Common sense: from apps to responsive design

When the iPad was unveiled a year and a half ago, it was received with enthusiasm by media companies, especially by their directive boards, as it provided two essential things for them:

  1. A closed, confortable and standardized environment to receive content. Like good old magazines, but with video and rich-media ads.
  2. An opportunity to charge for content again, by creating scarcity, taking advantage of the walled garden of the iTunes store and selling apps like they sold magazines in the past.

But this approach overlooked several important flaws:

  1. Apple, while the biggest player in the market (at least for now), is not the only one. Any effort would have to be repeated, and then maintained, to gain more potential audience for any other platform (Android, Blackberry…). It’s not escalable.
  2. There is a bottleneck at the distribution stage, and you’re at the mercy of Apple’ internal app approval policies.
  3. The company has to give Apple a 30% cut of their subscription sales through the app, and probably will not have access to their subscribers’ data.
  4. In september, almost 40 million iPads were sold worldwide since the tablet was introduced one year and a half before. Why would you limit to a potential audience of 40 million when there are hundreds of millions of other devices capable of internet access?
  5. What will happen when the iPad and iOS are surpassed by newer, better technologies? Change is unavoidable, and in a world of planned obsolescence, it doesn’t make much sense to tie yourself to a product that will be obsolete in a few years.

Lately, there has been a trend that seems to take a more thoughtful, long-term. sustainable approach called responsive design. The first to jump the boat was the Financial Times, with an HTML5 app that avoids the iTunes app store and lets users access the app directly through the browser. That was a good start, but it was still rooted on the idea of developing an specific product for just one platform, in this case, iOS.

Instead, Propublica made some changes in their site to allowed it to adapt to the screen size of the visitor’s device, whether smartphone or tablet of any size, and independently of the device’s operating system.

The redesign of the Boston Globe was an even more ambitious project. It’s probably the first news website fully redesigned under the responsive web design paradigm, which means it’ll adapt its layout to the characteristics of the device used to acces the site.

If journalism is not a product, it’s a process, a platform-agnostic approach that will deliver, with quality, consistence and coherence, the same news, reports, analysis and commentary, no matter what you use to read them, makes much more sense. It also allows the company to retain control and independence over their most important assets: their audience and how they access their content.

Over 2012 we’ll see more and more media companies sailing away from the siren chants of the iPad and getting the control of their own future back with HTML5 responsive design websites. Those who don’t will see their efforts scattered ineffectively accross a handful of platforms, draining precious resources away from meaningful innovation.

This article was previously published in the blog of the ESCACC Foundation (Espai Català de Cultura i Comunicació, in catalan) and in ElEConomista / CanalPDA (spanish).

Innovation means collaboration for media companies

Media companies were never really innovative. They used to be quick to take advantage of technological developments in their content-distribution channels to enhance their content offering, like when printing presses allowed to reproduce pictures, and later, color. But these where not developed by the media companies. They could have sparked this innovation, their needs may have pushed for these developments to happen, but they were not theirs.

They didn’t innovate much in content production or presentation as well. Newspaper sections have remained virtually untouched for years, the same classification and categorization of information today as the newspapers that served society 100 years ago. When internet emerged in the 90’s, they used the same information architecture in the new channel. Ultimately, newsrooms are meant to produce, following a set of rules and processes, not to do research and development, and those kind of departments are rare in most but the biggest media companies.

With revenue streams getting thinner and management struggling to maintain media companies profitable (or reduce losses), even cutting newsroom resources, R&D is not a priority, if it ever was. Some of the most disruptive innovations in advertising, information architecture and content in the last years have not come from media companies:

  • Think of how Craigslist established a new standard for online classifieds, historically a business dominated by newspapers, and one of their main revenue streams.
  • How Google first, and Groupon later developed ways to put in touch local businesses with consumers online. Both of which are natural newspaper customers, although in different ends of the product chain.
  • How newspapers didn’t get the need for CRM and analytics and a better understanding and insight on their audiences until it was too late, and social networks appeared to provide advertisers with a profiled audience to develop targetted advertising programs.
  • How newspapers not only skipped the chance to bypass intermediaries, like distribution chains, when trying to sell digital subscriptions to consumers, but jumped in the wagon when Apple demanded a 30% cut of their subscription revenue to iPad apps.
  • And how that demonstrates that newspaper and media companies seem fixated on the idea of “channel” instead of focusing on creating platform-agnostic content.

Innovation happens in the fringes

But not everything is that bad. We have had our share of innovation in media in the last 10 years. It just hasn’t come from media companies, but from the fringes of the media ecosystem, or even outside of it.

  • Storify, a tool to organize and create a narrative around curated content from social networks, is co-founded by a journalist.
  • Google Living Stories was developed by Google in partnership with the New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s a way to organize news content around an ongoing issue in a way that makes it easy to understand the timeline of events, as well as the access to all the related content.
  • One of the first mashups,, which had a clear impact in the current interest and attention on data visualization, including its adoption in newspapers and media, was created single-handedly by one journalist, Adrian Holovaty. His later company, Everyblock, which geolocates content from several sources in several of the major US cities, was acquired by MSNBC.

Collaboration and partnerships

If we can learn something from these stories, is that for media companies innovation can, and will happen thanks to collaboration and partnership. In this process, institutions like the Knight Foundation have been critical, as it has provided funding to projects that otherwise may have not received it, and pushed an spirit of sharing and collaboration, demanding, for example, that software developed using its grant is released under the GPL license, and all the other material under Creative Commons licenses. A perfect example would be one of their funded projects, DocumentCloud, also a partnership between ProPublica and the New York Times, is an open source tool to share, analyze and annotate source documents, and is currently used by more than 200 newsrooms in the US.

Hacks / Hackers, an informal and loose network of meetups of journalists and programmers, which recently has seen the birth of a new chapter in Madrid,  is another example of collaboration, very focused on software development for newsrooms. One of the most interesting projects lately is PDFSpy, which allows to monitor changes to a large set of hosted PDF files, like the ones released by Spanish congressmen and senators. That way, a journalist would receive an alert if something is added, or removed from any of the 614 pdf documents.

In Spain we have meetups (Café y Periodismo, the upcoming Hacks / Hackers), research groups (1001 medios) and hybrids of both (BCNMediaLab, which I co-founded). These are outlets for journalists to meet, debate and share ideas and projects, but I feel we’re going to need to take these initiatives (or new ones) a step further in order to generate the collaboration and contribute to the innovation our industry needs.

This post was first published in catalan in the blog of the ESCACC Foundation (Espai Català de Cultura i Comunicació).