Print Journalism And Web Journalism: Different Sons Of The Same Mother

MEDIA MUCKRAKING

Online newsAn interesting opinion was advanced recently by Bob Cohn, editor of Atlantic Digitalwith which I am currently having a journalistic love affair. (The Atlantic is doing an industry-leading job of mastering both print and digital platforms, both short- and long-form content.)

Atlantic pullquote 2Cohn says journalism values for the web are quickly merging with those for print. To which I say: Amen, brother. If all of us as journalists are not already consistently writing, proofing and source-attributing online copy with a comparable level of care and detail that we give to print, we should be making plans to do so soon.

Two other passages in Cohn’s piece stuck out at me:

Online Design. “As recently as five years ago,” Cohn writes, “the web was mostly about text.” But today, urged on by multimedia presentations like the New York Times’ now-legendary and award-winning Snow Fall feature, “enterprising treatment in the service of storytelling, once the province of print, has edged into the digital mainstream.” A big shout-out for the emerging visual web here. Text by necessity was the initial backbone of the early Internet – in fact, its entire search function is based of course on semantics – but with virtually every web user now on a big-screen monitor or laser-sharp smartphone or tablet display, you appreciate those images. And even better when those visuals are animated – a big edge over print.

Quality Can Trump Quantity. “A lot of us,” Cohn notes – meaning, formerly print-oriented media organizations – tried to compete on volume once they were faced with sudden competition from churn-and-turn daily news sites. So the Atlantic “played with the quantity-quality matrix: Could we draw more readers by publishing fewer posts, if those posts prized original analysis and creative thinking?” They found that the “quickie aggregation post” can still go viral but that “it’s been refreshing to confirm that, on the web, as in print, quality, however it might be defined or measured, is the ultimate driver of success.”

And this to me is how beyond-the-news media organizations compete with the minute-by-minute global spew of rip-it-and-read-it news bulletins: When a million Lilliputian websites can echo in seconds a dispatch from the (free) global news syndicates, the answer is not just to do the same – or worse, to turn a media organization upside down in a remaking as a daily news producer. The answer, as always, is to create that valuable angle or analysis or context to a story that simply can’t be found anywhere else. The answer is to become a 21st-century hybrid of newsgatherer, aggregator and blogger.

Yes, content is king – and so is originality.

Back when the Internet first collided with media it was fashionable to note that “this changes everything” – that online publishing would be a whole new animal of a different stripe. But did it? And is it? Completely? Cohn notes that at the Atlantic, “digital writers are doing stories for the monthly magazine; print editors are running web projects.” More and more the same thing is happening in media organizations everywhere.

Methinks that no matter what the delivery “substrate” – whether wood pulp print or quartz computer chips – good journalism is good journalism, helpful context is helpful context, quality content is quality content. And that should gladden the heart of any content producer  – print and/or web.

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Can a CMS Be as Easy as DTP?

FUTURE THINKING

Pica ruler

Today I lodge my complaint about content management systems (CMS).

How many millions of dollars, how many miles of code, how many lifetimes of human productivity have been lent so far in the service of replicating on the web the ease-of-use and sophistication that print publishing has achieved just in the last several decades?

And we’re still not there. But thankfully we’re getting close. Just maybe not fast enough.

For those of us with longer memories, this is all a little reminiscent of the dawn of desktop publishing 20 or 25 years ago. Back then moving text around required not just an eye for symmetry but also some dexterity with the typesetter’s tools — an Xacto knife to cut Lintronic type, and a pica ruler (or “pole”) to make sure everything was placed straight and even on the layout board. I became so adept at using both that I sometimes came home with waxed pieces of type on my shirt sleeves.

DTP

The introduction of DTP was joyous for most publishers. Can we say the same about a typical web CMS?

How joyous was the introduction of desktop publishing, to suddenly have sole control of every element on a page with a swipe of the mouse or a peck of the keyboard. Oh, the transition was not instant. Early versions of DTP software like Aldus Pagemaker and Quark XPress were complicated enough that a whole new occupation sprung up: “desktop publisher.” Try finding that title on the job boards today.

DTP instead quickly became so mainstreamed — such an extension of the eye and hand — that its reins were placed where they should be: in the hands of graphic designers and editors.

Exactly where control of the web CMS should be today.

And in that spirit…

Here’s what I’d like to see in a CMS:

The bulk of web content should be easily edited and moved around on a web page by nearly anyone, no HTML knowledge needed — like an extension of their own hand. This means web developers are never needed for workaday content — just for special applications like high-level interactive elements and for moving to new platforms. As I say we’re nearly there on this count, and WordPress (thank you) may be its highest manifestation so far.

Bulk content should be easily portable across any publishing platform — e.g., from QuarkXpress right into WordPress or vice versa. Eh, we’re not so close here. A web CMS has a bias for the web; DTP has a bias for print. Today’s harried content producers make no such distinction. XML offers much hope but the reins are still in the hands of web developers. CMS suppliers: Tear down this wall!

Editors should be able to easily create basic tables and charts — static and interactive; for later enhancement by designers / developers if necessary — right in their one-screen CMS. Some freestanding applications are out there like Piktochart but nothing is right at the editor’s fingertips at the point of origination of content.

Content producers should be able to get an instant preview of what their page-in-progress looks like on any application — print, browser, smartphone, tablet, etc. In DTP we called this WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) and it’s needed still. Responsive design is on the cusp of making this happen for the user but the next logical step will be making sure the content producer can see it too, while they’re working, on any given platform.

The issue of image file size needs to be resolved: print wants hi-res for quality, web wants low-res for page speed, and publishers have to retain both versions. When can we use just one? This issue may be forced by the boom in publishing for hi-res tablet displays.

DTP operates in a controlled environment, of course: Its sole destination is the printing press; whereas web content of course relies on the Internet and must be legible on multiple devices, operating systems and devices, and all this keeps changing. So it wouldn’t be fair to hold DTP and a web CMS to the exact same expectations for ease-of-use. But I dare to dream…