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Analyzing a potential answer to newspapers’ online dilemma

August 6, 2010

Phil Gyford's Today's Guardian could present a potential solution to the online problem facing newspapers.

Phil Gyford may have put it best when, in his blog post introducing Today’s Guardian, he wrote, “I’ve made a new thing.” Today’s Guardian is a new effort to seamlessly translate the physical feel of a newspaper to the Internet.

Gyford cites three separate elements behind his design: friction, readability, and finishability.

Friction is described as the thought process that occurs when the reader is deciding what article to read next. The front page of a newspaper allows readers to skim the beginning of stories, read the nut graphs, and continue on if they want to or allow their eyes to wander elsewhere on the page. Gyford solves this by allowing readers to scan their arrow over the grey space on either side of the page and advance to the next article whenever they want.

Gyford next discusses readability, which is the concept that everything should be relatively simple to click through quickly. There should be minimal load times and it should be relatively simple to find the most possible content. This leads to the lack of navigation and advertising on the page, which both enhance and damage Gyford’s project. The basic reality is that whatever solution news organizations eventually settle on, it will involve some sort of advertising (and to be fair, Gyford has said that the price of using the Guardian’s API is that advertising will pop up on the site soon).

The kind of site that Gyford put together, however, is uniquely adaptable to advertising. If a company pays more for an ad, it could be placed on the sidebar of a page further up in the process. A company that doesn’t want to pay as much lands deep in the order of articles, and very few readers are likely to see the ad. A more industrious advertiser, however, could pay a significantly higher price and the entire page could simply be an ad. That way, even if a reader rapidly clicks past a page, the advertisement will have some type of impact, however subliminal it may be.

Also, these ads would need to be like traditional print ads, as an interesting tenet of Gyford’s readability is no outside distractions. This means no links, no multimedia outside of pictures, and no reader comments. The primary reason for this is that the point of Today’s Paper is to as closely replicate the experience of reading a paper, and, obviously, none of those elements translate to newsprint.

The final concept that Gyford discusses is finishability, or the idea that there is a packet of information that the average person should read on any given day and that, once that the amount of information available in that packet should be enough to carry someone through the day. That is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Gyford’s project, as it addresses the information overload that aggregators and Twitter make so easy to fall into on the web. Gyford uses the phrase “coherent package,” and Today’s Guardian successfully achieves that.

Today’s Guardian is a solid, workable blueprint for what online newspapers could look like someday. The only major issues are the advertising dilemma — there is no way conglomerates will let there be a solution that doesn’t let them earn money — and the tricky navigability of the site, which is partially intentional. In order to improve the site, Gyford should split the site up into slightly more definitive categories than simply “Main Section,” “Sport,” “G2,” and “Film & Music.” I have never physically held a copy of The Guardian, but I think it must have some more sections than just those.

If the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette adopted this program, for instance, I would expect a main section, a business section, a local section, a sports section, a living section, and maybe a classified section, divided just like the actual physical paper.

The bottom line is that it is extremely refreshing to see programmers and thinkers beginning to come up with legitimate solutions to this dilemma.

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