Quick links

Emily Bell posting on the shaping of news as platforms take distribution: The Rise of Mobile and Social News – and What it Means for Journalism.

Meanwhile in old journalism, the fate of copyright in the Fairfax archive: Peter Lloyd’s Fairfax archives row: Photographers cry foul over library at centre of alleged digitisation fraud.

The long and the short of it

This is the text of a talk I gave at A Very Informal Lightning Series on Digital Culture, organised by members and friends of the National Digital Forum. It was a good evening (disrupted only by repeated fire alarm tests in the building), with a lot of crossover and agreement across all the talks. My talk’s original title was ‘The Long and the Short of it: a future for Te Ara and NZHistory’.

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I have to start with a confession and that’s that I came up with the title for this talk in a hurry and before thinking about what I’d talk about. I’m quite happy with the first bit, ‘The long and the short of it’, but I’m not sure about the subtitle even with the rider that it’s only ‘a’ future. Instead I’ll talk about this: Some Things to Talk About When Thinking About the Future of Te Ara and NZHistory.

Long and short

Te Ara is the online encyclopedia of New Zealand – a landmark born digital encyclopedia that’s been drawn together over the last 10 years. NZHistory is its slightly older sibling, or perhaps rotten uncle. Together they’re some of the most heavily used websites in the cultural and heritage sector.

Someone asked me last week what the difference between them is. In reply I drew them a picture a bit like this one.

Te Ara and NZ History content

In some ways they’re very similar – they cover New Zealand’s culture and history in its many forms.

But Te Ara is incredibly broad. It covers the full range of New Zealand subjects, from politics, social history, Maori culture, natural history, creativity, and more.

NZHistory – as the name suggests – focuses more on history: political, cultural, and a lot of coverage of war history.

Typically Te Ara entries are highly structured and relatively short. NZHistory on the other hand is almost anarchic and has the freedom to cover subjects in more depth. It’s a gross generalisation but one that’s useful to point to the complementary nature of short and long content. Depending on our users level of interest it allows us to serve up the right amount of content for them.

That’s one thing to think about: short and long content is complementary.

Content development

I said it’s a generalisation – both sites have content that doesn’t conform to such an easy statement. One of the things that NZHistory does for example, are tiny but useful pieces of content that sit on top of the deep content and act as hooks to draw people into deeper content.

Nuggets

It’s something I think we need to do a lot more of, while bearing in mind that it’s probably a huge task – literally summarising all our content. But it has interesting spin-off uses. For one thing it’s more mobile friendly for users looking for a quick answer or fact. And as Virginia Gow pointed out, it’s also far more useful for sharing and posting to social media by us and our users.

At the other end of the scale we’ve got all these gaps in our long content. There’s a huge potential here for us to develop content that fills these gaps or work with other groups to do so. It could even be the content exists and we just need to look at mechanisms for connecting it up.

Nuggets and data

I heard the scientist Hamish Campbell talk recently about the ebook he released with Bridget Williams Books BWBText series. As books they’re short, but they’re decent length essays that Hamish Campbell felt gave him the space to develop an argument in a way that newspaper or magazine publishing doesn’t.

That’s a format I’d like to see explored on our websites – not so much ebooks but more indepth content that responds to contemporary issues and draws on the breadth of our content. That establishes a cycle between short an long content: short content provides a foundation to build arguments which in turn establish new facts that inform the foundation.

That’s the second thing: short and long content inform and develop each other.

A couple of other quickish things to mention…

Project calabash

Something I talked about at NDF last year was a small pilot project that we’re working on with Te Papa to create better links between Te Ara and Collections Online. We’re still working through it but at its simplest form it links images of Te Papa objects that appear on Te Ara to the record for the object on Collections Online and vice versa. Basically it means people can get more information about the object through a simple hyperlink.

Two calabashes

It’s a hardwired connection between two sites. Once we get it working with Te Papa we’ll extend it to other collections. At that point we start making connections not just between two sites but by association across the network – where our stories use objects and items from different collections, we effectively create a network of subject based links between collections.

That’s the third thing: stories link objects into a wider context.

Dynamic connections

We’re currently redesigning NZHistory. That’s how it started out anyway, but then our lead designer and NZHistory’s product manager got to talking behind our developers’ backs and decided to redevelop it at the same time.

Where they’re going with it is to add a new navigation that’s driven off keywords, with the keywords broken down into People, Places, Events and Subjects. We’re using the keywords to generate what we’re calling dynamic pages – effectively pulling together all the content from across NZHistory that has that keyword and the displaying it in the same sorts of content groupings.

