The User / The Public

I’ll start by recommending the book that has influenced this article:

Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. Author Jeff Jarvis is an interesting guy. He’s an old school journalist who is well versed in the web and what is has to offer the future. If you want to understand “privacy” and communication in our age of Facebook and Twitter then read this book. It will also give you historic insight into print, the press, and the public sphere.

While Jarvis expertly dissects the nature of privacy online, he also explains the role of the public and how society has changed over the centuries in regards to “publicness” and authoritative roles — particularly that of which the press has played in recent times.

The business of news is a perfect case study for this changing world we live in.

I recently slated The Boston Globe (and others before it) for their website’s paywall (despite the Globe sporting an incredible web design). The issue is not about the money, it’s not just about the method. It’s about misunderstanding a change — and not just a technological one at that.

Apple’s Newsstand app is another recipe for failure as this article explains: The last spasms of a dying business model – Why the Guardian iPad App is a step into the past:

The Guardian app is a step backwards not forwards, it is trying to fit an old media paradigm (the daily print) into a world where days don’t really exist, into a world where we can update things as they happen, in a world where you can write an article about a terrorist attack as soon as it happens in 6 words, extend it to 6 paragraphs an hour later and extend that to a 6 section in depth analysis. None of the possibilities and advantages of working with a fast, constantly connected smart media device are used, even when doing so would be cheaper.

Why are news paywalls and static apps doomed to fail?

There are two factors at work here. Firstly, simply transferring an old format into a new digital one will not work. You cannot repackage the same content into a new medium when usage, needs, and expectations have changed. Secondly, it’s about how the public communicates internally, and how it sees the role of mass media in its life. This is the big change that we must look out for.

In website and app design we talk about “user experience”. To be successful online you must understand the modern user and — as Jeff Jarvis shines light on — the modern public.

For the news industry there is a big problem.

Defining Memories

Two major world events almost a decade apart signify this change for me.

If I remember back to 2001, to the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York, like most people I was glued to 24 hour TV news. Over the next week I was transfixed to newspaper front covers looking for answers. I relied solely on the press to keep me informed.

Fast-forward to 2011, to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I received breaking updates via Twitter. I watched first hand videos on YouTube only hours after they were recorded. I followed and shared links to discussions and information; I remember reading a lengthy explanation from an expert on nuclear reactors and the current state of Fukushima.

The TV was on in the background but whenever I checked it was looping the same contentless reports, occasionally cutting to an isolated reporter “in the field” and non the wiser of recent events. News anchors stumbled through diagrams of reactors (that by now even I knew were factually incorrect). Days later they ran the videos I’d seen days before. I never bothered to pick up a newspaper.

In 2001 the press informed me. In less than ten years I now bypass it entirely.

I’m not saying there is no longer any value in traditional news and journalism, only that society has changed; the public informs itself. What is worse than a poorly implemented news app? A news app with no users. Sure some users will exists today, but what about future generations? This raises a difficult question for all businesses transitioning to a digital future. Regardless of technology, has society left you behind?

Storytelling

Personally I hold no sentimental value towards “print”.

When I bought my Kindle I remarked that I had no desire to buy a printed book ever again (if I could help it). The fine embossing, the perfect binding, the tactility, the weight, the smell of aged paper, the cracks and imperfections of past enjoyment.

I’ll take the Kindle edition please.

The real value is the story; the content. The act of reading to consume it. The digital age has given us new, more accessible formats but our basic desire for entertainment and education remains the same. However we read or watch, we’re gaining value. This is where I believe the printed book differs from the printed news. Our connected society has changed our needs in regards to the latter. Future generations will have no role for the news industry as we know it today.

I hope more journalists like Jeff Jarvis recognise this change. Their users — “the public” — can facilitate their own news online, but there will always be a need for good storytelling.

This week’s BBC Newsnight highlighted what sad state of affairs the British press is really in. On the topic of phone hacking, Jeremy Paxman questions Steve Coogan & Louise Mensch on whether “tabloid fluff” is the price we pay for a free press and the survival of newspapers. Coogan rightly questions why newspapers have the right to exist if they cannot sustain themselves with real news. Paxman equates the death of newspapers to the death of a “free press”. Only Coogan hints at the necessity of the press in modern society.


I can’t pretend to fully understand the future of the news industry but it is fascinating to watch unfold. As someone who designs and builds for the web I talk a lot about “the user”, now I feel I should be talking more about “the public” — a very significant part of the user’s context.

By the way, I would highly recommend reading Public Parts. It discusses a whole lot more than the tangent I’ve gone off on here!


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