If we journalists can make it through the next week without just giving up, Apple will bestow upon us a product that will redefine how we tell stories. We will paint anew on the bright, beautiful screen of the iPad, using it to tell stories in ways unimagined and impossible.
Unless we aim low and simply digitize the familiar experience of reading newspapers and magazines. A couple of people have suggested recently that the current visions for iPad magazines aren’t particularly visionary.
A producer for a radio program contacted me when I was at South by Southwest Interactive to see if I could help her find people who had pre-ordered the iPad. She was looking for people for whom the iPad isn’t somehow part of their job, like journalists. Finding them was harder than I anticipated, and I started to wonder: What if the only people who believe this is the Holy Grail already go to church?
If only we knew what consumers hope to do with this device. That is, if they know themselves.
Is the iPad a “good enough” device?
In the latest New Yorker, James Surowiecki draws a connection between the Flip camera and the iPad: Both the stripped-down video camera and the high-end tablet computer ignore the middle of the market, he argues.
The Flip camera, as Wired magazine pointed out last year, is an icon of the “good enough” revolution, in which people discard traditional measures of quality such as fidelity, features and polish for convenience, low cost and accessibility. “Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect,” wrote Robert Capps. “These changes run so deep and wide, they’re actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as ‘high-quality.’ ”
Upon reading that Wired article, my first question was, what does this mean for journalism? Now it’s this: How will the iPad fit in with “good enough” values?
The iPad, with its vibrant screen, fast processor and sleek design, doesn’t look like a “good enough” device to me (though there are plenty of things it can’t do — yet). So the journalism that prospers on the device probably won’t be, either.
“Good enough” journalism
Many types of journalism that have prospered online are “good enough”: headline aggregators, blogs and Twitter.
Take Twitter. People who use Twitter as a news source value immediacy so much, they’re willing to deal with the occasional rumor of a dirty bomb in Grand Central Station so they can be the first to learn of an earthquake or the collapse of a pop superstar.
Blogging, as a means of journalism, shares these values, too. Bloggers write quickly, posting what they know and correcting and revising as they go. Their posts are minimally produced; the presentations are minimalist. And bloggers are accessible and responsive to their readers.
Yet the Web has also enabled a new form of high-end storytelling: multimedia and interactive graphics that convey information in interesting, non-narrative ways.
Already we see two versions of what kind of content will work on the iPad: the now and the imagined.
Many believe that the iPad will foster rich, deep media consumption. That’s why there are so many demos of iPad magazines. It’s easy to see why magazine editors are so excited about the iPad. These are people who spend weeks and months perfecting their stories and designing them into a discreet package. The iPad appears to cater to their values. That’s the now.
Felix Salmon and Jason Fry contend that these iPad demos don’t push the boundaries of what the device can do. The current approaches look to them too much like the walled garden approach that failed to take advantage of the interconnected nature of the Web. “The whole ethos is a magazine-like one of a closed system with lots of control — the exact opposite, really, of the Internet, which is an open system where it’s very hard indeed to control the user experience,” Salmon wrote.
When I ask people to imagine how the device will change how we do journalism, they talk about its immersive potential, its platform for rich multimedia, its ability to deliver information based on where it is in the world.
Graphic designer Joe Zeff told me he thinks the iPad is “one of the most incredible storytelling devices ever made.” He suggested that it could be used as a “frameless window” that will raise interactive storytelling to a new level.
In a recent blog post, Zeff suggests that newspaper publishers should approach the iPad based on what it can and can’t do compared to the Web and mobile phones. Because the device won’t be online all the time, don’t promise immediacy, or you’ll disappoint people when they open your app to find old “breaking news.” The device will showcase good design, so you should too. Think about how people will interact with the device — touching it, moving it around.
I agree that the iPad could spur journalism that runs counter to the “good enough” movement — single-tasking, immersive journalism, compared to the wide-open, short-attention-span nature of Web surfing, where one minute you’re reading a story on the real estate market, and the next you’re browsing a slide show of mansions of the rich and famous.
But the types of news consumers who will want that journalism are in the minority. One of the hard-to-swallow truths revealed by the Web is that many people who used to buy newspapers aren’t particularly interested in news. Joel Kramer at MinnPost has said he believes one in six people are in the market for serious news.
The person who scans aggregated headlines and blurbs without ever clicking on a link is not likely to buy your app that breaks down, in great detail and with stunning graphics, the new health care law. And the person who does buy that app may already subscribe to the Sunday paper. So rather than reach a new audience on the iPad, you may end up moving your existing audience to another platform.
People say they’ll use the iPad to read books, magazines and newspapers, to browse the Web, to send e-mail, watch videos … maybe we should ask them what they don’t think they’ll use it for.
But we won’t know how people will really use it until well after April 3. Maybe April 3, 2011. That’s when I expect to walk into Starbucks and see two strangers side by side, one using the second-generation iPad to view/read a history of the neighborhood as he moves the tablet around the room, and the other one skimming Newser.