David Lange on the new NZHistory

Here’s mockup based on a People keyword, so it’s got a hero image and story – the biography – as well as related media items, events, and articles. I think this is exciting, but it’s only the start – next we’ll look at pulling in Te Ara content and use DigitalNZ to pull in content from other websites.

At this point it really starts to become a model that the digital heritage sector can experiment with as well – pulling content from multiple sources that fits a particular interest. This is just a New Zealand history take on it, but the possibilities for combining content around different subjects are endless.

That’s my last thing: dynamic connections will unlock the digital heritage sector’s collective potential.

A future?

I’ve failed to present a future, but I think these ideas point in the right direction. I’ve drifted away from the original idea of the Long and the Short of it, but it’s content in its many forms that we do well and that we contribute to the sector.

Recognising our internal strengths and playing to them while seeing how and where we can fit into the wider sector – providing context, providing links – and collaborating with the sector to help all our users create their own stories and collections has to be something to which we should aspire.

Copy and distribute

Battle lines are drawn, or so it seems, with a gulf opening up between creators and consumers on the future of copyright. No one can deny the extent to which the web has disrupted business models based on copyright. Legislation needs review it may well get it, but I fear that the gulf will be too great to generate a healthy and sustainable result. At its core are arguments between producers and upholders of copyright, and the new digital advocates for consumers and creators who see copyright as a barrier to innovations and creativity. I won’t make claim to any answers, but a few points come up again and again. This post doesn’t advance a comprehensive argument; it notes a few thoughts I have on the issues. They may be misguided or not well-enough informed. Comments are very welcome.

Assume these things

Creators have a right to make a living. We all need to acknowledge that.

Creators currently rely on producers. That may or may not change, depending on the creator. Some will be capable of producing a polished and desirable product that consumers want. Others will still require and benefit hugely from the services or professional editors, designers, and other production staff.

Producers needs to make a living too. They add value and need recompense for that effort and added value.

Innovation and creativity relies on sampling and re-using existing material. We stand on the shoulder of giants and all that comes before us. Fair use generally makes that possible and fundamentally copyright holders don’t get in the way of legitimate creativity and new works.

Some jurisdictions are going too far in new copyright protections. Think Disney and Mickey Mouse, Happy Birthday, and the like. It’s creating a barrier to creativity based on those common items of popular culture.

Distribution rights may be based on copyrights but they’re not the same thing.

If it’s broke, fix it

Where consumers bemoan not being able to buy Game of Thrones in New Zealand as soon as it screens in the US, that’s not about copyright; it’s about distribution. More than that, it’s about producers not responding to global demand and instead trying to maximize profits on a territory basis.

Conversely, producers who use the moral argument of protecting creators through copyright to justify maintaining the current territory based distribution right model are just not facing up to a broken business model that the web will not allow to survive.

When producers cry foul about copyright infringement, whose rights are they most concerned about? Often the argument is made on behalf of creators (think of the poor starving writer), when in fact producers have already captured the commercial rights of individual works. For a particular piece of work, producers can only really be concerned about their commercial rights in the product, short of the typically small sum passed onto creators by way of royalties.

But there’s a systemic justification: if the producer makes money off one product they can invest in subsequent products, which may in turn support creators and foster further creativity. Undermine the ability for producers to add value and derive an income destabilizes that system.

Where it gets interesting is in, for example, the recently announced withdrawal of the editorial offices of the likes of publishers Hachette and Pearson from New Zealand. As noted here, copyright and (what I think is a broken distribution system based on unenforceable) territorial rights played a part in Hachette’s departure. (As an aside I’d also argue against GST full stop, but that’s a different post.)

The irony here is that part of the problem is parallel importing – the practice where something can be imported into a territory (say, New Zealand) by someone despite someone else owning the right to distribute that product in that territory. But that parallel importing is being made possible by the multinational owners of the local publisher. The multinational is in effect putting its own subsidiary out of business.

That aside, and whatever the reason for multinationals closing their local offices, it means there are now fewer publishing channels available for New Zealand writers, particularly those wanting an entree to an international market via multinational publishers. It breaks part of the system that supports local writers.

That’s a very real problem that producers are struggling with; others need to help, and creators need to understand how serious a problem it is. Undermining copyright won’t address that problem; nor will extending or enhancing it. Perhaps we need to forget copyright and focus on finding a new business model that doesn’t rely on territory based distribution but still creates enough wealth to support creators and producers is the critical issue.

Digital publishing in a cultural world

The following are notes for a talk at the Auckland NDF barcamp, 10 July 2013

Introduction

When Bruce asked me to come and be the guest today, we were pretty vague about what I should do. In the end we agreed I should talk about the things that are on my mind at the moment. That’s mainly about publishing – that’s what I do – but it’s also about working with collecting organisations and looking for ways the cultural sector can be working together.

