The Context of Content, in the Back of a Fast-moving Cab

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I was reading The Wall Street Journal in a cab on a BlackBerry just now and I realised what’s wrong with print media. It still hasn’t got that not everything is going to be read in a newspaper.

See this story about Gordon Brown. It might look good as the main story on the front page, but it looks and reads all wrong pretty much anywhere else:

U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, beset by scandals and sniping from within his own party, on Wednesday faced a battle for political survival just two years after ascending to the country’s top post.

Mr. Brown’s fortunes, already slumping in recent months amid Britain’s deep recession, have spiraled downward in recent days, hit by a series of political nightmares. Several top officials in the government of Mr. Brown’s ruling Labour Party have been caught up in the embarrassing revelations about dubious expenses claimed by U.K. politicians of all stripes.

And it goes on it that vein for another dozen paragraphs. They’e all good paragraphs—I know, I’ve written or edited hundreds like them over 20 years–earnestly written and no doubt earnestly edited by a bevy of subs. But they’re not contextual to me, in the sense that they’re not how I want to get my information bumping along in a cab driven by a guy arguing with his wife on the phone at 10 pm on a Thursday evening.

Why not? Well, the truth is that this style of writing—thoughtful, ponderous, with lots of subordinate clauses–is stuck in the dark ages of journalism. Valiant efforts at freshness—beset, sniping, political survival, ascending, top post, fortunes, slumping, amid, spiraled, downward, hit, political nightmares, caught up, embarrassing revelations, dubious, all stripes—sound turgid and forced, merely highlighting how far journalistic writing has departed from the way that we speak.

Not that we ever really spoke like this, but in the old days it didn’t matter. Because then news was scarce, and us journalists were like monks/nuns or doctors, permitted our own way of communicating. And the pomposity of a newspaper somehow made pompous language more fitting.

But nowadays this sort of writing just looks, frankly, archaic. And because it’s so far from the way we speak, it is unsuited for the way that we likely read it—on BlackBerrys, on the net, on scrolling tickers, on Tweetdeck.

The language of journalism, in short, needs to catch up with the fact that we consume it now in dozens of different ways. A self-respecting radio or TV editor would re-write copy so it sounds realistic when spoken. Why is the same not being done for newspaper content?

Contextualized content—in every sense–is the future of media, I have no doubt. But some of that has to do with making the actual content something that is suited to the device upon which it’s being absorbed. A smart editor should be rewriting this stuff so that it sits well on the devices it is being pushed to.

The value of content lies, in part, in its sensitivity, for want of a better word, to the environment in which it is devoured (OK, consumed, but I try to avoid that word.)

If you don’t believe me try reading a good blog post on a portable device, and then compare it to something like the above.

U.K.’s Brown Faces Battle for Political Survival – WSJ.com

Another News Map

Probably not very new this, but I love it as a way to get a sense of how the traditional print media are presenting the day’s news around the world: Newseum

“Today’s Front Pages” is an online presentation of one of the Newseum’s most popular exhibits. Every morning, more than 300 newspapers from around the world submit their front pages to the Newseum via the Internet.

Excellent stuff. Here’s an interview with the guy behind newsmap and the guy behind Buzztracker, and a short excerpt from the piece I wrote on the two in May. And here’s a piece from today’s Christian Science Monitor’s Jim Regan on the approach.

A Wake, And A Wake-Up Call

Just got back from a ‘wake’ for the Far Eastern Economic Review, which, after 58 years, went monthly last October under the ownership of my employer, Dow Jones. I won’t get into the politics of that decision, but it did occur to me, listening to some eminent former FEER personnel talking this evening, that three things go into a publication like FEER, if you ignore distribution, financing, marketing and the non-editorial side. And it’s worth considering, from a blogger’s point of view.

First is material. You’ve got to have good material. Not just off-top-of-head stuff like this, but real material, gotten by use of footwear, dialling numbers or other forms of real digging.

Second, editing. Common wisdom is that material is no good if it’s not written and edited well. This includes writing style — an important part of traditional media that sucks up a lot of the whole publishing process.

Third, production. I’m an editor right now. A lot of our time is spent on layout, fitting stories to length and making everything look nice.

If you look at this from a post-print, blogging perspective, only the first remains a necessity. Editing? If we can write ok, who cares if it’s brilliantly written? I think it was Paul Graham who characterised as incongruous some NYT reporting when read in a blogging context. Print media need to look closely at how stories are written and why they’re written that way, and ask: Does it need to be like that anymore?

The last thing: production. Blogs, by their nature, involve very little production. In fact, part of the beauty of blogging is not just the lack of effort in producing something (write it up, post it. If it needs editing again, edit it), but in the fact that it looks good on the page. Blogs, well most blogs, actually have strong production values built in. It’s hard for a blog not to look nice on the page. Some look wonderful, really very aesthetically pleasing. At worst they look like this, a bog-standard TypePad template I’m too lazy to change. But who cares? You’re probably reading it in a RSS reader anyway, or using GreaseMonkey to tweak the formatting. (Then there’s efforts at standardising this sort of thing a little more, like StructuredBlogging.)

The bottom line is: Blogging is a powerful publishing force, not just a voice. Blogging has established a way to publish on the net and be noticed, without huge capital and design resources. Traditional media need to look at that and realise that the battle is not going to be over allocating resources to the second and third elements of the game I mentioned above, but the first. It’s going to be about material. It’s not going to be about the medium. Blogging — and the Internet — has already won that round.

Hardware: Printing On a Napkin

 A printer the size of a mouse that can print on anything? Sounds too good to be true?  Well, er, it is — for now. But it could happen as soon as some manufacturers start putting together PrintDreams’ technology. This is what it should look like:
 
 
(Not the pen, silly.)
 
PrintBrush “has the length of a normal ballpoint pen while its width and height are more or less equivalent to the width of a modern mobile phone. The total volume is less than 300 c.c. and weights around 350 grams. This first version of PrintBrush? was designed to roughly fit into a shirt pocket while it still remains a clear potential for size and weight reduction in coming versions that will allow an even more comfortable fit. Internet content, SMS, pictures and other information is downloaded to the PrintBrush? from PDAs, mobile phones and laptop computers through a Bluetooth? wireless link. Then, by following the RMPT? principle, the device is hand operated by sweeping it across any type of print media, no matter its shape, size or thickness. The printout will then start to appear right behind the sweeps.”