After consuming The New York Times in its web-based digital editions for several years, I read an actual Sunday paper edition recently. It made me think about the advantages and disadvantages of digital and print media, and about two key challenges that digital media hasn’t yet solved: news as real estate, and tactile sharing.
Digital news products have lots of advantages over print: they’re faster and more timely. They eliminate paper waste. They simplify the archiving and finding of news and information. They enable customizable, highly interactive versions of news from multiple sources. They make it extremely easy to share news with people far away.
I once helped IBM tell the story of new prototypes for personal computers, and one prototype from more than a decade ago was an electronic newspaper. Tablets have now solved much of this problem, but I remember what a colleague, the industrial designer David Hill, told me about print newspapers – that they had a user interface developed over hundreds of years, and it was a highly portable and efficient design. Website design has improved enormously in 20 years, but digital editions do not yet offer the expansive, wide-open-real-estate, open-choice display environment of a newspaper that is 2 feet wide by 2 feet tall (61 by 61 centimeters). Digital editions also make it harder to share a story with someone across the table, and make it impossible for one person to read the opinion section, while another person reads the sports section. Digital news products enable a virtual conversation, but they complicate an in-person conversation.
The layout editors of print editions still have the ability to convey the value and importance of news by size and placement. Identifying importance and priorities in a digital edition is more difficult. Stories are still usually presented as lists, and the headlines all tend to run together, and it’s difficult for me as a reader to determine what’s important.
Both of these problems appear imminently solvable. The diagonal measurement of a print newspaper is about 32 inches (81 centimeters). High-resolution monitors are already close to that size, but a touch interface comes close to making the physical size irrelevant. You can use fingers to swipe, pan, and zoom in on stories. As for the sharing and passing-back-and-forth of sections, it may be dependent on each person holding a tablet. But right now, digital news makes it easier to share a news link with someone across the world than to hand a story across the table.
This is my viewpoint as a news consumer. Khoi Vinh, former design director of The New York Times, examines this topic regularly on his website, subtraction.com. He addresses these challenges from the viewpoint of a news producer in a September 2010 lecture in the “Freitag am Donnerstag” series in Zurich.