So a bit about me and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. I manage the ministry’s Web Team. I’m also on the NDF board and am involved in organising their conferences. I’m not a collections person – 1 year at NLNZ – but working life mainly spent in publishing.

MCH does a broad range of work in the cultural sector. It provides policy advice on arts, culture, heritage, sport and broadcasting to government, It monitors and oversees funding to agencies like radio NZ, NZ On Air, Te Papa and others. It manages significant heritage sites and oversees the Protected Objects Act and national emblems. It’s also a major publisher of both printed and digital publications.

I’m involved in the digital publications, notably sites like Te Ara and NZ History – our big two sites – attracting 600 to 700k visits a month. We also run smaller community based sites like Vietnam Oral History Project and the 28 Maori Battalion sites, and have recently helped release the WW100 website that’s part of a project working across the sector to encourage collaboration around the 100th anniversary commemorations of WW1.

MCH as a collection user

Like me, MCH doesn’t have a background in collecting, it isn’t primarily a collecting institution. We write stories and produce a lot of text content, but we illustrate those stories with images and media from collecting institutions. Try this on Google Image Search: “site:teara.govt.nz auckland city libraries

We’re probably one of the country’s biggest collection users – Te Ara has 25 to 30000 resources, most from collecting institutions; NZ History has maybe 4 or 5000. As a user we’re interested in openness and ease of access and re-use – the more open collections become the easier our job is for sourcing content. But we’re mindful that it’s not as easy for collecting institutions though, but maybe we’ll talk more on that later in the day.

Multi channel publishing

As well as the websites, we’ve been experimenting in the last few years with multi channel publishing. Creating different formats of the same content in different places.

  • Roadside Stories is a good example: audio plus images, create video, publish in places like iTunes, YouTube, as an app.
  • ebooks are a new example – taking existing content and repackaging it into a new format so people can experience in a different way.

In some ways it’s picking up on COPE strategies, the idea that you create content once and publish everywhere. It’s a good idea – better systems, less duplication, updating and accuracy across all the places your content goes.

Finding the right channel for users

I find myself questioning the ‘Everywhere’ in COPE and what everywhere really means for different institutions. The web has opened up a huge number of channels to reach your users, or potential users, or at least that’s what we think.

In a fairly short period of time we’ve gone from bricks and mortar – or books in MCH’s case – to developing our own websites and on to social media and now apps. It’s caused its own chaos for many institutions who are trying to run multiple social media accounts on countless websites. At MCH we have about 20 uncoordinated accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, LinkedIn, and more I can’t remember.

So a question for us all: Are we doing it because we genuinely have users or potential users on all those websites, or is it just because we can or feel we should?

Finding the right format for your content

Something else I’ve thought of recently is the importance of finding the right format for your content.

For Roadside Stories our most successful channel has been YouTube – 120,000 views in 18 months or so. Not bad but far less than our websites, so perhaps not great. I think it’s symptomatic of a failure in that format for us.

Back to what we do really well – tell stories and write text. Without a lot of resource that doesn’t easily translate to moving images for YouTube. Other than our oral history work, creating video and audio content is a whole world that we don’t know a lot about or have the time to develop.

ebooks on the other hand suit our content far more easily and readily. We’ve got the text and with a some illustrations we can produce ebooks ad infinitum. So far they’ve proved popular with minimal promotion – about 1000 downloads in a month of content that’s already freely available.

So I’m interested in this idea of how we find the right channels and formats for our content. Others are doing it – Radio NZ has lots of audio, so they produce podcasts; National Library’s used Flickr’s cultural commons for sharing out of copyright images.

Maybe we can come back to that later in the day and talk about identifying relevant channels and formats for collecting institutions?

Building a system v just doing it

Another concern I have with COPE is organisational capacity. MCH is pretty poor at managing its content. I hope that will change, but in the meantime if we want to follow a multi channel publishing strategy it has to be on a just do it philosophy. We won’t do anything if we wait for the big system.

I don’t think that matters too much. We need to keep the many formats in mind as and when we start to develop a new system, but for now they let us experiment and explore the technology and get a better understanding of the outputs we need a system to support.

Digital content strategy

With that in mind I’m starting to push the idea that we need a comprehensive digital content strategy. Currently our websites are siloed – Te Ara has a content strategy, as does NZ History. We even have a print publishing content strategy and one for the oral history programme.

We need to look at all content and see it as a collection rather than siloed websites. Seeing our content as an asset that needs management as a whole. More than that, it’s a taxpayer funded asset and it’s incumbent on us to manage that asset on behalf of taxpayers. In that sense we’re no different to publicly funded collecting institutions in that we’re stewards of something that doesn’t belong to us.

