Saturday, February 24, 2007

Modcasting trumps oddcasting

Newspaper people keep trying to jam the square peg of the traditional print product into the round hole of the Internet, but they’re no more successful than a two-year-old kid banging away at his junior workbench. When will they learn?

The latest in a series of sure-to-be-ill-fated efforts is the boomlet in podcast-like, downloadable versions of newspapers supposedly optimized for laptop reading. Despite the failure of such projects in Europe, papers like the New York Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are experimenting with the electronic delivery of high-hassle, low-satisfaction knockoffs of their print products.

I will introduce you in a moment to a modcast alternative to these oddball efforts, but first let’s take a look at the oddcast concept, as described by the P-I:

Say you're planning to take the ferry into work this morning, and you want to read on the trip. Fire up your computer, sign on to the Internet, then click on the P-I Reader icon on your desktop. This will launch the P-I Reader. You'll see the little arrow symbol in the upper right hand corner rotating – this means the P-I Reader is checking with our site to get the latest news. Once that arrow stops spinning, you'll have a sampling of the most recent news from the P-I in your reader. Now, you can close the program and be on your way. Later, you can reopen the P-I Reader offline and the news you downloaded will be there. Handy.

Handier than grabbing the newspaper at Starbuck’s? You be the judge:

Before you can use the P-I Reader, you have to register on the site and fuss for more than half an hour with downloading and installing a hefty software package that occupies as much space on a crowded hard drive as such really useful programs as Microsoft Word.

When you fire up the P-I Reader, you get a decent-looking page (screen shot below) that approximates the look of a newspaper. But the static and linear presentation of headlines, words and pictures lacks the relevance, context and serendipity of the real thing. Of all the shortcomings, the thing I missed most is the opportunity of coming across an interesting story I wasn’t looking for.

Although most of the day’s news probably is in there, the P-I Reader isn’t as easy to scan, prioritize and assimilate as content displayed on a large, thoughtfully designed printed page. For all the work involved in acquiring and manipulating the P-I Reader, you are left disoriented, anxious that you missed something really important and, well, generally dissatisfied.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that similar experiments in Europe have ended in disappointment for readers and publishers alike.

“Virtually nobody is interested in the PDF version of newspapers” in Europe, reports the E-Media Tidbits column at Poytner.Org. “PDF accounts for 0.07% of total newspaper circulation in Norway, according to the trade magazine Kampanje.”

In fairness, it must be noted that the Norwegian newspapers were selling their PDFs for the equivalent of $2 a day. Would free versions boost penetration to 0.7% of the market? If so, would it matter?

In contrast to struggling fruitlessly to produce oddcasts of their print products, publishers need to upgrade their web sites with the information and customization tools that web users expect and will appreciate.

A good example of the newspaper website of the future hasn’t been produced by a major newspaper company but by an upstart Dallas start-up called Pegasus News.

Combining staff-produced articles, community journalism and content-sharing relationships with other local publishers and broadcasters, Pegasus News uses some clever technology to automatically produce individualized news pages for each of its subscribers in real time. (Disclosure: I have been an unpaid, occasionally heeded adviser to founders Mike Orren and Gary Cohen since they came up with the idea.)

Pegasus News carves the sprawling Dallas-Ft. Worth market into 130 mini-zones and uses a nimble, all-media content-management system to feed news, sports, commentary and entertainment to users based on their preferences and geography. It even will send a text message to your cellphone to let you know when your favorite bar band books a new date.

Pegasus News performs the traditional commercial function of a newspaper in a non-traditional way. Instead of being a one-to-many medium, Pegasus News creates dozens of virtual communities that make it possible for advertisers to target their messages to users based on their preferences and behaviors. And that, folks, is the future of the media business.

When you take a peek at Pegasus News, which I strongly urge you to do, you'll also see it can be printed out for easy reading on the ferry. The output, of course, won't look like a newspaper. But it’s not supposed to.


Blogger Newsosaur said...

From Tom Heller, Columbus, IN:

I was pleased to see you reviewed the PI reader, as I too just did so the other day. I agree the reader offers a less than satisfactory product. (After sampling and assessing it, I quickly removed it and all the gunk it installed.)

I was surprised at how lame it was because as a former Seattleite I've been very impressed with the PI's efforts to 'electronify' its news enterprise. They've made great strides and I consider their site head-and-shoulders above the other ten or so newspapers I examine daily through my Opera browser.

But I wouldn't fault the PI for this reader. It's really a Microsoft product first unleashed upon the NY Times and now will be tried out by and some other publication. I'm confident it will fail in short order. It's about as bad as 'Bob', the floating paper clip, was on Windows.

Nonetheless, off-line reading of news content does represent, I believe, the newspaper industry's holy grail. While the Pegasus News site takes an interesting approach to enable a reader to 'fine-tune' his engagement with newspaper content, it still requires an active connection to access and peruse it.

If a newspaper consumer can avail himself of the types of navigation tools Pegasus offers, but employ them when *not* actively connected to the internet, then the full portability of a hardcopy newspaper can be married to the kind of serendipity you advance as essential to a newspaper's function and value.

Just how to accomplish this off-line capability and exactly what form(s)it may take remain questions yet to be answered. The PI reader I believe is a clumsy first effort. The path to off-line capability, however, need not be confined solely to internet-based technology, as is the Microsoft reader product.

The key, I believe, nonetheless lies in the distribution mechanism; but I suspect the internet may not be the best choice. The Microsoft reader's bloated infrastructure --reflecting its reliance upon an active IP network connection and an all-too-complicated machine-- offers what is, essentially, an over-engineered 'solution' for what is really a rather simple distribution problem. It's understandable that network technologies serve as the backbone for this reader, but that's also why it's so clumsy and unsatisfactory.

There's no need to deliver news(mostly text, but some images and maybe some audio) over the internet. A satisfactory user experience, however, *will* require a end-user device with intelligence. memory and
navigation capabilities (like those of Pegasus) to empower an off-line user in extracting value from the news fed him.

2:15 PM  

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