There used to be a time when I could claim that I was thoroughly acquainted with current affairs. Pick up a topic for conversation from a newspaper within the past few weeks and chances were that I’d read about it and had an opinion or two. (That pretty much was my job when I did a gig at Youthpad as content writer/editor.) I read newspaper(s) from cover-to-cover; it was a ritual for me – an activity I used to set aside time for in my daily schedule. I was proud of the fact that I wasn’t one of the ignorant, unwashed punters who have no clue when a news reporter asks them for a sound bite. Whatever happened to that me? I no longer read newspapers and I’m barely aware of what’s going on in the world!
I’m not acting differently from many others when I say I read most news online these days. How do I discover the content I read? Mainly, through Twitter / Facebook shares, Reddit links, and blogs I follow. Yet, I’m starting to think this might be a fundamentally flawed model for news discovery. That Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist? Yeah. His 5000-word magnum opus carries as much weight in my Google Reader list as that funny picture of a cat speaking in misspelled English reblogged on Tumblr. I’m subject to whatever catches the fancy of masses. The range of people I follow ensures practically any article that ‘goes viral’ in topics I may be interested shows up in my timeline yet it feels like living in a bubble of opinions.
Every other full moon, I get fed up of this ‘more of the same’. I resolve to set aside half-an-hour daily to read all sections of an aggregator like Yahoo! News or a newspaper’s website (usually The Guardian or The New York Times, because I’m a liberal hipster like that). I could probably spend that much time daily anyway, can’t I? I could stop being at the mercy of what everyone else thinks is cool and discover things myself!
This love affair seldom lasts long. Say I start off with ‘Top Stories’ or ‘Most Popular’, I read an article about the latest iDevice from Apple. Cool. I click through to ‘Technology’. Same article again, but to be fair it is a technology-related news item so I let it slide. Click through to ‘Business’…and the same article is there again, just with a lower importance now because it’s only tangentially related. The more I try to scan through sections, the more I find an incestuous spiderweb of hyperlinked sameness. Hey, it’s great if you only read a select few sections knowing that you’ve lesser risk of missing out news that affects you but if you do read multiple sections, it’s easy to become bored quickly.
Last weekend, I was about to catch a train and wanted to keep myself occupied for the hour-long journey ahead of me, so I bought a real printed newspaper. I didn’t want to read articles on my phone as I was heading for a night out and I needed my battery to last. And thus it was on that train journey reading my copy of i by The Independent that I realised why I years ago I enjoyed reading newspapers I could hold in my hands. There is an editorial voice doing the heavy-lifting of deciding which news stories get importance, how many words to go with it, the adequate amount of text inserts to explain jargon. It is just so simple scan a physical printed page. Guess what? Stories aren’t repeated either! I can flip from Page 3 to Technology to Business without needed to read an the article that’s related to all them categories thrice. Fancy an article? You can just read it. Your eyes just glide along the page. No tapping. No pinch-to-zoom.
I know how I sound right now. What I’m trying to communicate is how much less hassle it was easily being able to read an article about rugby or a reality TV show fluff article if it caught my fancy when I skim-reading on paper, whereas on a website I may have never visit those sections. I don’t know about you, but paradoxically I find that when I visit news websites on consecutive days, I’m more likely to find the same articles on digging even slightly deeper than the highlighted articles. This is when a printed newspaper is consistently different each day! Whether this is a calculated move to position the latter as a ‘premium’ product or not, you would expect websites to be more volatile.
Yet, much like that baby in the video above playing with an iPad, I too felt annoyed. When I read something interesting, I found it frustrating that I couldn’t look up previous or related news stories. I wanted to poke my newspaper with a stick. Why didn’t it move? Why can’t I switch to a YouTube video of an adorable baby in the middle of reading a dispatch from Tripoli? Entertain me! ENTERTAIN ME!
In the digital world, everything is ‘content’. E-papers. Blogs. Webcomics. Pulitzer Prize-winning journal articles. Reddit. This ‘content’ is not to be analysed and digested, but to be ‘consumed’. You can make it look pretty by swapping out Google Reader with Pulse Reader or Flipboard but the user experience feels like a repetitive chore. Tap. Scroll scroll scroll. (Do you have any idea how many scrolls it takes to finish a respectable-length longform article?) Hit back button. Scroll scroll scroll.
Take Pulse Reader, the current gold standard for aggregation apps which in its iPad avatar was praised by Steve Jobs himself in a keynote presentation. Beautifully designed app. Seems great when you play with it for a while. Where it all breaks apart for me is that it expects me to add news sources, and then scan stories myself to see what interests me. If I add both Techcrunch and Ars Technica, or Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, I then have to weed out duplicate stories myself. This isn’t a shortcoming of just Pulse Reader as much as it is an Achilles heel for a majority of aggregation apps. The illusion of ‘beautiful aggregation’ also falls apart when every now and then Pulse’s parser messes up in correctly determining article bylines too.
News Republic adopts a different approach. This app lets you select topics you want to follow and displays relevant news stories. This approach takes care of the duplication issue…except News Republic only shows items from wire services such as Associated Press and PR Newswire. Not the cream-of-the-crop sources, so only good for a quick summary of trending news stories.
