Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Oct. 16th
The news, if you haven’t noticed, is broken. This week’s app attack looks at two new apps that are looking to do something about the state of online journalism. Two releases that couldn’t be more different. One from the man behind the popular Instapaper service, which has made reading long form internet content easy for years. The other from people who have made millions on funny pictures of cats.
It’s one of those weeks.
The Magazine: Simple, Clean, Safe. Too Safe.
Marco Arment is one of the stars of the online design world. He left Tumblr during the early days to set out on his own, and his app Instapaper established him in the blogging firmament as someone devoted to the get-out-of-the-way aesthetic. The popularity of Instapaper has led to Arment’s popularity as well, complete with the requisite podcast.
Last week Arment unleashed his lasted product, an app for Apple’s Newsstand that carries his design philosophy out of the realm of content aggregation and into the world of publishing. He calls it “The Magazine“, perhaps taking a cue from his colleague John Gruber’s immodestly named podcast “The Talk Show.”
The Magazine works on both iPhone and iPad. Arment promises four articles every two weeks for a $1.99 a month subscription. None of the frills or memory hogging layouts of other publications on Newsstand. The blessed thing loads at a snap. Text is text, not jpegs of text. Just a simple, clean, and at this point entirely generic layout. Save for the pop-up footnotes. Those are a nice innovation.
The Magazine embraces the current vogue of lack of aesthetic as aesthetic. It is safe and predictable. It looks, quite literally, like nothing. Arment is at the forefront of this design ethos. One that puts the emphasis on the content and not the container. Only problem: aside from the skill of the prose itself there isn’t much in the way of content. Not only does the Emperor have no clothes, he really needs to hit the gym.
That’s me being a bit hypercritical. The writing is all pleasant enough, but none of it reaches beyond what you might find on a skilled blogger’s homepage. More unnerving, however, is the lack of actual reportage (yes, I went there) in the first four articles offered. For a publication that puts its emphasis on quality over quantity and speed, I really wanted to see at least one quote that someone had bothered to source from something other than a previously published Nick Hornby story and a Louis CK interview from Onion’s A.V. club.
What frustrates me is that Arment and company didn’t even try to do any old fashioned reporting. The Magazine feels more like a tech demo wherein the minimalist design school tries to prove its point, rather than a serious attempt to launch a publication. Tech bloggers need another safe haven for long form writing like I need another hole in the head.
A platform like The Magazine– which leverages Arment’s name recognition in the tech blogosphere– could do some real good. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable and all that jazz that the news is supposed to do. Instead we learn more about the writers then we do about the topics they opine on. Confirmation bias essay writing, sitting in a tepid bath of creative class mega-dittos.
It’s not that I expect Arment to solve all of online journalism’s problems with a single publication. That would be naive beyond belief. What I do expect is for someone who is passionate enough about content to build something like Instapaper, and take a gamble on a project like The Magazine, to take up the challenge of publishing work with some real meat on its bones.
If Arment is serious about his foray into publishing, and I have to say that after reading his foreword to the first issue it seems like he’s only willing to dip his toe in, he should recruit some up and coming journalists to do some real reporting for his magazine. That or partner with an existing outfit. There’s plenty of good work being done out there on the web. The Atlantic and ProPublica come straight to mind. Spot.us is still kicking around. The project may only aim to “deliver meaningful editorial and big picture articles”, but that doesn’t excuse editorial anemia.
Because if the next issue of The Magazine is as pleasant as the first, I’m out.
Circa: The App That Lolcats Built.
Circa is pure curation: each item starts with a headline and a lede, swiping down reveals a paragraph of text, perhaps with an image or a map. The news is boiled down to its bare essence: facts, pull quotes, light context. The posts are unsigned, there are no links, and no real sourcing of information.
It reminds me of my first job: preparing radio news segments. The trick is to boil down the elements to the essentials. The app’s aesthetic is that of a notebook, there’s a torn paper texture at the top of the chrome and that feeling carries over into each page of a post. As I slide through a story, I feel like I’m reading this unnamed reporter’s notebook.
It’s possible to follow a post, and as there are updates the original story will have the information added to it. No endless sea of SEO’d headlines trolling for impressions by serving up a whole new article. Circa is an enjoyable reading experience… provided you don’t think too hard about it.
The lack of a byline, or the ability to link out to more information is downright insidious. Masking potential editorial bias and factual errors by hermetically sealing the platform. The product that Circa seeks to serve up: no nonsense “just the facts, mam” journalism is a noble one. But that doesn’t work in a vacuum where there is no personal accountability.
Heck, the fact that the pinned maps are just static images of a map with a pin in them is almost a joke. Context without context.
If it’s news digesting you want, for now you’re better off directing your attention to the Evening Edition. Its a project of Mule Design, a design firm that has recently jumped into the publication and podcasting business after years of working for publishers. Every day the Evening Edition puts out four summary articles on global news items that almost always have been overlooked by the online chatter of the day. Each has a link to a fuller article on the topic, and the page itself is curated by a journalist identified by byline and photo.
Evening Edition is a webpage, built on a responsive design framework so it looks good on any screen. No pictures aside form the byline photo and a small image of the sponsor of the day. Clean text on a simple background. It melds the design aesthetic Arment loves with the kind of journalism that Huh wants to be backing. Unlike the two apps under review today Evening Edition doesn’t feel like a work in progress. That sucker is more than ready for prime time.
Let’s be clear: I don’t want to see The Magazine or Circa fail. What I want is to see them live up to the potential that their frameworks suggest. Something that won’t happen if we just blindly applaud these first attempts just for trying.