iPad: The Great Nature Theatre of (non-rolling) News
In the last chapter of Kafka's Amerika, there is a scene where Karl, the hero, gets lured into watching, then joining, a grand enterprise called the Grand Nature Theatre of Oklahoma.
As he arrives at the racecourse where the circus is to be staged he hears the sound of trumpets "not playing in tune, just wild playing. But that didn't bother Karl, rather it confirmed to him what a great enterprise the Theatre of Oklahoma was." A disorderly queue forms; nobody is sure what for. Eventually he's offered a job playing the trumpet.
I've come to see this chapter as a giant preview for the digital communications revolution in general, but after queuing for - and eventually being allowed to buy - an iPad 2 it now has a very specific resonance.
You queue; everybody in the queue wants the same thing; everybody is happy, filled with anticipation that they are going to enter the new world if they just wait long enough, answer the right questions, embrace the new experience. You get to the head of a queue and are led upstairs to join the back of a new queue; a bright young person eventually comes to greet you, take your order, sell you an extra foldy thing to cover the screen and then it comes.
You switch it on and... well, yes, you really are in a new continent. You are in the Grand Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Above all, if you are in the business of news, you are finally back in business.
Five years ago I wrote an article which the Guardian unhelpfully headlined "Rolling News RIP". In it I predicted that, as video and audio content populated the web, the realtime rolling news channel would be replaced by "instant access" content. TV execs had been right, I said, to wage a battle for the rolling news space (ITV had just surrendered), but:
"Rolling news is no longer the future. In 2004 the average broadband household spent 16 hours a week online. As anyone who uses any half-decent news platform on the web understands, the internet is faster, delivers instant depth and unrivalled interactivity. Rolling news - and here I mean the concept of a separate channel and its traditional front-end studio format - is the genre of television least suited to survive the transition to the digital age."
At the time (January 2006) BBC News 24 and Sky News were each being watched for 9 minutes a week by the average viewer, while the ITV offering had garnered two minutes of eyeball time. Fast forward to today and Sky gets ten minutes, while the BBC is achieving 19 minutes. The average weekly reach has moved: Sky got 11.6% then and gets 9.5% today; BBC News 24/Newschannel got 13.2% in 2006 and now gets 18.2%. See latest Barb figures here.
So at one level I was too pessimistic. But on another level I was right - and once you've got an iPad, or one of the rival Android based devices, in your hands you know why.
Apart from the apps I need for writing (Pages and Celtx) and messing around (SmartGo Kifu since you ask) the apps I am using most are those produced by news organizations and for social media.
Twitter is my first port of call because - and this is still stunning to write, even though I've admitted this to myself weeks ago: Twitter is now my primary destination for breaking news.
I follow mainly news people and authoritative tweeters in the USA, China and the Middle East so if I want to know what's going on in Syria today, or Libya, I quickly scroll through the tweets of the people I trust to tell me: often these are retweets of first hand accounts such as:
Arrest of student at the University of Bahrain Narjis Abdullah after troops stormed a house after breaking the door 3 clock morning #bahrain
(incidentally I don't know if this is true but I can check it out).
After that, what I used to do when I only had an iPhone was scan the newspaper apps: the Guardian's estimable one; the FT's rather grudgingly updated one that costs me an arm and a leg as part of my online sub; the WSJ and NYT and Washington Post and, if I am feeling like a giant headline, Huffington Post.
But not anymore.
Now I go to the broadcasters, above all - for the richness of experience - Sky News. Sky, for the uninitiated, has launched the mother of all news apps for the iPad/tablet audience.
At its centre is a closed and finished piece of video. What we used to call a package. Hovering around this will be all kinds of related content - served in the seamlessly automatic way me and my fellow dotcom execs used to dream of with text only in our failed attempt to create a computing business website for Reed Business Information in the late 1990s.
For example there is a superb five minute (yes five minute, which for the uninitiated is Newsnight-length) VT from Alex Crawford in Misrata. Surrounding it are an image gallery of photos shot by a producer on the scene (yes a producer); a text article with more depth; a table outlining the main Libyan tribes; a quote from President Obama and an annotated map. All are inter-active and if you click on a tab saying back story there is a date-tagged timeline of similar content.
It is comprehensive. And on the iPad, as on other tablets, the whole thing sparkles. Sky shoots in HD. The screen is small but big enough to make HD look really brilliant when held about 2 feet away from you. Though Sky's app has set the industry ablaze, doubtless other news organisations will soon have something just as whizzy. But the TV people are in the lead.
In fact all TV begins to look very good on an iPad: within hours of getting it me and my wife switched off the Ten O'Clock News on the TV and watched it live on the BBC iPlayer instead: it was a better experience in all ways as long as you can avoid getting your Chicken Biryani on the screen.
My big complaint about Sky's app content is that it's not easy to link to it: I can't link you direct to the Alex Crawford report via this blog or via Twitter. In fact the general non-shareability of app content is, well, a bit Kafkaesque.
