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News design, context and mementos

2010 August 11

It’s a little quiet today. Summer weather has settled down to a steady “simmer.” A few more thoughts on the evolution of text-based news while I’m waiting for UPS. (How can it be, by the way, that for all its hi-tech logistical ability, the best that UPS can do in predicting a time for a delivery is “some time during daylight hours, or thereabouts?”)

In my recent post about my Apollo mission issue of The Cedar Rapids Gazette, I mentioned a couple of things about that old paper which are worth considering from the perspective of a post-print news age. First, the notion of some day having the front page framed; second, the way one can see at a glance what else was going on in the world at the time, in sports, in politics, in commerce, etc.

Either or both of these qualities of a printed newspaper, it seems to me, will never really transfer to electronic news.

In terms of a commemorative souvenir of a significant event, I have tried over the years to adapt online news for this end; here are some of the results:

Screen shot of appleturns.com

An "episode" of As the Apple Turns, in which I enjoy 15 milliseconds of fame

Screen shot of Sports Illustrated web site

ISU Cyclones are the featured story on the homepage of SI.com; definitely a moment worth capturing

Above, a couple of screen captures of web content covering significant (at least to me, in some way) events. It works, to an extent. At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine these ever serving as wall decoration. One could print them out and get them framed, I suppose, but I just don’t think it would be the same. It’s too small, for one thing, and while you could obviously enlarge it, a web site just isn’t really designed to work at poster-size, while a newspaper is. I think it’s a bit like the album cover; it simply is wall art right off the shelf, whereas cover art for music distributed on CD or in electronic format just isn’t.

As for the second issue, that of context, the pros and cons of print newspapers are probably more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, every issue of a print newspaper is like a time capsule. The whole picture of what was going on at the time is right there, fixed, and visible at a glance. And it covers a huge range: local events, movie listings, comic strips, stock prices, product advertisements.

On the other hand, electronic news offers searchability, hyperlinks, and as a whole, probably a much more thorough record of news and events than all the print newspapers put together, at least since the turn of the century. In some sense, electronic news’ disadvantage is really not a lack of context but an overabundance; there’s a lot there but you have to sift it out of the vast piles.

Some things, however, are largely just lost from electronic news at present, because online news archives are good at preserving articles and pictures, but poor at preserving other content and content frameworks. Advertising, for example, is not preserved, whereas newspapers preserve the ads and their connection to the social and cultural context in which they appeared.

Design tends to get lost in electronic media, also. If you pull up an older story at the BBC, for example, you will (for the time being) see the page largely as it first appeared. As sites adopt more modern content management systems, however, this tends to change, with a story from 2003 getting refit into the same layout and style as a story from 2009, regardless of whatever redesigns took place in the interim.

More significantly, I think, is the loss of non-static pages—homepages, landing pages, portals—which are not “content” per se, but ever-changing content directories, basically. The disappearance of this designed metadata, and the at-a-glance context it provides, is a real loss in my opinion. Given the relative ease with which these pages could be preserved automatically, it seems inexcusable that more isn’t being done.

Sure, the Wayback Machine takes care of this to some extent. It’s a wonderful service, absolutely, for which the people behind archive.org deserve much praise. But… in addition to being awfully slow and unreliable (sorry, but it is), there’s a lot that the Wayback Machine doesn’t cover.

How much trouble would it be, really, for Time, CNN, the BBC, etc., to regularly save snapshots of their various homepages, landing pages, etc.? To be honest, with cheap processing power and storage, it seems that it would involve little enough cost to preserve every single revision made to such pages, 24/7.

Perhaps some organizations are already doing this? I don’t know. I certainly hope so, and that more will join them.

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