Welcome to Handiham World.
Digital Bling and a Cautionary Tale
The news this week about QST going digital is exciting stuff. (See the next story for an explanation and link.) If our own Handiham World had not gone digital, we would still be publishing only four issues a year, one for each season. Yes, back in the bad old days a couple of decades ago the Handiham World was mailed out each Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter in a print format. Volunteers would read the print version onto cassette tapes that were mailed to our blind members. Any news that arrived via that system was bound to be pretty old. Then, when printing and mailing costs began to climb we had to cut down to three issues, then two. Using the Internet to deliver the Handiham World was faster, cheaper, and better. Not only could it be read directly with screenreading software by our blind members, but it could be in audio as well, also delivered via streaming or download. Members could even call a phone number to hear the same Internet audio, even if they only had a telephone. The Handiham World could be enjoyed by anyone as a podcast from iTunes. Better yet, it could be published weekly instead of quarterly.
Even though these advantages seem obvious, there were – and still are – some who feel that our service has left them behind. These are the members who don’t have computers and who don’t plan to get them. And this, my friends, is the problem every publisher faces. That is why I’m going to share with you my experience with a newspaper.
It is certainly not news that newspapers want to print: Newspapers are struggling to find their new business model in the 21st century. Who reads them anymore?
Probably people like me, that’s who! I’m old enough to remember having a paper route as a kid. Delivering the daily paper was one of those rite of passage jobs a kid could have back in the middle of the 20th century. The news business was less competitive back then, and there was little urgency to have up to the second updates. The newspaper business held its own until cable news began nipping at its heels, but it wasn’t until news sites began appearing on the Internet that the real problems with printing paper copies and physically dumping them on doorsteps became too big to ignore.
These days we would get our newspaper delivered by some guy driving his personal vehicle around town and pitching the paper out onto the driveway or sidewalk. He would back over the lawn and sometimes his truck would have a loud muffler in the wee hours of the morning. Often as not the morning dew or the lawn sprinklers would soak the paper before we could retrieve it. On rainy mornings the paper arrived in a plastic bag that managed to protect about 3/4 of the paper from getting soaked. The newspaper company also published an on line edition once the power of the web was obvious, and like many other readers I took to it instantly and never looked back. Unfortunately for the newspaper, they lost money giving the news away for free on the web (duh), and they finally had to come up with a pay-for alternative. It involved a special digital edition that looked just like the printed version. In a scattergun approach to pleasing every customer from the grumpiest computer-hating Luddite to the early-adopter geek, they offered a plan to give you a print paper AND a digital edition.
We signed up. I like trying new stuff but I still like a print edition. This would be a chance to compare the technologies.
It’s been a couple of months now, so I feel as if I know where things are going. Both my wife and I read the print paper to some extent, and both of us use the newspaper’s website. The website is actually easy to use, but it is not the new so-called “digital edition” that looks exactly like the printed paper. For that, you have to log on to a special website. The newspaper sends a helpful link by email each day as a reminder. The digital look alike loads a web application in your browser window, after which you see the copy of the printed version in what amounts to a browser frame. Try as I might, I just cannot warm to the idea of trying to read a newspaper that way. The page does not all fit in the browser window, which means that you are constantly scrolling one way of another to read articles. Worse yet, because the digital look alike is supposed to be like the printed copy, you have to follow the story onto other pages buried deep in that day’s edition. The pages of the digital edition have a feature that prompts you with a cute little animation to turn them. Page turns themselves are also animated. Ooooo! This is digital bling! It looks so cool, but let’s face it – I think having to scroll left and right and up and down, then fiddle with the mouse to get the cursor exactly in the right spot to connect me to the remainder of a front-page article that ends up buried on page 10 is just not my cup of tea. What I want is content. I would like it to be easy to find, easy to read, and – after being in the business of helping people with disabilities for so many years – accessible to people who use screenreaders. I have to say that some of these new digital publishing efforts fall flat on all those counts.
What I don’t really understand is the need to make a digital edition look like a printed page. The printed page is fine when it is a printed page. When it is a digital copy on a small screen, it is like putting Victorian furniture in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. It is a bad fit. If you are going to use the web to publish your newspaper, publish it using the easily understood, common, and highly accessible web page formats that are already available. That is why for Handiham World we provide accessible HTML in our web pages. If we put something up in a format like PDF, it contains embedded text and an audio alternative, plus an HTML version. But really, the PDF version is not meant so much to be read on line as to be printed and read as a print publication.
The bottom line with digital publishing is that it needs to be recognized for what it really is – a new and better way to deliver content that is more up to date, cheaper to deliver, and takes advantage of the technology to allow users to search thousands of pages quickly, have access to past issues without collecting an attic full of paper copies, and enjoy it all with accessible technology. It is not a new way to deliver the same old paper dressed up with page turn animations. In other words, forget the bling and give me the content.
Oh, well. At least the digital version does not drive over my lawn at 4:00 A.M. in a noisy truck. On the down side, I miss the plastic bag that is so handy for “dog duty” when I take Jasper out for a walk.
For Handiham World, I’m…
Patrick Tice, firstname.lastname@example.org