Oliver Bothwell

Is this the end for the media industry?
December 2010

2010 was the year of the tablet; the iPad, amongst a few other devices, was launched to much fanfare, as the “saviours of the media industry”, allowing revival for the ailing newspaper and magazine industries. However, this hasn't happened. There are a number of factors that influence these sales, for example the high purchase price for the device is a hinderance and there is a lacklustre choice of newspapers and magazines. Perhaps design is the biggest obstacle; no-one has really understood or at least managed to make an app that really takes advantage of the iPad's abilities. However, before we address this I think there's a more important problem that hasn't been solved.

Newspaper and magazine sales have been declining because of the internet, a huge network of information where everything is free and easily available with a few clicks or a search in Google. When articles are available online for free why would anyone pay for a printed copy? This also contributes to a different issue. Before the internet, if you wanted to know what had happened in the news or in a particular field of interest you would buy the newspaper or magazine which best suited your needs. Now that we can pick and choose we don't want to get only one. In a way it's akin to what happened to the music industry once digital distribution was realised – people don't want to buy whole albums anymore. This, coupled with the the fact that availability has increased by a huge order of magnitude, can begin to explain the fall in sales. On the internet we can read anything, written by anyone, and while I am not suggesting bloggers will take over from journalists, feature writers and editors, we can now read articles written by journalists from all over the world, immediately after they’re written. The internet is so much better for news than any other format. This is creating huge problems for an old industry but the media can’t and shouldn’t reverse these successes. There are already publications that are taking advantage of this new availability; The Week, a weekly magazine which selects the news from broadsheets and tabloids and presents in a easily digestible package is a great comparison to what the internet now allows and provides.

The role of newspapers and magazines is hugely important in creating an informed and intelligent population. And we want editors to edit the news for us. So what is the solution and why has the tablet failed so far to change this downwards trend? Now we could say it’s too early to tell, after all, it’s been less than a year since the launch of the iPad, but I think the thinking behind these apps is quite revealing. News Corp are trying to reverse the impact of the internet for the noble reason of protecting their journalism. However, the approach blocks articles from being searchable, archivable but also ultimately read in the first place. This isn’t the place for an argument about how to pay for journalism but by trying to protect themselves News Corp have in a sense locked themselves out. Other organisations are trying similar tactics, but not hiding everything behind the paywall; the New York Times for example is currently requiring all users to register before accessing certain content on its website and iPad app, before eventually charging users. The Guardian is about to launch a new iPhone app which charges users a nominal subscription fee.

We can see the change happening but will these measures save the industries or hurt them further? I think there are two reasons why they have failed with the iPad. Firstly, the thinking behind what an app should be, how it should work, how it is different from the internet, how it is different to the web is lacking; secondly, the design of these apps is wrong, almost entirely. It’s easier to see why the latter statement is correct by looking at the popular apps on the iPad. The best apps are the RSS readers – apps like Flipboard, Pulse, BBC News and NPR. None of these apps are perfect but they all show a level of thinking which is currently lacking from the media industry. They understand the web and how to apply those lessons to an interactive device and they work in similar ways; you launch to find a load of content, tap on something to read in more detail and then go back to the mass of content. Just like a website. The New York Times app is part of the way there, little snap shots of articles before tapping to see the whole thing, but there is too much swiping in between. App designers need to realise that scrolling is easier than swiping. The Times app does this really well in a few sections, the Best of Times section and then at the beginning of Times2, where they also design the pages you see. However, the rest of the app is a disappointment, narrow columns and swiping just doesn’t make sense on a digital device. This is not a newspaper, don’t make it look like one. There are much poorer efforts by other newspapers – The Telegraph, The Sunday Times and i are too awful to mention. There are some nice looking apps that do this first part well though, The Financial Times, The New Yorker and USA Today for example.

However, there is a second part, and that is the fixed format which allows for designed pages, and no-one has got both of these right. Eureka magazine, which is part of The Times (and which I worked on) has done the latter part well with nicely designed pages, and they have reduced confusion by not following the digital magazine convention of both vertical and horizontal scrolling, but there’s still a long way to go. Magazine apps have been more adventurous but have generally failed even more so, creating gimmicky apps that are ugly and fail to work, plus become a pain to produce on a regular timescale. Virgin’s Project is absolutely dire and shows what happens when style over content is seen as acceptable at every level.

And now it is quite easy to see why the media apps are failing. They are all difficult to navigate requiring too many swipes, flicks and scrolls to find things. Eureka has an interesting navigation overview and the magazines have contents pages but where are the search bars? Have they learnt nothing from the web? Where are the related articles, tags and comments. They are not taking advantage of the fundamental tools available to them. Instead they are creating gimmicky apps without any real substance. Media companies are changing but without realising what is their best asset, their quality journalism and ability to edit, which they sacrifice to fads and pointless interactive content. Newspaper and magazine sales are down because the internet allows easy consumption and access to lots of information; the only way to start making money is by championing this in their apps and combining with excellent user-interface and editorial design. At the moment there isn’t an app which is better to use than the newspaper or website equivalent and this should be worrying to an ailing industry. The approach is entirely wrong; it is not the content that is the problem, it’s the way it’s being presented.

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