Who says we're making progress?

Written by Adrian Holovaty on October 11, 2002

I got a huge kick out of Eric Ulken's E-Media Tidbits comment regarding the trend of newspapers posting PDFs of its print-edition layouts online:

I don't understand. We've made so much progress in new media. Why are we suddenly so interested in mimicking old media? The Web as we know it is a splendid interface -- hardly perfect, but it's getting better all the time. I have yet to hear any compelling reasons for replicating newspaper pages online. If a newspaper wants to distribute its pages in PDF format so people can print them, great. But why go to all this trouble to display newspaper pages (mid-sentence jumps and all) in a Web browser? If people weren't throwing so much money at this idea, I'd swear it was a joke.

I agree, Eric. The whole idea is bogus -- clearly invented in the twisted minds of newspaper and advertising executives who have no concept of the medium. They don't have a clue.

By the way: For a good laugh, check out gazette.com, which was kindly pointed out to me by Curt W. Its idea of innovation is slopping images of the print newspaper online. Funny thing is, they're serious about it; their user guide says, "Welcome to the Gazette, the future of online newspapers."


Posted by Jay Small on October 11, 2002, at 8:36 p.m.:

I'd think less of The Gazette's efforts if the digital replica were the only way to get articles from the newspaper. But it isn't.

What Freedom is doing in Colorado Springs is experimenting with a combination of a more "traditional" Web site (http://www.gazette.com/) and the full digital replicas of print editions enabled by Olive Software.

Olive's digital replicas do offer more than just page images a la PDF, though. Every element on the image is hot-spotted such that you can view individual articles in HTML or enlarged, digital replica formats.

Will it sell? I don't know. Is it the future of digital newspapers? I don't know. Would I want to use it with a 56k modem? Definitely, no.

But it does represent a much more dynamic way to handle archives of material that originated in print (yes, Olive and other vendors such as Cold North Wind offer these features for images pulled from microfilm archives, too). And anything that makes a printside publisher's eyes light up regarding new media -- as I suspect this type of functionality does -- isn't all bad.

So if nothing else, I give The Gazette credit for trying this alongside the expected Web site format, rather than trying to wholly replace one with the other.

Posted by Chris on October 11, 2002, at 10:30 p.m.:

I agree that this is an interesting idea that doesn't wholly turn me off at first glance. Perhaps there are ideas here that may be worked into future manifestations of the newspaper or magazine. For instance, I'm thinking about how this could be used with the movement to make digital displays as thin as paper. Perhaps a paper-thin, newspaper-sized display with something akin to The Gazette's experiment is what a paperless newspaper would look like. I just agree that The Gazette deserves some credit for trying something new. Maybe it won't work out, but we'll see.

Posted by Adrian on October 12, 2002, at 12:59 a.m.:

I like the idea of using this strategy for archives, as The Augusta Chronicle does. (And does it ever!)

Still, at this point in the Web's development, I think it's laughable to present a screenshot of the current newspaper, for navigation purposes, on a Web site that's being accessed mostly by traditional computer monitors.

If it is a good idea (and I agree it might be, given a new medium such as e-paper), its time will come.

Posted by Curt Wohleber on October 13, 2002, at 9:50 p.m.:

From what I can tell, the ActivePaper version is the only way to get the complete contents of the daily edition. The traditional web-page edition offers a scaled-down version of the daily edition, heavy on wire copy, with some stories inexplicably appearing in pop-up windows.

The technology is interesting and impressive. It beats threading microfilm spools or paging through old bound volumes, but it strikes me as a terrible way to keep informed of daily events. And gazette.com wants readers to eventually pay for the privilege of accessing news via a technology that combines the worst of the print and electronic worlds.

There might be a few lessons here--though it's tempting to simply conclude that management is simply clueless.

1. To get people to pay for online news you need to offer them something new and strikingly different. I'd argue that you need something better as well, but what do I know.

2. I'm guessing that someone, somewhere did some sort of ill-conceived user testing and found that at least initially people responded positively to the ActivePaper format. That may tell us about what's right with a lot of mainstream print news design and what's wrong with a lot of mainstream online news design, but it doesn't automatically follow that online news should endeavor to look just like newspapers.

Since I started writing this the PDF version of the Gazette's 1A centerpiece still hasn't finished downloading over my DSL connection.

Posted by Joel Abrams on October 15, 2002, at 3:48 p.m.:

One reader of the CSMonitor PDF edition complained that it was tough to read on his screen. But wait -- don't we put a lot of work into a version especially designed to be read on your screen - in HTML?

I think a PDF edition is a great product for printing out, so you can read a lot of a newspaper without staring at the screen, or use in places where the less-unwired among us can't access online content (the bathroom, the subway). In the case of the Monitor, it works well for our special circumstance that it's hard to get our print edition in a timely fashion.

Posted by John Paravantis PhD on September 12, 2003, at 1:30 a.m.:

I beg to disagree with many of those who wrote previously.

PDF editions of online papers are absolutely great. The entire daily issue may be downloaded at one swop. Such editions resemble the actual printed paper and thus are a lot more fun to read not to mention that they can be archived! Navigating through tens or hundreds of links to read the day's worth of news if awkward, to say the least.

Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all publish PDF editions on their website while the New York Times (and dozens of other papers) make PDF-like editions available through newsstand.com.

I bet you more newspapers will gradually make such online editions and will allow overseas readers to subscribe to any paper they like, worldwide.

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