Again, a newspaper PDF experiment is fatally flawed

Written by Adrian Holovaty on March 2, 2005

My alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has announced an experimental "new electronic newspaper format." Called EmPRINT, it is a weekly digital edition of the Columbia Missourian newspaper that is downloadable as a 5-10 megabyte file and is "intended as a digital publishing standard," with "magazine-size page forms that open in full-screen view to provide a visually rich, comfortable reading experience."

Basically, it's a glorified PDF file.

I started a long list detailing why I don't like EmPRINT, but I scrapped it. Instead of taking the easy way out by raising standard PDF criticisms -- no permalinks to articles, bad accessibility, nonstandard browsing, etc. -- I'll just say this: EmPRINT is fundamentally flawed because its presentation is fundamentally tied to print newspapers. That is, it's static. Flat. Rigid. It looks the same and acts the same no matter what you do to it.

It is no more interactive than a print publication. Just replace "flip the page" with "click a link."

Get the difference? A print-newspaper journalist tries to guess the dozen-or-so pieces of information that people might want to know, freezing the facts into a flat, unbendable package. (Meet EmPRINT.) But a Web-savvy journalist tries to anticipate the hundreds of ways people will want to slice, dice and use information, and creates the infrastructure that makes it happen.

It's the difference between a flat-text schedule of sporting events (like EmPRINT has) and a deep schedule/stats database that lets me click a team, get full stats and compare players' performances on the fly. It's the difference between a flat list of marriage licenses and a searchable database that lets me type in a person's name and corrects common misspellings.

That's what Web news is all about. A newspaperman deals in information dictation; a Web journalist deals in information discovery. EmPRINT lets me look at information, but it doesn't let me explore it.

UPDATE, March 7: Don't miss the EmPRINT print ad.

Comments

Posted by Scott Johnson on March 2, 2005, at 2:18 a.m.:

If created correctly, PDF files can have permalinks to specific locations withing the document. And any you should be able to link to a particular page of ANY PDF. See this Adobe Support page for more info.

Posted by Gary Love on March 2, 2005, at 4:25 a.m.:

Personally, I can't understand why anyone would want to pour so much work into these "good ol' days" projects. In the "good ol' days" we had control over exactly when/how everyone received their news. In the "good ol' days" we were able to deliver the exact same product to everyone. In the "good ol' days" we were the only ones in this business. Somehow, I don't see how those days were any good for the readers...and I don't understand how the EmPRINT product better serves them.

Posted by Joe Clark on March 2, 2005, at 9:46 a.m.:

PDFs can be reasonably accessible to many disabled groups, but not always, and it takes some work.

Posted by Wilson Miner on March 2, 2005, at 11:27 a.m.:

Adrian, I think you made some very insightful distinctions between print and web content. Obviously both media have their advantages, and their audience. Print does some things very very well, a lot of which can't be done well on the web. And vice versa. But it's frustrating (as a recipient and a participant) to see so much effort repeatedly going into trying to force the weaknesses of one media into another. If more cross-media companies (and who isn't anymore) really recognized the unique character of both media spent more time playing to the strengths of each, we'd all benefit.

Posted by Chris on March 2, 2005, at 2:06 p.m.:

Adrian, great summation on the differences between the two media...

Yet another drawback to PDF, or PDF-like, distribution is its read-only nature.

As I'm sure anyone who passed through Lee Hills Hall knows, the Missourian's motto is 'community, community, community.'

What if I'd like to comment on an EmPRINT article, as I am on this very blog entry. I guess I could write an e-mail to the editor, and it could be selected from the many they'd receive and 'published' in the next 'edition' of the 'site'.

[grin]Where have I heard of that before?[/grin]

Let me know when your next edition of holovaty.com comes out so I can see if my 'letter to the EdiTOR' got published :-)

Posted by anonymous on March 2, 2005, at 8:08 p.m.:

>>Personally, I can't understand why anyone would want to pour so much work into these "good ol' days" projects.

Because in the good ol' days, it was cheaper, easier and people were will to pay for your hard work. Now everyone wants more and it better be free.

