The newspaper was invented and gained traction because it solved a common user problem. People needed to share and consume information and keeping up to date with the goings-on in (and outside) of a community was not only tough, but, as the population grew, nearly impossible. In ancient Rome, the government took to posting the Acta, daily news briefs, in public places so people could stay up to date with political and social happenings without relying solely on word of mouth. The creation of a printed, periodical news brief increased the efficiency of communicating important events to a large population. People who previously didn’t have time to go around town to find out what’s new could simply stop off, read the paper and pretty quickly get a sense for what was happening around them.
As the world got bigger, the value of the newspaper rose as well. Instead of only needing coverage from our local communities, we now needed access to news from thousands of miles and, eventually, oceans away. This necessity not only propelled the publishing industry forward, but also technology (the printing press is easily one of the most important inventions of the 15th century). With each technological advance, trading information across vast distances became easier and easier. And although we discovered audio-visual ways to exchange news, the time-bound nature of radio and television just couldn’t compete with the asynchronous convenience of the printed page which can be consumed at the reader’s leisure.
Then, the Internet. Holy crap the Internet. That gigantic world of ours shrunk in a fraction of the time it had taken to expand. Large media conglomerates (in the form of the music, film and news industries) either disregarded or just weren’t savvy enough to be aware of just how earth-shattering a change the Internet brought with it. And once the revolution began (Napster is my personal inflection point), it wasn’t only impossible to stop, but it totally mystified and angered the established brands. What do you mean people are aggregating and exchanging news online for free? Why would people want their music and video on their computers? Instead of riding the wave, the media industries paddled against it. Even now, every forward step is a struggle as old media are dragged kicking and screaming onto the web.
This inability to detach from the old ways of news publishing is exactly what’s killing the industry now. Instead of solving user problems (like they did with the first newspaper), publications are instead solving publisher problems. That’s why you see so many newspaper web sites and mobile apps that look exactly like their physical counterparts. The question they’re attempting to answer isn’t “How has the medium changed our readers' content desires?” but rather “How can we shove all this content into a smaller space?”
The reality is that while smartphones have made accessing information more convenient, they’ve simultaneously created a rift in usage patterns. With so much more information at our fingertips, we actually have less time to filter and consume it than when we were simply browsing the daily paper or monthly magazine. Communicating broad swathes of information requires smaller, digestible chunks of data (with the option to dive deeper). On the other hand, narrowing the scope and number of articles makes room for an initially deeper experience. The thing is, newspapers and magazines as we know them do both simultaneously - we browse headlines casually and then read the articles that appeal to us, while also at times dedicating time to reading an entire section in full (the Sports section, for example). But in the end, this duality simply hasn’t been successful on the new medium. And instead of adjusting the way they disseminate information, publishers have insisted on simply shoehorning the current model through a smaller lens.
And that worked for awhile. I’d argue that’s only due to the tech industry focusing primarily on content aggregation rather than creation. Products like Google Search, Digg, Reddit, Flipboard, etc. are concerned with finding and displaying existing content either as a ranked list of what’s popular/relevant or as a revisualization of that content. They don’t compete directly with existing publishing orgs, in fact enhancing them by driving traffic and providing content-centric design where there is none. Pure aggregation, it turns out, serves to reinforce the existing models.
With Circa and The Magazine, however, a shift toward content curation and creation is emerging. With Circa, we’re finally seeing editorialized news delivery. Instead of just pulling RSS feeds from major news outlets and providing link lists, the folks at Circa take the time to curate and distill content. The result is a broad list of topics, each containing a limited number of bite-sized facts and information. Links to sources provide additional, deeper data, but are definitely not the primary (nor secondary, I’d say) display. The innovation here feels very obvious: Circa realize that if you want to go broad with your content, the display of that content needs to be shallow and digest-able, with the option to dive deeper. They treat news stories as living entities instead of articles, allowing for shorter, more focused bursts of information. Instead of giving you a 1500 word article on the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, they offer you the important bits of the story, updating with new small chunks as the story evolves. And now, with Push Notifications, story updates are as simple as text messages. Circa is, without a doubt, the mobile news app.
As for long-form articles, Marco Arment’s new publication, The Magazine, sets the new standard. In stark contrast to Circa’s broad-and-bite-sized approach, The Magazine chooses a narrow topic and provides a handful of focused, in-depth pieces (four in the first issue). Instead of having a stack of unread New Yorkers piling up in your living room (or on your Kindle, as I do), the tight and limited number of articles along with a reasonable, twice a month, update schedule make The Magazine feel, at the very least, possible to complete. Have ten minutes on the bus? Read an article. Do that twice a week and you’ll be ready for the next issue. The notion that we’d rather consume less (but complete what’s there) is refreshing.
This isn’t to say that publications like The New Yorker don’t provide quality content. Rather, it’s that the sheer amount and weight of that content is simply unsustainable (and honestly, more overwhelming) going forward. Editors must be more brutal and publications much more sharply focused. The hard, honest truth is that the news and magazine businesses, as they stand today, cannot and will not exist in the long-term. Rather, it will be publications like The Magazine and news resources like Circa that will define how we gather information and choose topics for deeper exploration. The era of the giant, mega-news-corp is slowly but surely giving way to smaller, focused and more nimble players. And while they busy themselves blaming the Internet and Google and the rise of mobile for their troubles, they’re falling further and further behind.