The greatest show on earth (till the next one)

The 2010 World Cup is almost upon us – so here’s a quick housekeeping message. Like when I watch Arsenal matches, I’m moving most of the footy Tweeting over to @gnnr to save annoying everybody else. And after mulling the idea for years, I’ve finally set up a football blog – called @qwghlm #wc2010 for the moment, it’ll be a Tumblelog of photos, videos, links, quotes and other things (Tumblr seemed a better fit than WordPress for the job). Check it out, and I hope you enjoy it!

One day, all news will look like this

Six months ago, during the Tiger Woods sex scandal non-story that gripped America, a curiosity cropped up from Hong Kong’s Apple Daily News. There had been no footage of the incident that sparked it all off – Woods crashing his car – and traditionally this might have been covered by either a still graphic or just describing the incident verbally. Thanks to computer technology, the Apple Daily had a much more inspired solution: if there isn’t any footage of the incident, no problem! Just make up your own instead:

The videos went viral in a sort of curious “let’s laugh at the cultural differences” way, similar to how Engrish gets covered in patronising Western media. And to be fair, the animation’s a bit wonky, and the Tiger Woods avatar doesn’t look very much like him at all to be honest. But nevertheless, it showed how far we have come. It’s now possible to turn around, within the time demands of 24 hour rolling news, a simulation of an incident if we’re unable to get actual coverage of it. The company behing it’s called Next Media Animation and they showcase their news simulation extensively on their website.

The Woods video was comical, but more worrying is when the events depicted within the simulation don’t necessarily have to be true. When allegations of Gordon Brown’s temper in the workplace broke a couple of months later, Apple Daily were quick to the mark, with an animated Gordon Brown causing trouble with his animated underlings:

Note the simulation of him physically striking an aide in the face at about 0:45. Though Brown’s temper and verbal transgressions are well known, he vigorously denied ever physically striking any of his subordinates, and no substantial claim of physical violence has been placed against him. It’s now possible to create simulations of events that don’t happen, and pass them off as being real. Apple Daily’s presence in Hong Kong and Taiwan rather than the UK (thus making legal redress more difficult), plus the inevitable language barrier, probably gives them more licence with the story; indeed, the English version of the video omits the simulated striking.

Perhaps as a defence, you can say it doesn’t look much like Gordon Brown (to me he’s more like a greying Ed Balls) and the animation still has a slightly unrealistic, wonky look to it. But some of the videos are more realistic than others. Two examples: firstly, coverage of the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March:

Secondly, and I’m not going to embed this one as it really is far too graphic, is a simulation, gunshots and all, of Derrick Bird’s massacre of 12 people in Cumbria last week. The link is here, but be warned it’s full-on.

In both cases the animation is more realistic for several reasons. One, the protagonists were not publicly recognisable people before the news story broke, so the constraints of facial simulation are not such a problem and more artistic licence can be taken. Secondly – and particularly in the Cumbria shootings – the elements of the story are very much like the animated action in some video games (as betrayed by the numerous tasteless GTA jokes in the comments beneath the video), something which 3D animators are more likely to be adept with.

Inevitably though, the technology will get better – particularly once TV news outlets in the West pick up on the idea and realise it’s a cheaper and quicker alternative to real journalism. The quality may never match reality, but it doesn’t need to – our visual recollection of news events is fuzzy and not an exact copy of what we see. For example, recently Slate performed a survey of people’s reactions and recollections of images from faked news events, such as Barack Obama purportedly shaking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hand (the two men have never even met). Even though these images were Photoshopped and did not happen, many survey respondents still “remembered” the events as having happened and recalled their “feelings” at the time.

The old adage was that newspapers are the first draft of history. This technology looks like being the zeroth draft of history – a way of representing something before we get actual coverage of it, and we run the risk of it becoming our default interpretation of events. Somewhere in poststructuralist limbo, Baudrillard is laughing at us, saying “I told you so”.

Thanks & a hat tip to @rhodri on Twitter for Tweeting about the Derrick Bird video, which is what sparked this post.

Looking at The Times’ new paywall

Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to The Times’ preview of their new website – which as virtually everyone knows, they plan to put behind a paywall at the end of this month. Rupert Murdoch’s edict is clear: he’s going to make people do what they’ve not done for a long time before, and that is pay for online news, and deny the search engines their share of what he sees as his pie.

With the new paywall comes a new look and a new structure. The URLs are much better for starters – and rather than the tautological And the designs are quite gorgeous, for a newspaper website; as one of the the Times editorial staff mentioned – the design of most other UK broadsheets tend to blur into each other. This layout employs larger photos and a more flexible page layout, mimicing paper news as well:

The paywall has afforded the Times and Sunday Times a few additional luxuries that free news misses out on; there’s no clutch of Twitter and Digg icons that clutter other news sites are no longer there, but of course the really big change is the reduction in advertisements. Without them, the site is so much cleaner, although it is not totally bereft of them – but to be honest, it wouldn’t look like a newspaper if it didn’t have any ads at all, would it? And the increased premium on those ads should mean an end to garish Flash animations, rollover, popunders, lightboxes and the rest.