And that's a shame because my predictions about the TV package are being proved right, though in ways I could not have imagined five years ago. I wrote that rolling news had begun to kill the art of the package:
"Rolling news was always going to be a world of talking heads. In the process, we lost the concept of "story" - an editorial process whose outcome is a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and hopefully a meaning. During the rise of rolling news that was something we just had to live with. Now we don't.
"The internet as a medium has no fear of the finished narrative: "on-demand" news, downloaded as individual stories or bulletins, fits naturally with the interactive instincts of web users, which they are bringing to broadband TV as it emerges. The finished story also fits in with the economics of broadband. Everything else in this medium is designed to be stored, shared or sold."
Now both the Sky News and BBC News iPad apps are, essentially finished news packages plus supporting text. There is an option to switch to the live output, but I have not found myself using it. What I do is follow the news as it breaks on Twitter or - if I am in the vicinity - the TV: and then click on the finished content on the iPad.
However what's happening to the finished content is also interesting. Right now, running against Sky's Misrata report is a BBC story about the UN probing human rights abuses in Misrata (again - the iPad app is not allowing me any form of link out to this). The video content is an unedited (except for an inpoint and an outpoint) of a head and shoulders announcement by Liam Fox MP, the Defence Secretary, about the use of Predator drones. The story as presented therefore is far more of a montage: here's the written story and here by the way is a bit of original footage of a politician talking.
The Sky package, while it uses all the techniques of shooting and editing we use on Newsnight, is interesting in that it allows people to speak at length; it is informal; the camera joggles about in the burnt-out shelter where a tank has been destroyed. The narrative is much less imposed than it would have been five or ten years ago: we are simply allowed to be there, to follow the Libyan fighters through their rat-runs, shell holes. We are "there". (A horrible thought occurs that it looks very like the Battlefield 3 trailer; I throw in this thought for further discussion.)
On top of news apps there are a growing number of apps that let you construct your own magazine from the content linked-to by people you know or follow on Twitter and Facebook. I've been trying these out - Zite, Flipboard etc. For me they are not so interesting because I am essentially into making my own choices about what to do in a stressed and busy work environment and do not want to read/view other people's trivia served up by an algorhythm that thinks it knows me. However, these personal aggregation apps are another form of digital news that I could not have imagined before.
Finally there are two apps worth mentioning that I think will complete the circle of this news revolution: iMovie and Garage Band. The audio input on the iPad is good enough to broadcast, even without a USB microphone, once edited on Garage Band; the video is not so great and cannot be zoomed; but iMovie again allows you to create and edit "good-enough" video packages.
I don't think it will be long before we start to get broadcast content made on the very devices through which it will be consumed, though you will never achieve great HD for several more iterations of the technology.
Five years ago I thought we would begin to see the replacement of rolling news by non-rolling, and at the same time more instant and less "presented" news content. I had no concept that digital devices like the tablet would come along. Nor that e-Books would take off (I downloaded and found the relevant passage from Kafka's Amerika on the iPad's Kindle app in the first five minutes after I decided to write this post).
What's happening now is the emergence of rich, instant digital content alongside rolling news; plus the emergence of reliable social media as a news source, circumventing the mainstream media and at the same time forcing its agenda (I learned most of what I wanted to know about the Bristol riot from the social media and even now for richness and diversity of coverage of that event and its aftermath, social media beats mainstream).
Now, in the news business, everybody is in the same business. What matters is richness, shareability, and the ability to in some way monetise (for everybody except the BBC) this new, attractive content.
The crucial attribute for tablet news is what I call "sparkleosity": does it move, swoosh, twinkle? Does it invite me do do things with it, share it, come back for more?
I've always said to newspaper execs bewailing the unwillingness of the public to pay for news: build something worthwhile and they will come. Alfred Harmsworth produced 40 dummy issues of a new kind of newspaper before launching it on the world and changing the whole business: it was the Daily Mail and people liked it so much they began to form the same kind of queues to buy it that you now see in the Apple Store (the initial print run of 100,000 had to be upped to 500,000 in six months).
Actually the Daily Mail's website is now booming because it's followed the same instinct: launch something different online to what you get from those blue-black headlines of middle class doom on paper. (Interestingly its iPad app sucks, to offer a personal opinion: it lacks the sparkle of its website - but as I say everbody is just in year Zero).
As it turned out it was not the newspaper men who produced something new and sparkly: it was Steve Jobs, and the guys at Sky who came up with what for me is one of the first apps that totally lives and breathes on the tablet platform.
So, as the billboard shouted to Karl in that fictional mid-western racecourse, so the tablet shouts to news executives everywhere, breathlessly:
"The great Theatre of Oklahoma calls you! If you miss your chance now you miss it for ever! If you think of your future you are one us! Everyone is welcome!"
** Just so I meet all the requirements: as well as the iPad there are numerous tablet devices and they all do roughly the same thing, from Samsung, LG, HP and upcoming Sony. Here's a link to a bunch of them.