Webstock: Karen McGrane, Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content

This week I’m at Webstock, a lovely conference in New Zealand. I’m doing my best to write little blog posts about the amazing presentations. Please forgive any typos, etc. If you’re here too, come write a haiku at Automattic’s booth.

Karen McGrane has made a career of dragging media companies kicking and screaming onto the internet. She’s helped with projects like a redesigned NYTimes.com, Atlantic Media’s web properties, and TIME’s new responsive redesign. “It’s tempting to think that mobile is a design and development problem,” but the real challenge of mobile is content.

To kick things off, compare NPR and Conde Nast. The latter has spent tremendous effort replicating print editions into iPad apps. When the iPad first launched, Karen asked Paul Ford what the effect might be on the publishing industry. This is what she heard:

We’re about to usher in a golden age of PDFs on the iPad.

Conde Nast has gone even as far as make print designers produce two layouts for the iPad: portrait and landscape. The 1980’s aren’t coming back, though.

NPR has taken an alternative approach: Create Once, Publish Everywhere. The story is created once, and let each platform determine how it should be presented. NPR’s CMS captures just the right structure for the content. All of this data is available through the API.

iPad issue sales are on the downswing for Conde Nast. For NPR, viewership has grown by 80%. They attribute it solely to the API and it’s downstream effects on how they produce editorial products.

Thirty years ago, TV Week made the decision to produce multiple versions of their content, and assign meaningful metadata to it. Thirty years later, that content still has value because it’s reusable in new or uninvented contexts.

“News organizations already have structured content […] So many problems in mobile would be solved if everything had a dek.”

One of the biggest challenges in digital is the notion that content and form are closely coupled. That how something looks has a significant influence on what it means. That there’s a “primary platform” for a given piece of content. For many news organizations, this primary platform is still print.

Adaptive content doesn’t mean content prepared for print and then moved to other devices. Nor does it mean content prepared for the web, then pushed to print and mobile. It means focusing on structured content that can live anywhere.

Here’s how it can be done:

  • Write for the chunk – Many CMSes give writers WYSIWYG editors where they can dump in whatever they want. They should not be permitted this.
  • Demystify metadata – The Guardian’s iPad application uses an algorithm to read editorial decisions from the InDesign layout to determine story priorities. Brilliant reuse of existing effort.
  • Better CMS workflow – Writers hate fields and checkboxes because the interface is terrible. “CMS is the enterprise software that UX forgot.” E-commerce checkout flows are analysed to the pixel — content creation flows should receive just as much attention.

“Metadata is the new art direction.” – Ethan Resnick. The more work you put into structuring your content now, the more opportunities you’ll have in the future.

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