If anyone can make the case that responsive design can save the news industry, it is Oliver Reichenstein, the innovative CEO & Designer of iA (Information Architects). His business took on the challenge of redesigning major media players in the German speaking world, such as Basler Zeitung, Berner Zeitung,Tagesanzeiger, and Zeit Online. In working so closely with the media, Oliver Reichenstein gained insight into both the importance of typography, and how the core concept of online journalism can influenced by responsive design.
You can see Oliver Reichenstein speak in person at the GEN News Summit in the session called "Responsive design for responsive news: towards a next generation of online journalism".
GEN: What is the value iA brings to the newsroom and journalism industry?
We have redesigned about 20 news sites since started in 2005. Through that, we have gained insight into a wide range of successful and unsuccessful news organizations. Few design agencies have as much experience in that realm as we do. How did we get there? iA was one of the first Web design agencies that put a strong focus on screen typography. Our unique know how in screen typography allowed us to bring news sites into a more readable form, at a time when most news sites were still torturing their users with 10 and 12 pixel fonts. What convinced both users and publishers of our designs was not prettiness or typographic geekery. Our websites performed better than their competitors. Focussing on typography is focussing on reading performance. And what is more important for the news reader than reading performance?
GEN: In a quote regarding your session "Responsive design for responsive news: towards a next generation of online journalism" (to be held at the GEN News Summit from 19 – 21 June 2013), you state “News design is not just how news looks, it is how news works. What, if not only the technological aspect but the core concept of online journalism were to become responsive?” Can you explain this idea in more detail?
Two years back, news organizations were hoping to get out of the troubles which digital caused through apps. This has not worked, as the problem with selling information is not a matter of finding the right packaging, but of creating a substantially different product. In today's markets, you can't keep your product as it is, package it differently, raise the price from free to X and expect to make a lot of money. And you definitely can not do this if your product is raw information that exists in abundance online.
Right now news organizations hope that responsive layouts with paywalls will do the trick. But again, responsive design is just the packaging, not the way news works – paywalls are just a higher price for the same product.
On the other hand, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit have done an excellent job at making news that is responsive, not just technologically and in term of responsive design, but responsive at its core. Remarkably, all three networks cover global, local, social and highly specialized news. What makes social media networks so efficient at publishing news?
- Whoever publishes news in social media channels does so not only expecting a response, he also acknowledges a certain personal responsiveness as a publisher. Being ready to discuss what you say is the media appropriate mindset for whoever publishes in a two way medium.
- Social media users do not only find news through their network, they also comment, save, and redistribute the information they read. In essence, 99% of all news sites still follow the authoritarian I-say-you-hear model. No news site that I know of offers a serious researching, reading, writing or archiving functionality. Why? Because printed news doesn't offer that functionality?
- News brands have an excellent readership community. This community has much more to offer than a being a passive wealthy target audience waiting (not) to be marketed to. Fews newspapers have managed to activate the excellent social network that reads them.
Who are some of the clients you worked with? What did the work entail?
The first big news organization that we worked for was Tamedia. We did a series of smaller publications in preparation for a bigger news project called newsnetz. Newsnetz was planned as a collaboration involving Basler Zeitung, Berner Zeitung, Tagesanzeiger. These newspapers in Switzerland were considering working together using one central newsroom. The central newsroom would distribute the core content to different regional newspapers. The regional newspapers would add content that was specific to the region. The challenge was how to convince these different newspapers to join forces, because each newspaper was afraid of losing its respective identity.
We suggested every newspaper should look as close as possible to the identity of the printed newspaper. Of course, by that we didn't mean to just offer a PDF version online of the print edition. Translating the print identity to the screen without it becoming useless was hard work. The combination of a strong core identity, and the synergy through the central newsroom that fed these newspapers saved cost and provided strong content to all the involved websites. Our design approach was crucial to convince the different newspapers to work together.
