Friday, October 12, 2012

Thanks to smartphones, we're now in the golden age of reading

Posted By on 10.12.12 at 06:51 AM

What makes Chris Hughes qualified to talk about technology? Nothing really—he just helped create Facebook.
  • Max Souffriau
  • What makes Chris Hughes qualified to talk about technology? Nothing really—he just helped create Facebook.
If you tune in at all to the near-constant chatter about the precarious state of quality journalism, you’ve probably heard that the digital revolution is largely to blame for quality journalism's decline—that publishers beholden to smartphones and social networks are guilty of rewarding consumers with short attention spans, and that, as a result, those attention spans continue to shrink.

How, then, does the Reader ethos fit into the brave new world of digital news consumption? Conventional wisdom might hold that a 41-year-old publication that once printed a 20,000-word story about beekeeping is in trouble. It would seem that the smartphone and the social networks are killing our soul. They’re not. In fact, they might save it.

Yesterday I asked the editorial staff to join me in watching a live video stream of the Chicago Ideas Week talk on the Future of News. Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel set the tone by introducing one of the four panelists, Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, as “a very, very brave man.”

And why is he brave? It’s not because he helped conceptualize our brave new world’s most addictive site. It’s because Hughes “just bought a 98-year-old print publication called The New Republic.”

Hughes explained the motive behind the purchase:

“Print is probably dying, but it's got a long life still to live. . . . It's a beautiful product and we're going to continue to invest in print for the foreseeable future. That said, strategically we're focused on one thing: a mobile phone. We believe that the mobile phone, despite the connotation of it only being . . . for short little snippets, is actually increasing the amount of serious reading that is happening, and is only going to continue to do so in the future. We're going to stay an institution that's about serious journalism, thought-provoking writing, you know, things that intelligent people, I think, really crave, but we're going to run as quickly as possible to where intelligent people are spending the vast majority of their time, and that's on their iPhone, their Android device, their Blackberry and, to some extent, to their iPads.”

Fellow panelist Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed founder and Huffington Post co-founder, later made the point that, rather than just go to where the people are, why not go where they are and give them exactly what they’re looking for:

“You've accepted social as the new starting point, why not [publish] content [specifically] for the social web, and seize that as the way of distribution.”

That’s more or less what Peretti did with his new site, but he took the idea a step further. The idea behind Buzzfeed, he said, is to give people what they’re looking for—and also what they're looking to share, regardless of whether they're remotely interested in what they're sharing:

“People come to a site like Buzzfeed to find something that they can give to someone else in their life. . . . You know, we even find guys who say, ‘I don't really love the cute animal stuff. My girlfriend loves it. I come to Buzzfeed, find a cute animal thing, and share it, and I want that stuff on there. I don't want some personalized news experience just for me. I want stuff that is for other people in my news experience because social has become such a big point of the news.”

Right on cue, my gchat chimed—confirming that at least one Reader staffer, Asher Klein, had accepted my invitation to watch the discussion and had taken issue with Peretti's concept.

Asher: "accept social is the new starting point" -> fine, @peretti, but people don't necessarily share the most quality content
For example! This story only has 54 likes, but it's great: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mhastings/where-barack-obama-lost-the-debate
and it doesn't have the social stats tracking that other buzzfeed stories have, which seems like it isn't doing that great socially
this, meanwhile, has 5.8K likes: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/the-truth-about-tlc
me: The problem is that there's no accounting for taste.
Asher: totally!
me: We should create a site that only offers content that's tasteful (in a cool way).
Oh wait, WE ALREADY HAVE.
Asher: boom
me: Just share our shit, people.
We do have cat memes, though.


Time’s Stengel later pressed Hughes on whether a publication like The New Republic—impeccable taste, no cat memes—can actually appeal to the smartphone generation:

“You're in the insight business. You're in the context business. You're in the business of taking the commodity that is news and explaining why it's important. . . . So, what is that on your smartphone? . . . How do I get that in a form that is valuable to me in that medium?

Hughes responded:

“I think you and I may disagree a little bit on this point, because I think that we're entering a golden age of reading because of the mobile phone, and also the tablet as well. . . . A 10,000-word piece requires an incredible commitment, but you are able to read more easily and more often given that you have all of this content available to you on your phone. And if publishers, even if they're long-form publishers, do a good job, then they can make it easy for you to start a piece, continue to read a piece, even if it's only for four to six minutes, and then empower you to pick it up later, whether it's on your iPad, your desktop, or even in print, and continue that experience.”

Bingo.

The solution is not to dumb down content but to be smart about smartphones (and tablets and digital communities).

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