We’re also trying to think beyond websites – that’s where Roadside Stories and ebooks fit; yes you can view is on our websites but you can also see it other places – you don’t need to come to us. At the moment they’re kind of content tasters – little tastes of our content that promote our brand and the bigger pool of content we have.

But that’s still website centric – here’s what we have, how about you come and visit our sites to see more.

One of the big questions for us, and going back to the idea that this content is an asset – what if we stopped thinking about websites at all and started thinking about a database of content that gets used and distributed by other people – on websites, apps, databases, ebooks, whatever other people want to create? What are the threats in doing that versus the benefits?

Filling the gaps

But back to managing that asset… With Te Ara, we attempt to be comprehensive across all subjects but at a relatively easy to understand level. It’s medium content. NZ History on the other hand is more selective in what it covers and goes deep. They’re very complementary – people can chose the view the level of content that suits them.

But they’re separate websites so people can’t really make that choice, and we can’t properly manage the content across the two sites – we can’t identify gaps in coverage, we can’t easily ensure they don’t contradict each other, and we can’t easily update content on the same topic that appears on both sites. Nor can we see any content overlaps.

That’s probably our biggest challenges – how to bring them together, at least at a management level if not a user interaction level as well.

Why are we doing it?

We have to constantly ask why we’re doing this. Why does the government invest money in publishing? There’s clear demand from users, and as our stats follow to a large extent the school year, we’re clearly important to education users. But could a commercial publisher do the same job? Probably not, is our view – there’s a market failure at that level that requires government intervention. But intervention for what?

The Ministry’s mantra is that it works “to enrich the lives of all New Zealanders by supporting our dynamic culture and preserving our heritage.” For us that means answering as many questions as we can that users ask about our culture and history. We need to be about answering questions that people ask.

There’s something else here about how we answer questions in a digital world that is increasingly looking for fast answers. Most people don’t ask us; they ask Google. If we’re lucky Google sends them to us, which increasingly it does – currently provides about two-thirds of our traffic.

We’re also contending with rising mobile traffic – people on small screens wanting short information. Responsive design for mobile is on everyone’s minds, but I wonder if what we need is responsive content, tailored to provide the short pithy content that works well on mobile, in search results, in a tweet or facebook post.

We have a lot of that content already, but we don’t have the mechanism to mark it up and share it easily. If we did, again, it would provide those little tastes of our content that might lead users back to a fuller experience of the deeper content we’ve got.

Digital first

I put together a paper recently at MCH about a digital publishing strategy. It talked about that idea of making our content more responsive. Unfortunately I coined the terms ‘nuggets’ to describe the very short content, which was quickly turned into McNuggets. But that aside, it’s one of the areas we need to include in a content development plan. Short stuff that grabs users on Google or in their mobile devices and brings them through to us.

The major idea I pushed is that we need to be digital first. Our digital publishing is what reaches our largest audience and helps us answer more questions than any other format. To my mind it’s a no brainer that we prioritise digital over any other output, but it didn’t sit so well with the many historians at the Ministry who write history books.

It did provoke a good discussion of what’s happening in publishing at the moment as print publishers struggle to grasp what it meant.

For the writers they see the output as a driver of research and that typically means conceptualising their work as a book. A book gives edges and form to the way they conduct their research. The publishing process itself helps makes decisions – a new pitch for a book includes an outline of the book’s argument, it’s parts and chapters, all of which help the researcher structure their research.

So there’s a tension there. It’s a tension that isn’t helped yet by the web and its early attempts at long form reading. People will read short and medium length articles but I think there’s still resistance to reading something more like a chapter from a book, let alone a whole book.

People still want to read. In a survey we ran earlier this year, most of our users asked for more in-depth articles and text content over other types of content.

We seeing some interesting attempts at long form reading on the web. The NY Times Snowfall feature and the This Land interactive, and the Guardian’s interactive Firestorm are good examples. What Snowfall gets right is the priority it gives to reading over other content. Visual and audio content is provided, but it’s quietly placed.

Does digital matter?

I was going to ask at some point whether digital matters? It’s a topic that comes up at NDF regularly – what’s the line between the work that institutions do in the digital and physical space. It’s a probably a question that more relevant to those of you working in physical organisations. Is it to increase visitors? increase knowledge? other?

For us it’s definitely about increasing knowledge and as I’ve said, to my mind, digital offers us the biggest reach to do that. But this is where I flip-flop as there’ll always be something about print, not just the fact that hundreds of years of book publishing has honed the rules of readability and comprehension, but also the love people have of the book as object.