Early on we told all newspaper we work with to drop the redundant "Online" extension. By now, most newspapers have dropped the obsolete extension. But there always is an exception to the rule. In the ZEIT project we learned that Zeit.de had to be renamed to ZEIT ONLINE. How come? The newspaper had the problem that people thought it was a weekly online publication since the printed newspaper was a weekly newspaper. ZEIT ONLINE needed that extension to communicate that this was a news site that updated every couple of minutes, and not like the print edition or, like many Sunday newspapers, on a weekly schedule.
After the long project for DIE ZEIT we worked on iPad applications for Süddeutsche Zeitung and the magazine of Süddeutsche Zeitung. We actually started working on those before the iPad was out, so we used cardboard to get a feeling of reading distance and what font sizes we needed to use to make it work. Almost in parallel, we started working on an HTML 5 adaption for ZEIT ONLINE. After our experience with both approaches, native and HTML5, we soon understood that native apps were not the best environment for news. We also gained financial insight into app sales numbers from our own app: Soon after the launch we got overall top positions in pretty much every app store around the world. That gave us an idea of ideal App Store sales numbers. These ideal App Store sales numbers, globally accumulated through different App Stores, were great for us, but way too low for news publishers to ever make a decent profit selling news apps in local markets. For example, if you sold sixty apps in Switzerland in 2010 you made it to number one in the Swiss App Store. Given how difficult it is to get to that number one spot competing with games and Apple's own productivity apps, we saw early on that the hope of saving the news industry with the iPads or iPhones through the magic of the App Store was a massive joke. In the mean time prices have dropped in the App Store and the competition is tougher than ever. Our app is still performing well, but we don't sell information, we sell a writing tool.
Initially, we were just designing news. Over time, our involvement has become more strategic. Unfortunately, we don't do as much news design anymore even though there are offers. But these days, either the budgets are too low for us to get involved with new clients, or they don’t want to grant us access to the top decision makers, or they want to push us through a dodgy free pitch first. Fortunately we can choose our clients nowadays.
If apps will not save journalism, what are your thoughts therefore on the importance of mobile in the news industry?
As we have insight into the stats of some of our clients, we are seeing how mobile is becoming bigger and bigger these days. The smart phone has changed the game dramatically. People prefer their phones over their desktop computers. The phone is personal, fast, easy and always in reach. It is not by accident that mobile phones are called “handies” in German.
The future of the industry is to a large extent in mobile, and that is why everybody has high hopes when it comes to responsive design. Responsive design is mainly a technical matter. In short it is about creating one front end for different screen sizes. But it is way more than that. In essence, responsive design means completely giving up the idea that we have control over the way your content is displayed. Designing a layout with a high flexibility that scales over different levels of display capacity, forces us to think about design in a completely new way. We have to fully give up the notion of from control that was the lead voice in graphic design. In print we were forced to think within a certain paper format that pre-shaped the way news was written and consumed. This was always the wrong approach to screen design, but now it is undeniable. It is obviously wrong to have one design in a spectrum of screen sizes and densities from smart phones to tablets, laptops, desktops, kindles, iPods, and what not.
The question of how responsive design is done right is a highly complex question without a simple answer. We are just at the beginning of finding out how many ways it can be done. The thinking behind responsive design has more potential than what we see of it on the surface or in code. There is potential for more responsiveness in the way screen design works.
What does that mean for news design? News should not only adapt in layout to different conditions, it should also adapt to different ways news can be used. If news organizations wants to survive, they have to find new ways to interact and connect with their audience. They cannot outsource these tasks to social media sites without losing their daily audience. Currently, every social media button on your news site tells your audience: "There is a better way to start your news journey than this site."
What do you think are the top trends in mobile news?
