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Lend Me Your Finger
When it comes to news the iPad will be about context, control and — especially — convenience.
When presenting big ideas to an audience of tech-savvy smarty-pants, the temptation is to be serious. There’s an urge to stroke your chin and proclaim how this technology or that idea will change the world forever and ever. So here goes:
As a producer of global news in the digital age I hereby declare that the iPad will revolutionize journalism for one simple reason: You can take it into the bathroom. We journalists know that you consume much of our life’s work — our stories, our scoops, our precious sources — while sitting on the toilet. That unspoken truth has helped sustain the print journalism industry for decades. But as news and information moves onto computers and phones, we’ve learned that mobile screens are too small to read for long, laptops don’t balance on your knees, and nobody has a desktop PC installed in their bathroom. So let’s first thank Steve Jobs and his colleagues for identifying a real consumer
problem and offering a practical and much-needed solution. While my toilet humor is only (partly) in jest, it does underscore an important truth of this chaotic moment for the news business: Context matters. Control matters. Convenience matters. The iPad and other tablets will likely have a significant impact on these factors, at least for content producers who are smart, fast and creative enough to exploit this new opportunity. That’s because in the digital age journalists can no longer unilaterally pronounce — Moses-like — the who, what, where, when and why of each day’s coverage. There are too many smart voices in the world, too many choices and too little time for consumers to accept this old school arrangement. So we must now also ask: Who is our audience? What do they need to know? Where do they want to know it? When do they demand it? And why does it matter to them? In other words, excellence in the digital age isn’t only about producing great journalism, though it is — most assuredly — about that. It must also be about offering context, control and convenience to increasingly sophisticated and demanding consumers of news and information. The iPad is designed to do just that. It invites you to interact with whatever
It begs you, literally, to put your finger on what’s important to you whenever, however and wherever you want it — at home, at work, on an airplane, a train, bus or anywhere else.
content is shimmering, seductively, from its luminous screen. It begs you, literally, to put your finger on what’s important to you whenever, however and wherever you want it — at home, at work, on an airplane, a train, bus or anywhere else. For news content producers this is a moment to celebrate. These emerging and converging technologies offer a new universe of narrative and contextual possibilities. They offer a novel platform that neatly marries video, audio, photography, text and interactive graphics with consumer features like real-time, location-specific data and the gob-smacking power of social media. With tablets, we now have a cheap and immersive way to be transported anywhere on the planet — and to be informed, enlightened and entertained by what we find there. Critically, news consumers will experience all of this on their own time and without the barriers that still separate stories from their audience, like Brian
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Williams’ hairspray, Geraldo’s jumbo microphone and the top-down tyranny of fixed schedules.
But let’s take one real news example — recent political protests in Bangkok — and view it through the lens of this coming tactile future where, most importantly, context will be king.
We are living a moment that no storyteller — from Homer to Hemmingway — could have plotted better. That includes today’s journalists. Yes, I’m gushing over the possibilities. And yes, they are still in many ways just possibilities. But let’s take one real news example — recent political protests in Bangkok — and view it through the lens of this coming tactile future where, most importantly, context will be king. Imagine you power up and touch the (forthcoming) iPad news app from GlobalPost. A photo and headline appears, indicating that something is brewing in Bangkok. One touch later you have a glowing screen of options before you. Your finger could touch the latest text story by our Bangkok correspondent Patrick Winn. Up pops 600 words on what’s happening now — linked, for deeper context, to his last 20 dispatches on Thailand’s history of political instability and analysis on what’s behind this latest flare-up. Maybe your eye catches a 30-second video clip of protesters splashing human blood on the prime minister’s house, connected by another finger swipe to Patrick’s 200-word explanation on why they’re doing such a thing. Perhaps your finger meets another
brief video clip on what the protests look and sound like, or a more ambitiously produced three-minute video on how the unrest is affecting tourists. Touch another video on how the Thai government failed to prevent the bloodshed, or a clip showing how the “Red Shirts” acquired automatic weapons. You might also discover an interactive map showing precisely where in the upscale Ratchaprasong district protesters have massed, including a video tour of this besieged neighborhood’s Gucci-filled Siam Paragon mall. You could also locate photos and digital dossiers of key Thai figures like Arisman Pongruangrong — who you now know was once a teen heartthrob because his saccharine 1980s pop song “Halfway to My Heart” is playing on your iPad’s speakers. For additional context your finger might explore interactive charts and graphs on the makeup of the Thai economy, its leading exports, top trading partners, or facts about its close military relationship with the United States — including a behindthe-scenes video of Cobra Gold, the largest U.S. military exercise in Asia. For a more personal interaction you might participate in a real-time video discussion with Patrick, who is standing by on Bangkok’s streets. Type in your questions or speak directly with him iPad-to-iPad in a community video forum, or call up this discussion later if that’s more convenient. You could then sample hundreds of additional GlobalPost stories, videos, audio slideshows and photo essays on Thai politics, business, and culture — all with the tap of a finger. Here, too, is a link to the best books, lectures and websites on Thailand. Now imagine you’re one of the 11 million tourists who visit the country each year. Because your iPad knows you’ve just landed at Bangkok International Suvarn-
abhumi Airport, you receive location-specific alerts on the latest local and regional news. You’re also just a touch away from Patrick’s personal recommendations on where to stay, what to eat, what to do — and which neighborhoods to avoid — in this teeming, steamy metropolis.
