On Journalism, the iPad and Good Writing

Ben Brooks, in a discussion about iPad news apps:

Again I ask, would it not be more helpful to have a summary of the story on the front page, instead of the industry standard ‘we put as much of the stories text that we can fit even though it provides no value’?

Without a doubt, most iPad news (and magazine) apps are crappy. Without a doubt, the news industry really doesn’t get the Internet, let alone mobile devices.

I know in my years of designing The Daily Helmsman at the University of Memphis, we sucked at using our website as a useful platform. We were always about the print product, and the website was a place to shovel stories. That’s the wrong approach, even though many papers still cling to it.

I would say that a lot of newspapers and magazine are actually pretty good at teasing stories in their print editions. The goal is to summarize a story in a way that hooks readers. Having teaser text that is just the first few lines of a story doesn’t work. The Reuters app is exceptionally bad at this, as Ben shows in his screenshot.

I disagree with the philosophy Ben puts out as the “industry standard” of cramming text onto the front page.

Newspapers are dying. As their death spiral continues to spin faster and faster, they are doing everything they can to keep advertisers happy.[1. Which sometimes pisses off readers, which hurts sales, damaging the industry even more. Life is ironic sometimes.] They know that if they can get readers past the front page, they will see more ads. Which is good for advertisers, and thus, good for the paper. Space for news stories continues to shrink.

Cramming text onto a page doesn’t do anyone any favors. The front page of a newspaper is very much an ad for the paper itself. Design a hard-to-read front page, and no one will pick up your paper that day. Filling the front page to the brim isn’t an industry standard. Designing a newspaper people want to read, however, is.

Crappy teasers don’t draw people in. Thoughtful, well-written ones do, however. It’s a skill — just like writing headlines, editing copy or taking photos. It’s a lot harder than running some copy through OS X’s “Summarize Text” feature.s

I think Ben’s thoughts betray the public’s thoughts about journalism — that it is easy, and that it should be free.

Both of these are wrong. Finding a story, reporting it and packaging it in a way so people can understand is are all really difficult tasks. Not just anyone can do it. The fine art of turning events into news is just that — an art. Sadly, newspapers aren’t use to their art being on a digital canvas.

While Ben makes some great points about iPad news apps, I don’t think it is fair to expand his conclusions to journalism on the whole. Apps and content are different things. An app is just a vehicle for content delivery. For example, Reuters is generally good about writing helpful summaries. I bet their iPad app just lobs off the text, mindlessly, after a certain number of characters. If this is true, the fault lies with the app, not the journalist.