Thursday, May 5, 2011

The web, mobile and tablets may all be 'digital', but they are still not exactly the same medium

My iPad is currently being "restored" – what a pain. So my look at the new app from The Telegraph may have to wait awhile. In the meantime, I was thinking about what it means to have "digital" media experience, and is it really relevant to some of today's publishing challenges.

Imagine for a second that you were about to launch a new daily newspaper in NYC. What an enormous project, right? To get things started you decide to hire a new publisher, so you begin the interview process. After talking to lots of candidates you make your choice: you have decided to bring on the former publisher of a city/regional magazine. Your reason for the hire? The person has "print" experience.
Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, right? Well, that is because having "print" experience is not the same thing as having metro daily newspaper experience. "Print" is a generic term for a very large segment of the media industry.

So what does it mean to have "digital" experience? Sadly, many media executives are lumping all digital media together as if experience with the web is the same as mobile or tablets. As a result, many of the new digital products being produced are simply porting over the web – both in content and publishing philosophy – into the new platforms without considering that not all digital platforms are the same.

Additionally, not all print mediums treat the web the same way, so why wouldn't they treat mobile and tablet platforms differently as well? For instance, a newspaper's website mirrors its print product pretty exactly, if only temporarily. Both display the most important stories that the editors rank highest at that moment. A lead story in the print edition will definitely be the lead story online, if only for a few moments at least.

But do magazine publishers treat their websites as exact copies of their print editions? Not necessarily. A magazine may consider its interview with Tom Hanks, for instance, as their lead print story, while going with something more current and newsworthly online, saving the celebrity interview for print only.

Handing over the creation of a tablet publication to someone you think has "digital" experience may mean handing over the job to someone who has only thought "web". The result is that many new tablet apps are basically new ways to read the product's website. They are, in essence, replica editions of the web.

What I find fascinating about mobile and tablets are that they are both new territories for exploration by media companies, yet they are most assuredly unique products, deserving their own consideration. Yet there continues to be a tendency by many publishers to frustratingly demand that only the device has changed, the content or its presentation need not change. This mistake is being made just as often by "digital" people as it is "print" people.

I think this explains the outright resistance many digital media gurus have had to creating tablet editions. These media writers have become as wedded to the web the way some some people have accused editors and publishers of being too print oriented. What is that old phrase about the pot calling the kettle ...

Here is an interview with Matthew Carlson, principal of experience strategy and design at Hot Studio Inc., that appeared yesterday on the O'Reilly Media area of the Forbes website.

There is much here I agree with – but I also find it interesting that Carlson points to new tablet products that are really, in essence, new ways to package web content. In the end, I think Flipboard and Zite will influence web design far more than they will tablet "magazines". Why? Because a true magazine is the product of a publishing vision (like that of Hoodgrown, seen above), not an aggregation of content. I think there is room on tablets for both kinds of products, and more.