the work that digital-native Medium has been doing through its Matter stream, which uses illustration and various multimedia elements—as well as principles of strong print design, such as optimum column measure and drop-capitals—to create an experience that is pleasurable to read. These projects all combine and execute design practices that were established and ingrained by print publications, and blend them with selective interactive elements: it’s a best-of-both situation. In fact, Matter has an art director; how many websites can you name that do? It isn’t a case of 'Print vs Digital'; in fact, it’s more 'Together in Perfect Harmony”'.

So what can (book) publishers learn from this? There are two main lessons, I think. First: like it or not, print products are already, in effect, “luxury goods”. When readers begin to really consume and equate long-form digital content with quality (and they will), the head-start that print has in the market will evaporate. So if you are selling print as a superior experience, make it one. Accentuate the things you can do in print that the web cannot replicate: quality paper stock, bold front-cover design; spot-colours, em/de-bossing, die-cuts, and so on. Embrace the physicality of the object; make it something worth fetishising.

And second: leverage your experience in curating and editing long-form content, either by collaborating with, or incubating in-house, skill-sets that will both create and be applicable in the ‘publishing’/reading business in years to come. Many of your competitors-to-be may have the skills to exploit a new market, but not the ability to create the kind of storytelling experiences that will retain ‘readers’/users. Book publishers do. It’s worth remembering that when Wikileaks obtained a legitimate ‘information overload’, crammed with explosive material, it had to collaborate with journalists at the Guardian, the New York Times, le Monde, der Spiegel (“legacy outlets”, in other words) both to extract the kernels of most importance (“journalism”, in other words), and to broadcast them to as wide an audience as possible.

Almost a century ago (1921), C P Scott, who edited the Guardian for 57 years, wrote: “The world is shrinking. Space everyday is being bridged. Already we can telegraph through the air or the ether, from Penzance to Melbourne, and tomorrow we shall be able to talk by the same mechanism. Physical boundaries are disappearing… What a change for the world! What a chance for the newspaper!”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a chance that we ought to grasp, not flee.

'Print vs Digital: Together in Perfect Harmony?' will take place at the FutureBook Conference on Friday 2nd December. For more information and to book tickets, click here.