Journalists I know started circulating a link this past weekend to a website offering an enticing new service known as Neuze. According to the promotional copy on the site, the company has developed a product that gives readers a breakdown of all the important news they need to know, delivered to them first thing in the morning — and on top of that, it has offline capability and doesn’t require any power. “Like Uber for news,” a quote on the site says.
Although many people reacted as though it was a real service, Neuze is in fact an elaborate gag — a kind of inside joke created by a journalist (who I spoke to briefly) in order to show how appealing the idea of a printed newspaper seems when you describe its features as though it was a technology product.
That description got me thinking about what it would be like if the internet and the web had been invented first, and the idea of printing news on paper and delivering it to people at their homes had come afterwards. Designers thinking about the benefits of alternative products often use this kind of “thought experiment” approach to think about the relative benefits of an old technology — what would we think if eyeglasses were invented after contact lenses instead of before, etc.
Obviously the web would look and probably behave very differently if it had come before newspapers, since much of the early content on the internet came from print media, and the whole design ethos for many websites and services came from that as well. But let’s consider it anyway. What are the benefits of the web and how do they compare to print? Here are a few I came up with:
Brevity: One thing we know about the web is that it makes a vast amount of news and information available, from a vast variety of sources — both traditional media companies, new-media entities, and everyday human beings using [company]Twitter[/company], Facebook etc. This is clearly a good thing, but the sheer quantity of information can also be overwhelming for people. A friend of mine once said that one of the major benefits of a newspaper is that you can finish it.
Apps like [company]Yahoo[/company] News mimic this approach by giving users a deliberately restricted number of stories, so they can feel that sense of completion. Obviously, this feeling is largely an illusion, and relies on editors (or algorithms) to determine what stories are important — as does [company]Facebook[/company]’s approach to the newsfeed. That method of determining the news has downsides, since important things can get missed, but is it ultimately beneficial for readers?
Portability: The Neuze site makes a big deal of the fact that its product crams a large amount of information into a small and portable format, and that it it is not only easy to carry and can be read anywhere, even when there isn’t an internet connection, but doesn’t require boatloads of power either. And photos show up in “beautiful high resolution,” as the site points out.
As much as print has its own environmental impacts, there’s no question that a print newspaper has portability to offer — and no requirement for power cables. There’s none of the anxiety that smartphone users get when they see their battery indicator falling and aren’t near a wall socket. And it can be read quite easily outside in the sunlight, something electronic devices still aren’t that good at.
Reliability: The Neuze site talks about how the company has a dedicated team of reporters and editors around the globe, and they “fact-check every story to ensure that you’re not led astray by false information.” One could argue about how much of that happens with print newspapers any more — especially since many of them have cut back on their staffing levels due to declining ad revenue — but that was one theoretical benefit of getting news from a large media organization.
As Craig Silverman of Regret The Error noted in a recent interview with me, more and more news entities — even traditional ones — are repeating rumors and hoaxes and incorrect information these days, in part because it has usually already leaked out through social-media networks, and also because they need to generate traffic (which is why Silverman created Emergent.info to track such reports). At least printed newspapers tried to avoid printing obvious hoaxes, or most of them did.
When it comes to downsides of print, of course, there are many: for example, there is no way to link to outside sources to either give credit to another site or refer readers to background information. There’s also no way to search a print publication — you have to just flip through the pages. And there’s no social connection either between readers or between reader and reporter (although there isn’t much of one on some traditional news websites either, when it gets right down to it).
So would anyone trade the ability to get an almost unlimited amount of information from a wide variety of sources for the comfort of an easily portable and low-power product that gave them the illusion of being completely informed and had no search or social functions? I guess the dwindling number of print subscriptions gives us the answer — and meanwhile, apps like Circa and Inside and Yahoo News try to find a way to merge the best of the old-media world with the best of the new.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / Janie Airey