There’s always going to be a role for books as object, but increasingly they’ll be objects of desire, or even fetish. Digital will feed that – it’s the content that succeeds digitally that can stand the investment of print. Or that’s my view, a commercial publisher may well disagree.

But I want to find out how we break out of seeing the book as the driver of in-depth research and find a mechanism where deep research can be inspired by web. It feels like we’re just on the cusp of working out what that mechanism is.

Digital ecosystem

I was going to talk about open collections at this point, but I think that’s potentially a topic that warrants its own session later. I don’t have a collection so I’m not the best person to talk about it.

But a segue from that, I talked at last year’s NDF in my opening remarks about how we’re all part of a digital ecosystem. Together we form a huge collection of interlinked content and items that are all better for being part of a whole. It’s kind of where the LODLAM proponents are heading – if we link all our data it becomes that much more useful.

I don’t fully understand the hows of LOD but I want to jump to a conversation about a distributed national encyclopedia. What would or could that look like?

We’ve got all this content, and it’s content that provides context to your collection items. And there are new websites popping up all the time doing similar work. Typically though we only use one collection item to illustrate the story; why not be able to all the calabashes that Te Papa holds when someone’s reading about calabashes on Te Ara. And if they’re looking at Te Papa’s calabashes why not provide the context and information about calabashes from Te Ara?

Why do I need to go to Te Ara to read about natural history, NZ History to read about war, NZ On Screen or Audioculture to learn about popular culture, or Digital NZ to view collection items?

Why aren’t we all just contributing to one thing? If that ecosystem was brought together and we all found our niche and started contributing all our content into one system, wouldn’t that be serving all our users better than siloed websites?

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So that’s I guess my pitch. There’s a big move toward open collections, and the LODLAM types are on our heels. how do we make sense of that, make it work for the sector, and mostly, make it work for all our users?

A flip-flop and a scroll too far

A few years is a long time on the internet, but it feels like it’s taken about that long for the infinite scroll to become commonplace. It’s that message at the bottom of a web page that tells you more results, tweets, posts, whatever, are loading. And then it’s the way thatonce they load, the bottom of the page jumps out of site. When you find it again, your page is twice as big as it was, and still it’s loading more results, growing bigger with every scroll of your mouse.

Google Image search is doing it; Flickr’s started doing it; Twitter and Facebook have done it forever. The infinite scroll works on social media. We know social media’s finite but it somehow feels too big to think of that way. In practical terms it’s infinite, it washes over you. If you miss something it doesn’t matter, you can just grab the next thing that comes along. There’s not the same need to understand the scale because you know you never will.

It’s when I’m looking for something that my relationship with the infinity changes: I need to understand and navigate the finite.

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I was searching for images recently and found myself lost in the infinite scroll of search results. I got what I needed in the end, but each search made me more aware of how disorientating an every-growing page of search results can be.

On a practical level, each time I viewed an item and then hit back to return to my search results, I was dumped back at the top of the original shortlist of results, not back to where I’d been in the list. It’s true I could have opened each result in a new tab, but that means I – as a user – have to change my behaviour.

It makes me wonder what is it about infinite scroll that web designers and developers think is so useful that it’s worth making users change. But as I say, that’s purely a practical issue. So I get a bit lost and had to re-scroll to reload my results. So what?

It’s the conceptual angle I’m interested in – the feeling of being lost. Where in the list am I? How close to the top and bottom of the list? A result that was near the middle of the page when it first loaded is suddenly proportionally nearer the top once more results load. Where did it go? Where on the scale of top and bottom – and therefore the scale of importance – does each result sit? Those are the questions that occur to me as my page of results grows longer every time I scroll further down the page.

There’s the new take on the old joke about the tree falling with no one to hear it: if your result isn’t on page 1 of a Google search does it really matter? But regardless of which page your result is on, the pagination give you a sense of where in the sea of results your result sits. Pagination gives a sense of chunks of results that I can move through. Google delivers hundreds of thousands of results; sure, the scale is unfathomable (infinite?) but the pagination gives me some structure to work with.

Those million or so results become slightly more understandable once you know they span fifty thousand or so pages of 20 results a page. Apply pagination to a more manageable set of results from your typical cultural collection website, and your few hundred results become navigable and comprehensible: page 1 is relevant, page 5 is related at a stretch, page 20 becomes just bizarrely curious (and worth looking at!). Pagination is our map, leading from the centre to the outlying results and back.

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I’m interested in how this could play out when it starts to be applied to fuller text content – not search results or Facebook posts, but newspaper articles and even longer pieces of written work. What some are now calling pageless web design. Long articles are appearing less with pagination (and the accompanying link to ‘read as a single page’) and going straight to the long single page.

