Are Digital Publishing Standards As High As They Are In Print

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Patrick Smith, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, B2B Media, Consumer Media, Newspapers

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Imagine this scenario. Your newspaper or magazine print edition hits the newsstands and letter boxes one morning and there are no page numbers. The pages don't turn properly, the pictures are gone and many editions were sent to the wrong house. Can you imagine the reaction of the editor and/or publisher that morning?

Well, then ask yourself why not just hundreds but thousands of apps are sent for app store approval with just that sort of error in place. US firm McPheters & Co found (via AdAge) that 45 percent of the 5,000 newspaper and magazine apps it monitors had significant errors in the summer of 2010; that number has fallen "but not quickly enough".

Are we, as an industry putting up with mistakes we wouldn't in other media?

Anyone who regularly reads iPad editions will be familiar with the "see picture, right" instruction - which invariably leaves the reader wondering where the pic is - or the app somehow manages to forget who you are halfway through an edition. Are these teething problems, or things we wouldn't put up with in a print edition?

As Guardian.co.uk information architect Martin Belam put it on the launch of the Guardian's iPad app this is new stuff for news orgs to get their head around: 

"... We’ve had 190 years practice of how to lay out the paper, about 15 years of practice with the web, and just around four months of daily production of the iPad edition, which has to marry computer algorithms with human editorial instinct.Ç¶¨"

Too much innovation, too fast?

Some might argue that mistake occur and that standards slip simply because newspapers and magazines are taking the leap into digital too fast.

WashingtonPost.com has around 17.2 million readers a month, in a city of 6.2 million people, some of whom would consider themselves loyal, regular readers who check in every day to read a site for free.

But not all are impressed with it. WaPo ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton recently wrote in reaction to some readers' criticisms of washingtonpost.com:

"Now, innovation is important, even necessary, in this new media environment, and I’m glad that The Post is leading in trying new things. Some will be successful, some won’t.

But I’m wondering, and readers are too, whether there’s just a bit too much innovation, too fast"

Complainants told Pexton that the site takes too long to download, it's confusing, it's exhausting and there are spelling errors. One reader's paraphrased complaint was "Why do all the new gewgaws, bells, whistles and features when The Post can’t even get the basics right?"

Aside from the perplexing question of what a geegaw might be, Pexton's response - "take a breather lap, Post" - is telling.

And the response from Raju Narisetti, the man in charge of WaPo's digital strategy, is even more so:

"If anyone, inside and outside The Post, thinks that in 2012 we have a choice between status quo and offering readers compelling news experiences, they are either unwilling to accept the competitive reality facing American newsrooms and journalism, or hankering for a fat and happy past that will never return."

Narisetti talks of the Post being in "permanent beta mode as we learn, adapt and lead," not worrying about whether innovation is itself the problem. "I actually wish it were true that we have too much innovation at the Post," he says.

He also accepts some of Pexton's correspondents' criticisms: the website can and should get better (though the spectre of legacy IT systems stalk the halls, just as with every big media org).

But here's the thing: the problems outlined are not ones of too much innovation but of quality. Newspaper websites need to get better, not go backwards. And the same standards of quality should apply on every medium.

Picture via NS Newsflash on Flickr via Creative Commons licence.

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