May 7, 2012

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News rivers were a brilliant idea in the first place. Perhaps, now that at least one high-profile publisher has embraced them, the rest might follow. New York RiversBut first, some history, in the best chronological order I can muster —

  1. Sometime way back there, Dave Winer created rivers of news for the NY Times and the BBC (NYTimesriver.com and BBCriver.com). Being RSS-fed and in plain formatting, they loaded instantly, and were so Web 1.0+ compliant that they even looked great and loaded fast on phones (such as my Treo) that were not yet smart in the iOS/Android manner, or fed by 3+G data connections. Hoorays and encouragement flowed (non-ironically, since that’s what you’d expect) from everywhere but the very publications that benefitted from the free work that Dave did for them.
  2. The River of News, by Jeff Jarvis, in August, 2006.
  3. Newspapers 2.0, in October, 2006. It recommended ten things. Here is the last:, “Tenth, publish Rivers of News for readers who use Blackberries or Treos or Nokia 770s, or other handheld Web browsers. Your current home page, and all your editorial pages, are torture to read with those things. See the examples Dave Winer provides with rivers of news from the NY Times and the BBC. See what David Sifry did for the Day Fire here in California. Don’t try to monetize it right away. Trust me, you’ll make a lot more money — and get a lot more respect from Wall Street — because you’ve got news rivers, than you’ll make with those rivers.”
  4. A year later I repeated the list in Still at Newspapers 1.x.
  5. Future to Newspapers: Jump in a River, in August, 2007.
  6. The Future History of Newspages, in April, 2008.
  7. A Newspaper Progress Report, Sort of, in June 2010.

The BBC river is gone, but the Times‘ river is still going strong, and as good as ever. (Not that the Times is actually doing anything other than keeping its RSS feed alive. The river is Dave’s.) So is the very idea of the news river, which remains as uncomplicated and hyper-useful as the Web’s own uncomplicated original purpose (publishing, linking) and protocols.

But publishers are complicators, and for the most part have never understood the Net or the Web. Nor have they fully embraced its inherent simplicities, with the remarkable exception of RSS (which Dave made into Really Simple Syndication — a purpose that could not possibly be misunderstood by publishers, and which now brings up 4,270,000,000 results on Google).

The bigger and older the industry, the harder it is to make fundamental reforms, or to embrace disruption. Publishing, including newspapers, had been working the same way for many generations, so it has taken awhile for the obvious to sink in. But that’s what we see in Jason Pontin’s Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps, which is must-reading for everybody in the business. Its concluding paragraphs:

Today, most owners of mobile devices read news and features on publishers’ websites, which have often been coded to detect and adapt themselves to smaller screens; or, if they do use apps, the apps are glorified RSS readers such as Amazon Kindle, Google Reader, Flipboard, and the apps of newspapers like the Guardianwhich grab editorial from the publishers’ sites. A recent Nielsen study reported that while 33 percent of tablet and smart-phone users had downloaded news apps in the previous 30 days, just 19 percent of users had paid for any of them. The paid, expensively developed publishers’ app, with its extravagantly produced digital replica, is dead.

Here, the recent history of the Financial Times is instructive. Last June, the company pulled its iPad and iPhone app from iTunes and launched a new version of its website written in HTML5, which can optimize the site for the device a reader is using and provide many features and functions that are applike. For a few months, the FT continued to support the app, but on May 1 the paper chose to kill it altogether.

And Technology Review? We sold 353 subscriptions through the iPad. We never discovered how to avoid the necessity of designing both landscape and portrait versions of the magazine for the app. We wasted $124,000 on outsourced software development. We fought amongst ourselves, and people left the company. There was untold expense of spirit. I hated every moment of our experiment with apps, because it tried to impose something closed, old, and printlike on something open, new, and digital.

Last fall, we moved all the editorial in our apps, including the magazine, into a simple RSS feed in a river of news. We dumped the digital replica. Now we’re redesigning Technologyreview.com, which we made entirely free for use, and we’ll follow the Financial Times in using HTML5, so that a reader will see Web pages optimized for any device, whether a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. Then we’ll kill our apps, too.

An aside. I am a paid subscriber to a number of publications both on the Web and through Apple’s iTunes store. While I do appreciate being able to read them on the iPad in a plane or on a subway, I much prefer reading linky text to reading the linkless kind, on an electronic device. As Jason Pontin puts it earlier in his essay,

But the real problem with apps was more profound. When people read news and features on electronic media, they expect stories to possess the linky-ness of the Web, but stories in apps didn’t really link. The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, “walled gardens,” and although sometimes beautiful, they were small, stifling gardens. For readers, none of that beauty overcame the weirdness and frustration of reading digital media closed off from other digital media.

Now back to Dave, who today wrote this in River of News — FTW! —

Now while I have your attention, let me point in the next direction. Once you have a river, do something bold and daring. Add the feeds of your favorite bloggers and share the resulting flow with your readers. Let your community compete for readership. And let them feel a stronger bond to you. Then when you learn about that, do some more. (And btw, you’re now competing, effectively with your competitors, Facebook and Twitter. Don’t kid yourselves, these guys are moving in your direction. You have to move in theirs and be independent of them. Or be crushed.)
I wish I could work with the teams of the best publications. If that could happen, we’d kick ass. But I’m here on the sidelines giving advice that you guys take on very very slowly. It’s frustrating, because it’s been clear that rivers are the way to go, to me, for a very long time. A lot of ground has been lost in the publishing business while we wait. There’s a lot of running room in front of this idea. We can move quickly, if publishers have the will.

Please, this time, listen to the man. While you still can.

[Later...] Bonus link: Facebook social readers are all collapsing. HT to Euan Semple (@Euan) with this tweet.