Sadly for the Times’ designers, in order to pull off such a beautiful website that looks so much like a real newspaper, the controls have had to take a back seat. The menubars at the top rely on rollovers, and navigation buttons are small and fiddly; as an example, the pagination controls on the Sunday Times’ carousels are absolutely tiny:

All are fine for those of us on large monitors and point & click devices. But it comes at the same time as the iPad’s launch in the UK, and everyone’s talking about tablets as the future. A new iPhone is expected in the summer and the design paradigm of touchscreen smartphones is here to stay. Controls built for point and click, tiny icons and buttons and all, simply don’t work with stubby fingers on smeared screens.

The Times’ developers aren’t of course that stupid, and the same week the new site launched, an iPad app came out as well; Times and Sunday Times iPhone apps have also been released, although oddly the UI consists of zooming & navigating a PDF of the newspaper which then clicks through to fairly rudimentary mobile-friendly renderings of articles. A sign, perhaps, that things are a little rushed. Thinking isn’t also joined up across the pricing; accessing the Times & Sunday Times website and iPhone apps, the same subscription applies, but the iPad app is a separate subscripion of £10 a month instead. As a consequence, I fear a lot of time and effort is being duplicated over satistfying so many different platforms and pricing models.

Ah yes, pricing models. £2 a week for subscription is about £9 a month, but for £10 a month I can get all the music in the world on Spotify, or £12 a month I can get four TV channels, a shedload of radio, and a news website from the BBC.1 The price of just one newspaper2 a week doesn’t quite match up. £1 for a single day’s newspaper is even odder, in a digital market where a music track or iPhone game costs less, and last a lot longer – there is nothing tangible to keep or line the cat litter tray with at the end.

But then maybe Rupert need not worry. If News International starts bundling Times subscriptions with Sky packages, or other marketing tie-ins with partners, then all of a sudden that £9 a month looks a little less expensive, standalone, and more of a complete whole. So the Times will make money. With a little clever marketing they’ll probably make enough to justify the initial expense and loss of revenue from adverts.

Interestingly, it also raises some interesting possibilities. I’ve discussed here before about the tragedy of comments on news and how it devalues news websites so. But by fencing off the Times all of a sudden now becomes an interesting social experiment; as a further step they will be insisting on real names. It could be the start of a morecivil, closely-knit, vibrant community without the trolls and drive-by snarking (I hope). Conversely, now that commenters have paid up their subscriptions, their expectations about the website’s content will rise accordingly, and now the community management team there have a sizeable task on their hands.

So exciting Times. But at what other cost? Search, for one. The typical user journey for a non-subscriber is via the front page. Click on a link and an overlay will come up asking you to log in or sign up. Straightforward for a human, but that applies to the search engines just as well. When I pressed with a question about it, it was confirmed that unless a Times story was on the front page of the site, then not even the headline will appear in Google’s index for that URL. Sure, Rupert hates Google, but even they have found how to balance comprehensive search indexing with respecting paywalls – just look at how Google Scholar works.

It’s not just search engine robots that will be bemused by the paywall. Any bookmarking service that spiders the site you’re bookmarking – Digg, Reddit or perhaps most crucially, Facebook – checks ahead for the title and an excerpt (and photo thumbnail). The Times however, by refusing any sort of robot-friendly preview URL, ends up looking quite lost – for example, this it what happened when I bookmarked an article in Facebook:

To some extent, search and sharing don’t matter so much now you don’t depend on eyeballs. But nevertheless, the user experience still needs to be great to retain paying customers. For example, I for one rarely use my browser history to find a page I want to revisit that I last read a few days ago; with a rough recollection of its source and topic, I can probably find that page quicker in Google. If I were a Times paid subscriber, I’d be unable to do this with any Times pages I visited, and this might prove to be an annoying quirk at the very least.

But the bookmarking bug would irk me more. If there’s a great article that is worth parting with a quid for (overpriced though I think that is), then any sharing on Facebook, Twitter or Delicious, helps me let my friends and others readers know. Publishing socially-important metadata such as the headline and a one-line precis, while keeping the rest of the content behind the paywall, does nothing to devalue the content but is a quick win in extending its possible reach. With word of mouth so important for news consumption in the modern era, optimising for sharing should be as important as optimising for search – and it’s not about ramming endless Web 2.0 buttons down the user’s throat either.3

The Times’ paywall won’t be a dismal failure, as it comes at a time whe we’re finally getting mature about paying for digital content – whether it’s games and tracks off iTunes or subscription to Spotify. But the vast majority of its reportage is going to pretty similar to its free rivals elsewhere, so they face a battle for every single pound that comes their way. And to win that battle, they need to get everything else absolutely bang-on – search, social bookmarking, accessibility – to make it really work. Unfortunately for them, right now they’re not quite there – not yet anyway.

1 Actually I pay less than that, as I share a flat, something else which isn’t factored into the paywall – shouldn’t it be per-household like newspapers are typically consumed, rather than per-person?
2 Well, yes, two newspapers, but they don’t publish on the same days so perhaps they shouldn’t be counted. That said the Sunday Times is of distinctly different format and they intend to publish during the week, so maybe they should just do away with the temporal slicing.
3 Yeah, I know this blog post has a big icon top right to Tweet, but I’m not a national newspaper… ;)