Want to see the future of journalism? Look to the past

Obvious, but worth stating – and highlighted in an arguably overly-critical piece on the new Los Angeles Times website redesign (which, bar the lack of swipe navigation on the “browse visually” section, I like well enough – my only complaint with the look of the thing being their terrible, boring choice of photo on nearly every story):

“much of the innovation touted here has the publication playing catch up. Everyone, it seems, particularly web-only news outlets, has been treating each story as a hook to come into their sites. And nearly everyone seriously in the game is mobile-first…

“The Times is on board with best practices as the online journalism world knows them today. It’s just that the winners in this fast-moving game will be moving the ball forward and taking risks with payoffs that can’t be foreseen but that will seem obvious in the future.

“The redesign is formulaic. If you took a class on digital journalism last year, the professor would have told you this layout is what works.

The obvious retort to which is a) “so what if it’s not a whole new thing?” and b) “who says that the pioneers win?”

The future of journalism / publishing doesn’t need to be radically different from what’s gone before. We shouldn’t need shiny bells and whistles to attract attention if the quality of the content is good enough and meets the needs of the audience.

There have arguably been only a few radical shifts in journalistic presentation over the centuries, and all have been technological: the printing press, the steam-powered printing press, radio, film, television, the Internet. These required radical shifts in thought – all else is just presentation. Don’t get me wrong: presentation matters. But it’s not the starting point.

The challenge with all journalism in all ages is in a) identifying your audience and b) providing your journalism in a format that meets the balance between cost effectiveness and convenience for both you and your audience.

Mobile first websites make sense not just because the web audience in most developed markets is moving mobile, but also because it reduces costs – no more double development for big screens and small, mouse and touch, as has been the case for the last decade or so. Potentially, if done right (as with Quartz) you can even do away with a separate app – a potentially vastly expensive undertaking that ties you into seemingly endless development cycles to catch up with each new update to iOS, Android, Windows Phone, or whatever the next big thing is.

The advent of mobile first design thinking over the last couple of years could finally give Internet journalism space to start working out the more important questions about funding and distribution. The tools could stop being the problem for the first time in twenty years of the web.

As with early print, the ink and the paper part has been more or less decided (database-driven back end, HTML/CSS front end). What’s not been worked out is the ideal size of the paper, or the ideal font / layout. And as with print, the ideal will vary depending on the purpose. A newspaper is not a novel or a photography magazine.

Early printing was constrained for decades by old ways of thinking – book sizes based on old hand-written manuscripts that were themselves based on the amount of useable vellum you could get out of a calf skin (a “quarto” manuscript being the size of a quarter calf skin), with fonts that were based on gothic scripts designed by monks for spectacle and constrained by how they could cut the feather quills they used for writing, not ease of reading. Later, the industry persisted with the broadsheet format – always impractical for readers – because it was cheaper to produce, because their machines had been built that way – because centuries after Guttenberg the printing press had barely evolved.

Even in this post-Guttenberg Internet age, what matters is maximising access to our content while minimising the cost of production, same as it always has been. That content may look a little different, with interactive infographics and HTML5 video and so on – but at its heart it’s not changed either. It’s still all just words and pictures, the same today as it was in the pre-Guttenberg days of monks lined up in candle-lit rooms, copying out vastly expensive manuscripts for the tiny minority who could afford them.

Meanwhile, the assumption that the pioneers win is a nonsense. The pioneers make the mistakes that those who follow after can learn from. Only a very few of the earliest settlers succeed – the Oregon Trail led to many more deaths than happy new prosperous lives.

Short version: the real debate of the future of journalism isn’t about style, it’s about technology and economics, same as it always has been.

We need to accept this – because constraints can be useful. Without constraints, the Internet is a blank canvas – but Mankind has always preferred to know where the boundaries lie.

A combination of money and tech can help us set those boundaries. Some will continue to push them outwards, but few ordinary people are interested in living on the frontiers. They prefer safe and familiar. The pioneers of new techniques and technologies should be lauded, but it is the settlers who come after that will make the new land liveable and viable in the long run.