Snow Fall – the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek is a lovely example. It hits a good mixed approach of presenting each lengthy part on a single page. There’s simple navigation fixed to the top of the page and links at the bottom of the page to go forward or back across the parts. Images are placed simply; you can stop and look or pass on. Same with video, which sits unobtrusively in the text. It’s the text that’s the main event and if you’re in the story you’re in the story: that’s where your attention should be.

Also from the New York Times is their recent feature, This Land, a story about Elyria, Ohio (aka, Everyplace). I’m not so sure what’s going on in this piece. From the URL I can see the creators think it’s an ‘interactive’. Compare that with Snow Fall’s URL that puts that feature in their ‘projects’ directory. On this score alone, projects seem deeper and meatier than interactives, until you realise that what This Land is doing is linking to long text articles that appear in a fairly standard Times article template.

Not to be out-done, the Guardian has got in on the interactive act with Firestorm, the story of the Holmes family caught in the Tasmania fires in Dunalley. It’s an intense topic – fear, desperation, survival, human terror – presented in an intense way. Large images, sparse text, pained recordings of survivors.

As a reader/viewer/listener you have less control; audio starts playing as it scrolls into view; video plays in the background, images moving behind text as you read. And although the whole piece is broken down into chapters, once you’re in a chapter the scroll bar in your browser disappears. There’s no longer any sense of how big this thing is.

There comes a point where I start to feel overwhelmed. Both This Land and Firestorm are heavily reliant on interactive content to augment the written material, but it’s reliant to the extent that the text appears as overwhelmed as I am. Is the text still needed, and if it is, has it fallen prey to the excess of what’s possible with digital over what’s desirable?

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I want to avoid the unhelpful (and over-emphasised) dichotomy between analog and digital reading. There are those who’ll never put down printed books and those who’ll never pick one up; and there are vast numbers of us who’ll read printed books, websites, ebooks and whatever else is just around the corner. But some differences are useful to consider.

Printed books remain for many the primary vehicle for long-form reading, whether it’s a novel or a chapter-based non-fiction title. The web on the other hand has taken over the quick reference and short-form content that fills so much of people’s lives: information, news, quiz answers, blog posts. But coming along now, ebooks and web content like Snow Fall et al are trying – with increasing success – to move people into digital long-form reading.

It feels like we’re at an intersection for digital and analog, and in some ways it’s an intersection we’ve been through before: what does digital need to learn from analog and what does digital offer that’s genuinely useful. If we want to provide really useful and engaging long-form reading experiences for people, we need to be aware of what makes long-form reading successful in a printed book.

Printed books have been the primary means of delivering knowledge and information for hundreds of years. Over that time, printers, publishers and designers established clear rules for creating the best reading experiences for readers. White space, clear margins for the eye to navigate to the beginning of the next line, an airy feeling between lines of text (but not so airy as to space text out too far), eight to twelve words per line, and so on.

Rules like these allowed the reader’s eye to scan the line they’re reading as well as the lines above and below. Being able to use all those lines and words in context gives the reader a better understanding of the text. Modern web design has picked up on all these simple rules.

A book also has a physical presence. It’s got weight, heft, texture. Its physical presence tells the reader something else – scale and progress. You can tell the difference between a 200-page and a 1000-page book; you can tell how far through you are; and you have a sense of where in the story arc or writer’s argument you are. It’s true that a digital file on a plastic device will never evoke the tactile feel of a well worn and read paperback, but somehow it needs to emulate the sense of scale and progress through the text.

Ebooks and features like Snow Fall do just that. Whether it’s a simple page and total page count, a slider or scroll bar showing the reader’s progress, or a proportional graphic representation of pages in the device interface, there’s an effort to show the reader where they are in the story.

Similarly, Snow Fall and simple text-based ebooks give a primacy to the written content that’s in keeping with the vast majority of printed books. I don’t see the primacy of text changing. To an extent long-form reading in digital devices has been sidetracked by what’s possible in the digital world, rather than what’s desirable. We can add video, therefore we do; we can play audio, so we do. That’s been at the expense of developing solid long-form digital written content with an appropriate amount of supporting non-textual content.

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Pageless web design, infinite scroll, an overwhelming use of multimedia content. It all feels like we’re forgetting the rules of reading in print again. We’re going the other way and trying to create a new reading experience that fails to build on hundreds of years of publishing and reading. It’s dumping the covenant between writer/producer and reader/consumer. The reader’s place in a text and understanding of that place doesn’t matter in the world of the infinite scroll and pageless design.

As producers it feels like we’ve given up trying to help readers understand where they are in our content. We’re just leaving them to find their own way. But if the web wants to start being a home to long-form reading then we’re going to have to revisit the rules of reading, relearn the lessons of centuries of publishing, and give our readers a greater sense of place in our content.