Posted by Brendan Watson on March 2, 2005, at 10:03 p.m.:

Disclosure: I am a research assistant working on this project.

That said, I take issue with calling it "rigid" and especially "flat." Clearly this demonstrates that you have not actually spent anytime with the product. If you were correct that it was the standard PDF file, you'd be right. But that's what cool. You're not. It is a dynamic document, which has a high level of interactivity. It doesn't have all the features of the web, but it also preserves some of the high-end reading experience that you loose when reading online.

Also, this doesn't seek to replace any other media, least the web (on which EmPRINT relies for distribution). It is simply another option in a range of products that will be offered to readers in the future. I urge you to download an edition or so and actually spend time with it before you draw further conclusions. I can respect that not everyone will like it, but please at least inform yourself on it and some of its non-standard PDF attributes (layered content, video and audio).

Though the live version won't go up until Sunday, there is a prototype at http://digmo.com/digital/.

Posted by Adrian on March 2, 2005, at 11:24 p.m.:

Brendan: I did indeed download the prototype version and spend time with it before I wrote this article. (I didn't link to it because I wasn't sure whether that link was supposed to be publicly known.) Looking at the entry now, I realize I didn't make that clear, and I apologize for that.

Just to be safe, I looked at it again just now. My opinion hasn't changed.

Posted by Brendan Watson on March 2, 2005, at 11:43 p.m.:

Thanks for clarifying that, and sorry for jumping to the conclusion that you hadn't read it.

Posted by Brian Hamman on March 3, 2005, at 1:47 a.m.:

Adrian,

I hear your criticism of pdf, but I don't know that we should discount the idea of static content. As Brendan said (Full disclosure: I'm having lunch with him tomorrow, and I also worked on Emprint) Emprint isn't supposed to replace online news, but to supplement it.

I firmly believe, and I've said elsewhere at length that an edited and designed edition has some value. It has bounds. It allows for a serendipity of experience, and it's comfortable.

I should point out that Emprint is based off of New Sunday, a weekly magazinish publication filled with longform content that asks a bit more time and patience of the reader. The Emprint idea isn't necessarily intended for daily quick-hit stories.

The key to any digital edition is that it offers a constrained, comfortable reading environment. While interactive content facilitates in-depth personal information retrieval, it doesn't yet do well at offering a serendipitous, enjoyable reading experience. I personally use the Internet when I want information. When I want to just sit and read and learn something, I choose a magazine, newspaper, or book.

Sometimes a database is nice -- when you know what you're looking for -- and sometimes a dozen links are nice -- when you want to learn a lot more. But sometimes I just want to finish something.

It makes me feel smart.

Posted by Andrew Dupont on March 4, 2005, at 12:01 a.m.:

When I was the online editor at the Daily Texan, the people from newsstand.com gave us a demo and wanted us to sign a contract. I was decidedly unimpressed, as were others.

It was much like the way you describe EmPRINT — they kept talking about the great things this "digital edition" could do, while I kept thinking to myself, "Isn't this just a glorified PDF?" It's a solution in search of a problem, in my opinion — anyone who wanted our content could visit us online, and anyone who wanted a print version could go outside and pick it up for free at one of about a million kiosks in the Austin area.

The only reason I think the idea has survived is because it sounds cooler than it actually is. (My boss ended up signing with newsstand.com after I'd graduated — I was no longer around to drag my feet.)

Posted by Beth Lawton on March 4, 2005, at 2:39 p.m.:

I feel that unless I really wanted to read this particular newspaper paper at a specific Web-inaccessible time (while on an airplane, for example), the chances of me downloading this daily - even weekly- are limited. With a well-designed Web site with easily accessible PDF or printer-friendly versions, and/or with a good deadwood distribution network, this doesn't seem necessary. On the other hand, this seems like a step in the right direction for smaller screens, such as PDAs. Is that what it was formed for initially? What was the motivation for creating this? I'd love to see some of the research.

