Digital narrative formats The Evolution of Tablet Journalism

Tablet Journalism
Tablet Journalism | Photo (detail): © goodluz - Fotolia.com

Ever since Apple launched its iPad, publishers have been dreaming of switching their print business to these thin mobile computers. It is only the latest wave in tablet journalism that is actually spawningnew ideas for digital narrative formats, however.

So how is a newspaper supposed to be created out of ones and zeroes? For some years now, the German publishing sector has been exploring how print journalism could be transferred to digital formats in the most profitable fashion. Before appropriate solutions can be proposed, the first question to answer is how we will all be reading in the future. After the industry had worked on and discarded a variety of future visions of wafer-thin and bendable displays and holograms, electronics manufacturer Apple offered an initial answer to this question when it launched its iPad in April 2010.

Ever since, publishers have based their dreams of digital growth on these tablet computers and similar devices made by rival companies.The statistics at least indicate that the market for digital journalism – if one exists at all – begins with these mobile terminals. According to a survey conducted by the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV), all age groups show a keen interest in high-quality digital newspaper and magazine content. 3,300 readers were surveyed. With customers willing to spend between 8 and 8.50 euros per month on average, this is a lucrative market. 8.2 million Germans already own a tablet computer. In the survey, around a quarter of respondents stated that they were planning to buy one of the flat digital all-roundersin the near future.

Three phases of tablet journalism

In the meantime, the great challenge for journalism has been to adapt content to the new devices and to give it its own digital character. A glance at the content that has been developed since the launch of the iPad reveals that it was primarily the established newspaper publishers which first prepared their content for the new medium. Smaller independent start-ups have only begun braving this market more recently. Generally speaking, the evolution of tablet journalism can be divided into three phases, though they overlap to some extent.

Phase one saw apps arriving on the market in which publishers would convert existing content into a digital format but would leave the content itself unchanged. As in the app of regional newspaper Schwäbische Zeitung, entire newspaper pages were made available for purchase in PDF format. For the publishers, this was an inexpensive means of doubling the mileage they could derive from existing content that had already been sold in print. Even pioneers such as Springer long offered merely scanned newspaper pages for sale in their iKiosk app. This “recycled” product was only of interest as an additional service to subscribers who could then continue to read their subscribed newspaper while on holiday or elsewhere. It did not generate new business for the publishing houses, as the static pages offered insufficient added value, meaning customers quickly became bored.

In phase two, therefore, publishers pinned their hopes on specially developed apps in which the newspaper and magazine content would be tailored to the format of the mobile reading devices and additionally enriched with multimedia elements. Interactive graphs, audio clips and videos were intended to give the impression of a full multimedia experience. In many cases, however, these elements merely served to hamper reading as they were clumsily incorporated into the individual articles. Because of the high costs of developing a separate app with original content of its own – which would possibly even necessitate a small editorial team in the background – many publishers resorted to this inexpensive option. Stern, National Geographic and Rolling Stone all continue to use these formats to the present day, while others have already heralded in the third phase of tablet journalism.

Innovation is driven by big business, not publishing houses

First and foremost, however, it is not media houses who are driving forward this development but big business and its PR departments, who are allowing themselves the luxury of designing entirely new apps. For instance, the app magazine published by car manufacturer Audi offers all kinds of multimedia content, from interactive presentations of new cars to videos and conventional magazine content – all of itdesigned specifically for gesture control on a tablet computer.

And while the overall print industry generates lower and lower advertising revenue each year – in 2012, daily newspapers and popular magazines each shed around 10 percent – it is journalists themselves who are creating their own journalistic formats and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by tablet computers. Substanz, for example, is a new science magazine from Hamburg that is not available in a print version at all and is produced solely as an app.Its founders also used new ways of financing their project, and have already generated 30,000 euros through crowdfunding. The idea is for the purely digital magazine to provide information in popular style about the latest news from the world of science.

A new pioneering mindset is evident in the world of journalism. Although it is bound to produce both winners and losers, it will perhaps mean that a way can be found of presenting digital journalism in a fascinating and exciting package while at the same time making it profitable. Tabletcomputers will certainly play a major role in this.