Multi-channel publishing

I recently gave a talk to a Wellington web content meetup and will be running a similar talk at the ALGIM online services symposium in May. This is the guts of the talk.

At the Ministry for Culture and Heritage we’re mainly known for print publications and websites. Often our websites benefit from a print product, re-using printed content or even using research that didn’t make the book; sometimes we produce books off the back of web content, the Te Ara books being good examples. But we don’t usually set out to work like that. Generally we’re format-focussed from the start of a project and anything else is a luck spin-off.

That changed at least a little in 2011 when we published a series of audi-visual stories called Roadside Stories. It was our first foray into what we’ve since called multi-channel publishing. It’s not rocket science and sits in the same space as COPE (create once, publish everywhere) strategies being adopted by the likes of Conde Naste and NZ’s own Auckland Museum, and popularised by speakers like Karen McGrane.

I work in the web part of the Ministry’s publishing work. We get a good amount of traffic and have plenty to do keeping websites like Te Ara, NZ History, Vietnam War, 28 Maori Battalion up and running. They’re a huge information asset in their own right and demand dedicated attention and ongoing resources. So where is the space for something like Roadside Stories?

Strategy?

We had a very loosely defined at the time the project started where we wanted to start looking beyond websites at new ways of distributing content that didn’t rely on yet another website. We had a few things we wanted to see if we could achieve.

Marketing: Wanted to develop content that can effectively market itself. It can be useful and self contained and live on social networks and other peoples’ websites.

Content tasters: Heath Sadlier, our former lead designer, came up with the term content taster – the aim is to provide a taste of our content. It could be a video, an infographic, even just a tweet, but it’s something that can stand alone and live where users are active – facebook, twitter, youtube – wherever.

Branding: In marketing itself, it’s also marketing the rest of our work and making our brands better known.

Experimenting: We also wanted to learn some new things and new ways of working together as a team, collaborating with other organisations, and test the waters with different ways of publishing and distributing content. In doing so it had to be cost-effective, minimise costs, and use existing platforms and cheap off the shelf products. Again, experimenting to see what’s easy to use and what’s effective.

Roadside stories came along at just the right time. Jock Phillips had been working with the REAL New Zealand Festival to develop audio recordings of stories from around New Zealand. The initial plan was to record CDs of the stories that could then be handed out to visiting tourists as they arrived for the Rugby World Cup. That would have costs thousands so Jock turned to us, the Ministry’s Web Team, to sort it out.

We started by looking at what we should we do:

  • the stories were about places so we naturally thought of using location aware distribution
  • we wanted to let other people use them as well as us – in essence they could promote us and our work
  • people needed to be able to find and use them in many places – ideally however they chose
  • they needed to be attractive and that meant visual as well as audio

But what we could do, ideally on little or no budget:

  • sourced whatever imagery we could to illustrate each story
  • looked for GPS technology that we could use off the shelf
  • identified web channels that we could use
  • put in place processes to track content creation and publishing

Finally what did we do:

  • produced 140 videos and published them on YouTube – it’s free, easy to share, people know it
  • geo-located the stories on Google Maps – um, why not? plus it gave us the geo coordinates
  • worked with MyToursApp to develop a mobile iOS and Android app of the stories, maps and images – it’s low-cost and Glen Barnes is great to work with
  • embedded the videos on our websites and our partners’ websites – so we could effectively use YouTube as a video storage solution
  • released the audio stories as a podcast through iTunes – again free channel
  • developed a iBook using a sample of the stories – painful to release but a free channel

Results

ouTube has been the single most successful channel with over 100,000 views. Most popular is Moeraki Boulders – viewed over 30,000 times – mainly from being embedded on other people’s websites. That’s a key success measure: videos being used on other websites, particularly where it supports local regions and business through groups like local tourist organisations using our content.

We haven’t got any stats for iTunes but we’ve found that the app and iBook downloads are both fairly successful but only at relatively low numbers. (See the Roadside Stories page for download links.)

What we’ve found though is that they’re not pulling in lots of traffic to our websites. We loaded them up with links for further information but that hasn’t resulted in lots of traffic. It probably points back to them being standalone and able to exist independently of our websites.

But maybe they’ve contributed to general awareness of our websites that helped growth? Here’s a graph!

Total visits growth 2010 to 2012

Total visits growth 2010 to 2012

 

Something we didn’t do was develop a marketing plan – we haven’t really pushed them, hence the low figures of uptake, but the idea was that they’re marketing themselves. It’s an aspect we should have planned better. We could also have thought more about defining what a successful project would look like. Given that it was all new to us, that wouldn’t have been easy, and we felt at that time that it was low risk, low cost and relatively low staff time (even if it didn’t feel like that at the time), so any views were good views.