Posted by From the future on March 4, 2005, at 10:43 p.m.:

You're all about to see another shift in the internet. The shift will involve the movement away from websites over to relevant downloadable material. It is called the semantic internet and it involves the removal of spammy websites from the first pages of search engines. Those slots will now be filled with relevant information in its numerous formats. Blogs will go the same way as reality TV. Fun at the time, but easily forgotten by people that need substance.

This product although limited is a step toward where you are headed. Get used to it.

https://print.google.com/publisher/

Posted by Splashman on March 5, 2005, at 2:12 a.m.:

"You're all about to see another shift in the internet . . ."

Hahahahahahahahahahaha!

So much fodder for parody, so little time. OMG, "Blogs will go the same way as reality TV." Is that really what they think on your planet? Your real name wouldn't happen to be Dan "superscript" Rather, would it?

Thanks for the belly laugh.

Posted by From the Future on March 5, 2005, at 12:11 p.m.:

CBS will regret my firing... ;-)

Posted by Adrian on March 7, 2005, at 12:24 a.m.:

Hey, From the Future -- You wouldn't happen to be John Titor, would you?

Posted by Aaron Bailey on March 7, 2005, at 1 a.m.:

Question to those who think EmPRINT is a good idea (and I'm merely asking): If I really like an article in the paper and want to tell all my friends about it, how do I do that? I could email/IM them the entire 10MB file. I could print it out and fax the page(s) to them. Or is there an easier way?

Posted by Adrian on March 7, 2005, at 1:15 a.m.:

Brian: I read your article on the need for editions, and I enjoyed it.

In my opinion, you're right. I'm sure the concept of an edition, with a starting point and an end point, is ideal to some people. EmPRINT does indeed solve that problem, but it creates a bunch of other ones.

However, as I'm a bit of a technological optimist, I believe the concept of editions that you advocate, and the more interactive features that I and others advocate, are not mutually exclusive. This discussion has got me thinking about how we can fuse the two concepts for readers who are interested, and I thank you for that.

Posted by Brian on March 18, 2005, at 1:41 p.m.:

Adrian,

Glad I got you thinking. Seems that post caught the attention of a few people. If you have some thoughts on this, I'd be interested in hearing them. I agree that the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but I'm at a loss at what a combination might look like. In my mind, it may require some automated editionizing -- or automated un-editionizing. But neither of those options sounds very appealing.

Anyway, I'm interested in where you've taken this.

Posted by TIm on March 29, 2005, at 3:19 p.m.:

On thing about Newsstand.com and emprint. It is more about business than being pretty and easy. Note(Newsstand is coming out with a web version of their standard custom PDF reader) Execs at newspapers get it as it counts as paid circulation. The newspaper audit system of giving them circ numbers which guides the ad rates allows direct representations of the newspaper to count as subscritpions. At my paper we use Newsstand.com. we do have subscribers , a good number of them for it. It is used as gift subscriptions for college and military. Home town paper look and feel. Politicians from this area in the Capital have multiple subscriptions as they can watch what is in the printed paper.

It is not for every one but as it is created as a by product of Printing paginated pages through a postscript RIP there is no extra work done to publish it. The tools in Acrobat distiller makes all email and URL links active on the pdf to send readers online for more info. We started putting links in print stories and in ads so the users of the PDF had a deeper experinece. It keeps selling. But it is just another way to publish content. Print, online, PDF, Mobile. The same data , sliced and diced another way. Every reader can pick there method of delivery. And they pay for it.

Posted by Gob Bluth on April 1, 2005, at 11:49 a.m.:

One thing about EmPRINT--its key strength and weakness is that it is not simply a PDF version of the print edition. The layout and design are tailored specifically for onscreen reading. The downside is that creating each edition of EmPRINT is pretty labor intensive. (I think a commenter either here or at Poynter.org made the same point about the LA Times prototype.)

It might be interesting to see an EmPRINT-like product that combined static and dynamic content from RSS feeds or perhaps more exotic varieties of web services. If you permitted a certain amount of user customization with the dynamic content that might considerably broaden the appeal of a product like this.

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