Digital Newspapers 3.1

I admit it: I'm in the demographic that still likes print newspapers and magazines. And I'm in good company. Jeffrey Bezos, who bought The Washington Post and related newspapers, said in an interview with The Post last year that if he had both the print and tablet editions in front of him, he'd pick the print version, "an elegant product that has evolved over decades."

Having said that, I went digital with The Wall Street Journal years ago and, later, with The Post. The cost of subscriptions was part of that decision, but the convenience of being able to get the most up-to-date news at any time tipped my decision to drop the print versions. Given the costs of print and declining revenues, it is apparent that print versions will increasingly become a luxury for only those willing to pay for them.

I think of the digitization of newspapers in phases: early static HTML, PDF versions, and new hybrids built increasingly on XML, HTML5, and CSS3 (cascading style sheets)-my "version 3." As with all things digital, version 3 continues to evolve to meet the demands of multiple delivery platforms, different and frequently updated apps and browsers, and changing user interfaces. Delivering "replica" versions that look similar to the newspaper print version, and views that emphasize only content, is likely a short-term solution. With that in mind, I wondered where version 3.1 is going.

IT is often not part of a newspaper's core competencies. As a result, companies that rushed to digitize often suffered the consequences. My experiences with the early version of The Post's digital edition were abysmal. It looked as if the complex digital product was delivered without a holistic view or adequate testing. The problems were varied, ranging from subscription management (insisting I had no subscription) to crossword puzzle apps that failed for days and from comics squeezed into frames that made them unreadable to a help desk that didn't understand the problems I described. Happily, most of these are now under control.

Going digital is not just about getting your content up on the web. Going digital is also a complex IT project, requiring information system project best practices. These include comprehensive testing that goes beyond asking whether the content is being delivered. I consider The Wall Street Journal to be a paradigm of good digitization-both via the web and via its app-and yet, even it can force long waits for pages to refresh. Delays such as this can lead to user dissatisfaction quickly.

Knowing what we know about digital successes and failures, we now have to wonder what's critical for any 3.1 project. Six years ago, I wrote a column titled "It Ain't Easy Being Green," in which I explored the digital future for newspapers. In that column, I interviewed Olive Software, a leading provider of newspaper content processing technologies. I recently followed up with Joe Wikert, director of strategy and business development at Olive Software, to get his views on the problems and future of digital newspaper products.

Wikert agrees with me that newspaper management must honestly assess their core competencies. Wikert calls this the innovator's dilemma, arising "because newspapers, like so many well-established businesses, are too focused on how they made money yesterday and not enough on how the market leaders will make money tomorrow." This has publishers wondering how much to try to do in-house versus with partners. Wikert says, "I've seen several papers-particularly the larger ones-that think they need to own the entire ecosystem from content creation to product delivery. That may have worked in the old days of smoky newsrooms and on-site printing presses, but it's not the best approach in the digital world."

A rush to digital can also lead to a cobbled-together set of confusing interfaces and unsatisfactory user experiences. Do I sweep left or down to continue? Is the help desk responsive? How fast does it take for page to refresh?

Should newspapers move from "replica" to HTML and XML technologies, de-emphasizing print views? Wikert believes that the under-30 crowd looks at a print and its digital replica as "something my parents or grandparents use, but it's not for me." This transition and the accompanying mindset will take some time but seems inevitable. This transition will also require careful partnering with outside technical resources.