Finishability

As I wrote recently I’ve been thinking for a while about why I don’t like to read news online as much as I do on paper. So I was extra interested in seeing the latest video from the good folks at BERG in which Jack Schulze talks about their ideas for the future of digital magazines:

There are lots of good thoughts in there but I wanted to pick up on one that I suspect is easily overlooked. Jack says:

Something that emerged in the research that was really interesting was that [magazines] can be completed, that they’re very knowable, that one can read through it, and finish it, and have a sense that they’ve consumed an editorial package, without necessarily the endless, infinitely expanding RSS feed, for example, where there really is no end.

This idea — that you can finish reading a magazine — is such a fundamental and obvious one that I suspect it’s taken entirely for granted. And, because of that, it’s all too easily thrown out when thinking about electronic magazines and newspapers etc. (I’m going to focus more on the latter here, as they interest me more.)

These days, the constraints of physical publishing — bundling articles up into economically viable packages and selling them on a set timetable — seem to be regarded solely as a drawback, and something to be overcome. If we can publish an article the moment it’s been finished, why bother hanging around until we’ve finished the rest? Get it out there now! There’s no point in waiting, we must be first!

But those old-fashioned constraints of printing can also be a benefit. There’s something satisfying, predictable and achievable about a more-or-less fixed amount of stuff to read appearing on a regular schedule.

For example, when faced with most news websites one of the reasons I don’t spend much time reading them is because I know I can never finish, no matter how much I read. So, once I’ve read the front page headlines and realised the world hasn’t ended, why read much more? I’ll never finish it all anyway.

Sure, some people are happy with dipping repeatedly into an ever-flowing stream. But I suspect I’m not alone in wanting manageable packages of news (or magazine-style content). People who have access to 24-hour rolling TV news channels will still tune in to the Ten O’Clock News or Newsnight.

When it’s possible to publish news as it’s breaking it might seem odd to only want an occasional (but regular) bulletin. If I only read or watch the news once a day, or even once a week, I won’t be as up-to-date as I could be, this is true. But there are few news stories that have an immediate hourly impact on my life. It’s funny to laugh at newspapers for publishing yesterday’s news but if I read national or international news one day, two days, or even a week after the events, it won’t affect my life.

This is a slightly old-fashioned attitude. Now we’re living in the future we’re supposed to be able to create (or have automatically made for us) our own personal newspaper from the abundance of material out there, our “Daily Me”. But I want people whose job it is to know what’s happening in the world, and who can judge what’s important to people like me and them, to choose what I should read. I get plenty of personal filtering from friends on email and Twitter and through endless RSS feeds I choose to dip into… but I still want an editor to choose an old-fashioned, finishable package of articles. And it shouldn’t be that the only way to achieve this is to print the news on sheets of paper.

18 Dec 2009 at Twitter

  • 01:08pm: @megp If you don't already have it, iTunes BPM Inspector helps with working out the BPM: http://bit.ly/5fom60
  • 02:42pm: Seasonal entertainment sorted: Seasons four and five of 'The Shield' rented from the local library.
  • 11:01pm: @holgate Eek, take care Mr Holgate!
  • 11:07pm: Watching Roxy Music doc on BBC4. All the ex-members, looking old, plump and square, are Bryan Ferry's collective Dorian Grey portrait.
  • 11:17pm: I still wrongly associate Roxy Music's 'Avalon' with Hewson Consultants' ZX Spectrum computer game of the same name.