It’s probably given us a benchmark though for this type of project. We’d expect to improve our product in future and get higher views and downloads.

What we got right

  • Collaboration across organisations – REAL Festival, Tourism NZ, Radio NZ
  • Professional scripts and high quality audio
  • Chance to upskill staff and work across a relatively new team
  • Used simple tools (spreadsheets!) to track progress

What we didn’t get so right

  • Plan sooner and especially get hold of content sooner
  • Decide on an easy ID that can apply to all content related to each story
  • Sign off on all content for factual accuracy as early as possible – you don’t want to re-record audio or redo video
  • anything to do with Apple Inc can be a painful process

The biggest lesson was that a lot of this isn’t that easy or quick, and it’s a lesson we’re finding with other projects where we’re trying to re-use content (eg, make eBooks out of existing content). It’s never as simple and quick as it sounds. I’m curious to find out in future whether a true COPE strategy really addresses this as well, or whether any re-use will always require rewriting and recontextualising.

Digital content strategy

So where does that leave us now – do we have a better strategy? We’ve been doing some work lately to develop a digital content strategy that sets out some of the things we can do at the Ministry to better prepare our content for a digital future. I referred to our content earlier as a huge information asset. We have a huge amount of written material across our websites as well as contextualised illustrative content from other organisations. The following is a simplification, but it’s helpful conceptually, and overall is fairly accurate.

With Te Ara, we attempt to be comprehensive across all subjects but at a relatively easy to understand level. It’s medium content. NZ History on the other hand is more selective in what it covers and goes deep. It’s the deep content. In many ways they complement each other – the medium and deep content. What we need to do is stop thinking about separate websites and audit all our content as one coherent whole. We can then build a content development strategy around filling in the gaps in our coverage, reducing duplication and contradiction, and systematically keeping our content up to date.

Te Ara and NZ History content

Te Ara and NZ History content

 

That’s one strand. Another is the challenge that mobile poses. Here’s another graph.

Mobile growth 2010 to 2012

Mobile growth 2010 to 2012

 

What I can see in the analytics behind these bald figures is that mobile visitors have a higher bounce rate (ie, they’re more inclined to visit one page and leave), shorter average duration of visit, and on average view about half as many pages in a visit. (They’re also feature a higher proportion of new visitors, though we don’t know if they’re genuine;y new visitors or existing visitors using different devices.)

The numbers aren’t big yet but they’re growing and increasing as a percentage of total traffic – around 15% on both sites last month. My worry is we’re not capturing those people.

Responsive design is a big part of the answer and that’s on our roadmap over the coming months and year or so. But I wonder if we need responsive content as well – the really short content layer that sits on top of the medium and deep layers and provides the hooks to draw readers into deeper content.

It’s also the short content that can feature on a Google result page and provide that short fact the user’s after. If the fact’s good, they may be back later. And if that fact looks good on someone’s phone then they’re more likely to click or scroll to get to the deeper content.

Content like Roadside Stories is our first attempt at creating that short content. It’s not perfect – it hasn’t really brought a lot of users to our websites – but it’s a start. It’s shortish content that can exist on its own, be useful to people, and if we’re lucky raise awareness of our websites and bring in a few extra visitors.

One of the things I’m interested in is developing short nuggets of information. We already have a lot of these buried in our content. It’s not an exclusive approach. I’m not saying all we should do is pander to short attention spans and produce short content. We still need the deep content and deep research.

It’s a complementary approach – we build the nuggets from the deep content and use the nuggets to bring the users to the deep content. But while our content is full of facts and nuggets of information, it’s treated pretty much as flat text content. True, it’s in a database, but it’s not really treated as data.

Nuggets and data

Nuggets and data

 

Where we need to head – probably quite quickly – is to develop a database that holds all out content. With all our content together in one database we can then not just audit it for gaps in coverage, but analyse it for facts and nuggets, add the nuggets we’re missing, mark them up, expose them and share them. While we’re at it we could start sharing the entire database as a content source for others to use – build an API, let other developers – whether for websites or apps – harvest specific information about people, places, subjects, everything.

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That’s a fairly roundabout discussion of the Roadside Stories project and how it fits into our work programme at the moment. It’s about experimenting, finding out how things work and how successful they can be. It’s also a way of re-using the content asset we’ve got and making it more available. The strategy doesn’t cover off all of the Ministry’s publishing work. There’s still print publishing to be done and more work to define how we respond to ebooks and the future of long-form reading, but it’s a start at protecting and developing one of New Zealand’s many significant digital cultural assets.