I quote these two apps as examples as they cover the two main aggregation models being pursued currently. What I really want is a Google News style mashup of the two: let me choose my favourite sources from a list, and then display the ‘best’ article for a particular news story from one of them. To be fair, Google News does this already…but without a thoroughly compelling user experience on mobile platforms beyond ‘a list of blue links’. Google News is the closest thing I’ve found to what I desire, except when its algorithm makes a boo-boo like filing ‘Passengers stuck on a plane for eight as Gatwick Airport’ under ‘Entertainment’. Amusing it may be for our robot overlords, but such glitches leave a sour taste in my mouth – wishing there was human editorial oversight, or a smarter algorithm. I wonder why no startup has taken a crack at this idea. Even if such an app does exist or is developed in the future, that still doesn’t solve the repetitive tap-scroll-back-rinse-repeat user experience most content apps tend to have.
I’m starting to see measurable benefits in going back to reading news on cut-down trees. There’s a small hiccup though: subscribing to a newspaper, compared to the free lunch of web content that I’ve become habituated to, seems prohibitively expensive! A yearly subscription of The Guardian will cost me 372 per year…
…or, The Independent will cost me upwards of £600 a year!
That’s almost as much I would budget to visit 2-3 countries (which is the only metric I resort to off late as a benchmark for expensive purchases). I’m not surprised because good content does cost money to produce. You still have to concede this seems expensive! I wonder whether showing ads for Samsung Galaxy Tab or something else equally banal on The Guardian‘s Android app earns them as much money as subscriptions.
I’d love to meet midway – perhaps with a weekly magazine subscription which often costs not more than £100 a year…except that there are practically no weeklies in the UK. Unlike in the US, where there are so many choices like Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Slate, et al. The only (half-hearted) attempt is Guardian Weekly, which doesn’t appeal to me as due to its lifestyle-focussed content. I would take well-written, analytical long form articles (Longreads.org is currently one of my top news sources) any day over linkbait crap that the news industry loves so much these days. Please, I don’t want to read Huffington Post rehashes typed out by monkeys on thousands of keyboards around the world.
I am going to try an experiment starting this week: to pick up a newspaper each day and see if I can fit daily reading into my schedule. What do you folks feel? Do you find yourself equally out of touch with current happenings, or your reading habits altered by a never-ending stream of (free) web content?
When I was a kid, Hindustan Times used to have a weekly supplement called HT Next. It used to be all of four pages and pure awesome. I still remember how one of its very first editions carried a review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone long before the series became cool. It used to have exclusive sneak peaks on upcoming shows on Cartoon Network’s ‘Toonami’ (back when it was good). The last page was dedicated to an eclectic range of trivia: origins of weird idioms, odd bits of India to visit, ‘cool’ scientific discoveries out of the pages of Popular Science. I think that’s how I fell in love with trivia quizzing.
There used to be weekly quiz on the last page from current affairs and trivia. Boy, did I love that. Prizes were usually Tekson’s Bookshop vouchers and I spent every one of those blank cheques building my Tintin and Calvin & Hobbes collection. :D Later on, Teksons withdrew its sponsorship and was replaced by Orient Longman (publishers). Orient Longman, cheapskates that they were, used it as a channel to clear off their stock. Over time I accumulated books on: an analysis of the mathematical constant e (yes, a whole fucking book on it), history of Indian cuisine, a field guide to butterflies and moths of south-west India, innumerable short story and poem anthologies. Also, every single time with this random crap I also got The Orient Longman Learners’ Dictionary. Every. Single. Time. This got to the point that I when I met friends at school I used to go “Ay! You’re my bro! Here, take a free dictionary.” (Nobody seemed to mind because a notice had been issued asking all students to buy a dictionary.)
Still, I looked forward to every trip with my dad to Hindustan Times‘ headquarters at Kasturba Gandhi Marg to collect my prize. I remember how thrilled I was as a kid the first couple of times I visited to get issued a visitors’ pass and OH MY GOD I’M INSIDE THE HEADQUARTERS OF A NATIONAL NEWSPAPER! Oh, and as I progressed further along in school, approaching high school, I also noticed how drop-dead cute the woman who was in-charge at HT Next for meeting us quizzers was.
HT Next in its first avatar was so delightfully quirky! (I think I was a hipster even when I was twelve-years-old.) I collected every single edition and did in fact have them around for many years until we moved houses. Its next avatar – one which exists to this day – was as a stripped-down and slightly customised version of the main Hindustan Times edition. I read that in school, and come back home to read Times of India. Later, when our school switched loyalties to give us Times of India subscriptions instead, I read that in school and came back home to read Hindustan Times and The Hindu. (The Hindu carried the best crosswords out of any Indian newspapers in those days.)
I collected interesting articles I came across in these newspapers by filing away news clippings in folders. I had a pretty extensive collection running into hundreds of articles spanning many folders over the years. Yet, when you think of it now it’s so hard to file away a news story for long-term archiving! You only have to visit a Wikipedia article linking back to news articles from 90s to encounter broken links. Articles lost from easy discovery, perhaps forever, due to inevitable switches of content management systems at news sites. Archival and discovery of good news content is fundamentally broken in today’s web-centric distribution model.
I know I don’t have as much free time these days to read multiple newspapers or to start a news clipping collection, but at some level my present desire to read printed form newspapers is to capture that magic from my childhood again – of being able to read good content in an easy-to-digest form whenever, wherever.