You will have access to more contextualized information than a college course. You will have control over how much or how little information you want to consume, and in what form. And you will have the convenience to interact with this content anywhere or anytime.
You can then, of course, share any of this information via Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Friendster, renren, Qzone or any other social media site around the world. So in a few short moments — or across several hours — you will have access to more contextualized information than a college course. You will have control over how much or how little information you want to consume, and in what form. And you will have the convenience to interact with this content anywhere or anytime. News content producers will be able to offer this same degree of context, control and convenience on every story we cover, such as the volcanic ash cloud that swept across Europe, the plane crash that killed Poland’s president or China’s measures to cool the bubble in its property market — all of which, incidentally, happened at the same time as the Bangkok protests. Notice this isn’t about simply recreating newspapers or magazines on a splashy digital device. This isn’t about saving a troubled industry. This is about using the potential of new technologies to invent
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better, smarter and more powerful ways to tell great stories. All of this will be possible. Sooner than you think. This evolution in storytelling should come as no surprise. Journalism has always reflected the technological promise and shortcomings of each successive era — from the vital societal role (and space limitations) of newspapers and magazines, to the intimate narrative power (and bandwidth restrictions) of radio, to the global reach (and high production costs) of television, to the limitless possibilities (and economic dislocations) created by the Internet.
That’s because there will always be demand for smarter and better news, and in particular, for useful and interesting context to help make sense of our shrinking world. This is true not only in the United States, but also for millions of news consumers in China, India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, France, Britain, Germany, Egypt, Mexico, Canada, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and on and on. And when this happy moment arrives I have no doubt you will learn about it on a tablet, in your own time, in a way that’s most convenient to you, and maybe even while sitting in the bathroom.
And, yes, great content will come at a price for consumers so economics, as usual, will play a key role.
As Managing Editor in charge of correspondents, Thomas Mucha oversees the GlobalPost (GlobalPost.com) correspondents team and contributes to special features and reporting projects. He also writes a weekly column on world commerce and globalization. Mucha has 18 years of experience in global business and economics in print, TV and the Web. Previously, Mucha was a columnist and correspondent for Business 2.0 magazine and Crain’s Chicago Business. He also spent nearly a decade as senior writer, producer, and deputy assignment editor for CNN in New York and London where he produced “Business Asia” and “World Business Today,” and oversaw CNN International’s emerging markets coverage. Mucha has a master’s degree in international relations and economics from the University of Chicago.
The emergence of tablet computing, and what we make of it, is part of this longer arc of history. Of course, there will be bumps along the way. The many challenges include the inevitable first-generation technical limitations of the iPad and other devices, a need for more and better news apps and the time and resources required to build a digital infrastructure capable of capitalizing on these new tools — no small task for an industry in upheaval. And, yes, great content will come at a price for consumers so economics, as usual, will play a key role. But the smartest news organizations are already figuring it out. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, USA Today and others are off to great starts with their first iPad apps. Apple, Google, Microsoft, HP and the other brainy companies, advertisers and developers now racing into the tablet business will figure it out, too.
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