Research makes case for renaissance of the digital print edition ... sort of

By Nathaniel Bane

Herald Sun

Melbourne, Australia


The Internet age had traditional newsrooms in a fluster over all the possibilities presented by practicing journalism that moved in some way.

Combined with the heady prospect of infinite space, multi-media projects like The New York Times’ Snow Fall had editors diving for every platform imaginable to bring their journalism to life — partly because it was all shiny and new. But this was mostly driven by the pressure to find new revenue streams in any way possible.

Even though it is possible to create multi-media stories, readers don’t necessarily want them.
Even though it is possible to create multi-media stories, readers don’t necessarily want them.

Interactive tablet apps were launched; stories with lots of clickable parts were published.

No doubt a lot of this digital journalism was stunning to look at. But there was one thing that seemed to be forgotten in all this: the reader.

Readers simply didn’t engage in a way that justified the time invested.

Content-rich tablet apps came and went, and newsrooms were forced to reassess what part multi-media played in their content offerings.

Then came the clincher: the mobile phone. Readers didn’t have the technology — or the time — to tap on all these moving bits and chapters and pop-up screens on a small device. They wanted their content in a simple and digestible format.

And just the words, thank you very much. The March edition of Wired magazine supports this view. It revealed 71% of readers globally want to read their news in a mostly text format.

Like most newsrooms, at the Herald Sun, we have experimented with rich storytelling techniques with varying degrees of readership return. We have rested on the fact — for now — that multi-media must be simple and must complement a story.

We also need to pick a format — whether it is text, photography, video, or audio — do it once, and do it well. Interactives — or richly built article pages with multiple moving elements — simply drive less engagement and traffic than a standard article page. They can play their part in a suite of offerings, but they must be used sparingly and only when the content suits.

An extension of this movement away from rich digital news formats to simpler content consumption is a rise in engagement with digital editions of the printed newspaper. At the Herald Sun, we are seeing a spike in the number of downloads of our digital print edition. We replaced our interactive tablet app with a simpler news format plus a much better digital edition. Engagement went through the roof.

Our product team and digital edition provider have worked tirelessly at improving the overall quality of the experience. The digital edition comes with bells and whistles on top of everything — conversion of text to audio, Google Translate, a downloadable back catalogue.

But I still ponder if it’s gaining popularity because of the rapid march toward simpler consumption habits, whether that’s text on a phone, audio for my train trip home, a great photograph I can share, or scanning and reading a newspaper just as it has been printed. After all, newspapers don’t look as they do by accident. They are crafted, designed to be easily read, and look darn good on a screen.

Faster downloading and smaller file sizes also mean it can be super quick to get a full copy of the newspaper — with everything in it — on your device. Bigger screens mean it’s also much easier to read on the move. This is a good thing for publishers. It’s a strong subscription offering. And all of the ads, including classifieds, are reaching a whole new audience — a big win for advertisers.

Just like text-based stories, the digital edition of the newspaper is enjoying a renaissance. Long may it last.

About Nathaniel Bane

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