There are no exciting trends in mobile news. I know that sounds harsh, but it is not just that news designers and publishers lack courage and imagination. One of the worst innovation stoppers is the dependence towards the online ad industry. There is a lot to be improved with online news design, but in order to get there, one of the big issues is that ad formats and ad placing need to be rethought. The standard banner formats are based on online news consumption from early 2000. Old school banner advertisement are becoming obsolete, and it holds back innovative ideas. A lot of newspapers have problems integrating responsive design, especially liquid responsive design because banner forms don’t fit. Ad formats need to be reduced in number of formats, number of ads per page, they need to be increased in size, and they need to become responsive.
Do you have an alternative to the banner problem in terms of responsive design?
I would try to simplify banner formats, and definitely get away from the crazy formats like the hockey stick L-shape that the German news sites used that makes life really hard. I would get away from having too many banners, or small banners that were designed for low pixel density screens. I would try to reduce it to one format, which is the full width of the screen and if you want you can add it to the top or the bottom or somewhere in the middle. That would simplify everybody's life (and by everybody I mean user, publisher and advertiser) a lot.
I would also look into different business models. There was – and is – a lot of talk about paywalls, and what you see is many news organizations blocking their regular users while continuing to allow side traffic onto the site from Google or Twitter. It is obvious why they do that, but ultimately this leads to insecurity on the users side as we get confused about what is paid or free, and what is ok to click on in social media streams. I don’t click on WSJ or FT links anymore because of that. That strange practice also begs the question if paywalls are a business model, a form of whiny begging, or a just moral finger.
Things get worse when our little national or local newspapers imitate big international US or UK models. A lot of publishers are looking at what The NYT is doing, and they think: "We can do that, we are important, too!" But the NYT is in a league of its own. And even there, it is not doing that well. Content wise, audience wise, brand wise it is massive and that makes the pay wall somewhat interesting. Paywalls in small local markets are a completely different game. A lot of local IT startups make the mistake to calculate in growth rates and market mechanics of the international US American market. No one makes that mistake with physical products.
I might be wrong, but as far as I can see, newspapers that have a strong online presence, advertise their print edition online more efficiently than any TV ad could ever manage to. This is not a sustainable business model, as online news does cannibalize print news in the long term, and therefore online news will have to find a new way to be sustainable. It will not be sustainable by offering online what used to be offered in print. News online needs to be more useful that just telling us what has happened. Can information be monetized? To a certain degree, definitely more, but never enough to continue trying to just sell news.
Do we have better ideas than raising paywalls? We suggested a business class for news a long time ago. Business class for new means that users that want to can pay for a nicer layout without advertisement. Yet it is up to the users, whether they pay or continue to read the busy ad splattered layout.
You can't force people to pay for your information unless it is information that makes them rich or saves their lives. And tearful begging won’t save your business either. But you can appeal to people’s good will to pay for better quality. I think "business class for news" works pretty well for a product that differentiates itself only through a higher quality from everything else on the Internet. It works for premium news brands like DIE ZEIT, or The New York Times. There is so much free information on the Internet, that the only reason I would pay for the New York Times is because I appreciate they provide a higher quality. I could get the same information somewhere else, but not at the same level of quality. If I get rewarded for my financial support in higher quality news, I feel that I get a pretty fair deal. The deal is not “Pay for not seeing ads”, but rather “Support the quality we already offer, and get a strong symbolic and useful and aesthetic reward as a sign of our appreciation of your support.”
Do you have advice for GEN’s editorial community?
What is missing in every industry is people with imagination. There are a lot of people who say that publishers are idiots and everything should be free and that's it. What I mean by people with imagination is not people that profit from free information and rationalize it a tout prix, but people who really understand the news business and news design, who dare to change something, and have the imagination to see things from different prospectives. I understand that it is hard to do this from within, it is very hard to improve after a certain point because you are so familiar with how things work and so many things seem necessary, but it is definitely possible to change a lot in the news industry. Instead of panicking and doing what everybody else is doing, you should find people with imagination. They exist. They might not be cheap or easy to handle.
If you enjoyed this article and want to hear more from Oliver Reichenstein, register to the GEN News Summit to see him speak in person on responsive design. If you register during GEN's Early Bird Special, you will save 30% off your ticket.