Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What does a digital-first paper newspaper look like?

I've been asked one question more than any other since I interviewed to be The Orion adviser last spring: "Do you see a time when we'll no longer have a newsprint version of the newspaper?"

My answer has always been an unequivocal "no." I think lots of lots of people still expect and want a printed version of the paper, training students to be journalists still means training them for jobs in print media and print advertising still pays the bills at The Orion (though fewer bills than it did in the past).

But the push to make the paper a digital-first source of news -- essentially making the news available in some form on the Web before the paper is printed on Wednesdays -- should result in an Orion that looks a lot different than the current version.

As I've written here before, the paper's sports department has been the first to catch on to this idea, but I think it's helpful to at least try to imagine what the entire paper might look like if everyone else got the message.

My ideal digital-first paper would do what newspapers can still do best: explain the news, use the physical space of the newspaper page to tell a story visually and convey certain types of advertising messages to readers (primarily those with lots of price information or other content that might need to be reread, but also those that need large spaces on pages to provide visual appeal or information).

Bite-sized stories
My redesigned paper would use the short version of stories already on the website the way the stories that now appear on A2 and in the right rail on the op-ed page are displayed. These 100-word briefs would help readers who hadn't seen the website or mobile app versions keep up with the news. The sports section's In Case You Missed It digest of the past weekend's game stories is another good example of this. USA Today's state-by-state roundup of news is one more.

Four-course meals
The section fronts in my ideal paper would be dominated by project reporting: centerpieces, packages of stories that emphasize in-depth reporting, analysis, graphics and other alternative storytelling methods that inform readers about issues that matter to them.  These would range from investigative reports to photo features, personal profiles to almost-full-page infographics. They might be researched and written by teams of reporters.

If this sounds more like a magazine than a traditional newspaper, that's not an accident. The formula of combining long-form and short-form journalism has been a reader-pleasing staple of contemporary consumer magazines for years. My ideal paper would still be a newspaper, though, because it's cheap to produce and has all that wonderful space in which to tell stories.

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