The Rocky Mountain News’s “Dividing the Waters” story is just one of several thousand special reports that newspapers worldwide collectively publish each year. Newspapers invest a significant amount of their resources to produce these enterprise stories, which can take months of coordinated efforts to gather, distill, write, verify, process and package. Few would dispute that special reports represent the very best that print journalists have to offer and are newspapers’ most valuable and distinctive content asset. Why then is the newspaper industry not doing more to capitalize on this asset?
Editors and publishers often tout their special reports to colleagues at other newspapers, especially after they have won Pulitzer Prizes or other coveted journalism awards, but what about spreading the word to those who are not members of the Fourth Estate? In my view, the industry is missing opportunities to more widely disseminate and draw attention to some of its best work and possibly to generate new revenue from its investments.
To make special reports more appealing and accessible to both readers and nonreaders of newspapers, publishers need to look beyond their current approaches. Printing special reports in broadsheet or tabloid formats obviously is convenient and cost-effective for newspapers, despite the many tons of newsprint they consume. However, this approach has some serious drawbacks for prospective readers.
Few people (me included) can find the time to read these extra long stories in print on the days they are published, no matter how interesting or useful they might appear. Moreover, the newsprint used by most newspapers today does not have a long shelf life (especially in our home, where my wife is quick to recycle newspapers in the chinchilla cage), and it does not appeal to the majority of those who have gravitated to the Internet for their news and information.
Even on the Web, special reports are generally unwieldy and unappealing. Most conform to the standard templates used for news stories, so readers must scroll long columns of text that link to page after page with more long columns of text. Photos and graphics along with the occasional video and audio clips typically are confined to separate popup Flash galleries or media player windows, which tend to cause delays and to disconnect the written stories from related visual and audio elements.
Printing out these stories from the Web, as many people are still prone to do, is not much better. A complete special report can fill dozens of letter-size pages in the typical Web-page format. The so-called “printer-friendly” versions usually will fill fewer pages, but the wide column width can make reading slower and more tedious, especially when there are no visual interruptions. In most cases, the photos and graphics displayed in pop-up galleries cannot be printed.
Another common problem with special reports posted on newspaper Web sites is that they are nearly impossible to find. Those newspapers that bother to include a small “special reports” button usually bury it in their menu column along with a gazillion other small buttons. Rarely are special reports promoted and linked for more than a day or two on a newspaper’s home page, so they quickly fall into the category of “out of sight, out of mind.”
During the past three years, I have worked with the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, and Los Angeles Times to develop a new vehicle for disseminating special reports that I call a Digital Newsbook. My objective was to bring together the strengths of printed publications with the compelling features of the Web and to do it in a way that would provide readers with a comfortable, high-quality reading experience as well as a visually rich environment for multimodal storytelling. Like e-books, Digital Newsbooks are designed to be downloaded from a Web site and read offline on any contemporary liquid crystal monitor, laptop or tablet PC.
The concept derives from the printed newsbooks that began circulating in Europe not long after Gutenberg demonstrated his inventions in Mainz some 550 years ago. European rulers were among the first to see the potential of mechanical printing (the new media of the 15th and 16th centuries, which then was known as “artificial writing”) for widely disseminating “news” of their military adventures and accomplishments. Most were written in the form of letters and included woodblock illustrations. Even after newspapers began their rapid spread throughout Europe in the 17th century, newsbooks (also known as pamphlets and newsletters) remained popular. Unlike newspapers, each focused on a single timely event or topic.
While I’ve given Digital Newsbooks the traditional portrait-oriented (taller than they are wide), nonscrolling page format of printed books and magazines, they also can incorporate the interactive hypermedia features found on Web sites. And like the Web, color can be applied to any and all pages for no extra cost.
Seven Digital Newsbooks were produced under my direction at Kent State University’s Institute for Cyber Information (ICI). The first two were produced for the Los Angeles Times in October 2002 as part of an ongoing ICI electronic newspaper research project partially funded by the Times and Adobe Systems Inc.
Newsbooks on the Web
The Rocky Mountain News has the distinction of being the first newspaper to post a Digital Newsbook on its Web site. (The Times’s newsbooks were distributed on CD’s.) John Temple, the Rocky’s editor and publisher, became intrigued when he saw me demonstrate the concept at a Unisys Users Group meeting in September 2003. Immediately after that meeting, he asked what I would need to produce the “Dividing the Waters” story in the Digital Newsbook format. The paper had published the story as a tabloid section nearly two months earlier and already had a version on the Web, but he was eager to explore a new way to package and disseminate the story.
After we agreed on a fee to be paid to ICI, he arranged to have all of the text, photos and graphics for the story sent to me on CD’s. A graduate assistant and I created the templates and layouts in Adobe InDesign based on the printed tabloid version. Every effort was made to retain the newspaper’s design and typographic styles within the newsbook’s magazine-size pages. We also edited the video and audio clips to reduce their runtimes and file sizes. All hyperlinks as well as all multimedia elements were added within the InDesign file. When the layouts were completed, the newsbook was exported from InDesign as an Adobe Acrobat PDF (portable document format) file. In Acrobat, the newsbook was set to open in full screen mode and secured to prevent the altering or extracting of pages.
On the day the “Dividing the Waters” Digital Newsbook was posted on the Rocky’s Web site, Temple’s column, in which he introduced the newsbook concept to readers, was published in the printed editions and on the Web. While the total number of readers who actually downloaded the newsbook is not known (due to a technical problem), all but one of the 20 or so readers who took the time to write to Temple or to complete a survey form included with the newsbook indicated that they liked the format.
So far, all of the Digital Newsbooks produced for newspapers have been posted on the Web several weeks or months after the special reports appeared in print and on Web sites, which undoubtedly has greatly reduced the number of people who might be interested in reading these special reports in the Digital Newsbook format. Ideally, newsbooks should be produced, promoted and published on the Web simultaneously with the printed versions. One experienced editor/designer could repackage a typical special report in the newsbook format in two days or less. If information graphics, video and/or audio elements are to be included, additional staff support might be needed.
Also, none of the newspapers so far has attempted to sell its Digital Newsbooks on the Web or to recruit sponsors. I would venture that several hundred of the special reports produced by newspapers worldwide each year would be of sufficient quality and timely interest to justify a purchase price of four or five dollars, which is what people pay for most magazines on newsstands.
If all Digital Newsbooks were aggregated, marketed and sold through a newspaper industry e-commerce Web site, I believe they could reach a large number of readers internationally and could create a new revenue stream that would more than offset costs. And by extending the accessibility of special reports across time and distance, they can be made more useful for educators, researchers, policymakers and other interested parties.
Roger Fidler is the inaugural Donald W. Reynolds Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he is working on the second edition of his book “Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media” and continuing to pursue his vision of digital newspapers. He is the former director of the Institute for CyberInformation at Kent State University (www.ici.kent.edu).