iPad Apps: The Future of Journalism?

Well, the iPad’s been out for a couple days and already there’s a batch of newspaper and magazine apps available. So… are they the future of journalism?

Engadget reviews nine of them and finds plenty to gripe about. They find many with gestures that are “totally alien” to the iPad, or are otherwise slow, buggy, and lacking basic features. Of the batch, their favorites are Thomson Reuters News Pro, Associated Press, and BBC News. On the other hand, they describe Popular Science as “a drug-addled science fiction nightmare.”

Brad Colbow has a video review on the art direction of several iPad magazine apps. He likes Popular Science, but finds the apps from GQ and Time to feel “a little bi-polar” because their layouts and functionality change so much when the iPad is rotated between landscape and portrait orientations.

What many publishers are struggling with, asides from revenue and subscription models, is how they want readers to interact with their content. Do they want to provide an experience similar to their printed editions? Do they want to create a custom, ownable and branded, interaction experience? Or do they want it to feel like other iPad applications?

Unfortunately they’re not giving readers any extra insights into the news, or even a compelling reading experience. The stories aren’t cross-linked to earlier articles, external sources, or online discussions. The apps feel like walled gardens, with publishers trying to keep the rest of the world out. They don’t take into account the reader’s location at the moment they’re reading. They don’t consider the readers personal preferences or social networks, or any other data the reader may want to share. If anything, they feel like fancy PDF readers.

Last year Matt Thompson wrote an insightful article, The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, on the shortcomings of newspaper journalism. He talks about getting away from the “what just happened” style of reporting, and instead providing more information about longstanding facts, how journalists know those facts, and the uncertainties of what the writer doesn’t know. Google Lab’s Living Stories project, while no longer active, was a valiant attempt to communicate news with related back stories and context. It would be great to resurrect this with an iPad version.

It’s great to see so much interest by publishers in iPad apps. But they should be more willing to make radical changes and reinvent themselves. They need to design new and innovative ways of communicating. They need to give readers the power to navigate and explore stories in any depth they wish. If the iPad really is going to be the rebirth of publishing, then publishers need to do something new.

Google, Living Stories (2009-10)