So Long Sections?
Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of real and virtual ink devoted to what the future of newspapers might be (although I would prefer if there were less writing and more doing). I’m not interested in rehashing the teeth-gnashing and grave-dancing in so many of these pieces but instead I’m interested in the way the structure of newspapers will change when they move to a web-only environment. This is the first of a few posts to explore that.
So what might change? For starters, consider the newspaper section. If you look at a newspaper from 100 years ago, it’s shocking to see how much content from various beats is jumbled onto pages next to each other. This might be tolerable for a newspaper of only 18 pages, but as newspapers grew in size and scope — In 2000, the New York Times published its largest weekday newspaper ever of 174 pages — it became necessary to organize stories into sections. Sections make sense for a printed product. They enable a physical organization that allows readers to pick the content they like without an index by pulling out what they like and ignoring the rest. This becomes a selling point in itself for the hypersectionalized Sunday newspaer as highlighted in this New York Times ad for the Weekender (and ably parodied by the 92nd Street Y Tribeca here). Sections are also reflected in the organizational structure of a modern newsroom, where each desk is an autonomous crew of reporters, editors, designers, etc. all working to create their part of the newspaper.
On the Web however, sections don’t really make sense. We don’t need the physical grouping and arrangement of stories, because we don’t have anything physical to group. We can find the content we want by searching for it, rather than pulling out a section of pages. And yet, if you visit any newspaper website, you’ll see the print sections staring right at you with their stories bullet-pointed below. And even if you go to online news ventures, the sections are still there. For instance, here is the organization of the Huffington Post: Home, Politics, Media, Business, Entertainment, Living, Style, Green, World, and Chicago. You can imagine how a print version of the Huffington Post would be organized by that alone. Google News has similar groupings. The Daily Beast is a little cheekier (Cheat Sheets, Big Fat Stories), but once you click into one of those you see the same sections (arts, science, etc.). This is not to say that classifying content by its sectional subject is useless, but it’s funny how a physical scheme continues to predominate online where the need for such an approach is no longer necessary. And how such an approach is stifling serious investigations into other ways of organizing the news.
In many ways, this is akin to your computer’s user interface. Unless you’re one of those people who does everything in Emacs, you probably interact with your computer via documents, folders, and other concepts designed to make the computer easier to learn by a novice. This Desktop Metaphor is why we interact with our 2009 computers by pushing around little icons of things that a 1950s secretary would recognize. What’s wrong this approach? Well, what isn’t weird about pretending all sorts of data are little documents we can shuffle around virtual file cabinets? And as we add more interlinked and indexed content to our lives, the folder metaphor gets more stretched (what would the physical analog of an alias be? A search folder?). So, why does the desktop metaphor stick around? Possibly because most alternatives often resort to a eyecandy gimmickry more at-home in a science fiction movie and the perceived learning curve is too great to switch. But mostly because we’ve all been trained to think in folders and documents (just like Google’s greatest triumph has been to make us search in Google’s style). The Desktop Metaphor lives on because through being around so long it’s now become natural to computer users.
So, in that sense, my headline is misleading. Sections will probably persist online, but not without their own drawbacks. Take the issue of context. Articles in the physical newspaper gain an implicit context by their location in the newspaper (is it on the frontpage? is it in the metro section?) that is easily lost online, where that context is not so clear, especially when read in aggregators or search results. In this sense, Google is to newspaper sections what the iTunes store has been to the album. For instance, why the New York Times has published so many articles about Twitter in April? In the printed product where things run in the Dining, World, Technology, etc. it’s clear that each story has been produced by different sections working independently (the bottom-up view). On the website where every twitter story falls under Technology, it seems like an overtly directed plan to incessantly promote twitter (the top-down view).
More importantly, I feel like the sectional viewpoint creates artificial silos that compartmentalize the news. Take the really big news stories of our time — the economic meltdown, swine flu, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. — and it’s very easy to see how parts of these stories touch multiple sections. But the sectional organization obscures the holistic impact of these events by inviting readers to discard parts of the story because they only like reading about national news and not business, etc. Not to mention the difficulties presented to a reader who wants to get up-to-speed quickly on a topic. Picture instead of sections, a topic-driven organization that would provide background and content tied to the big picture rather than the location where the print article would run. Would a newspaper without sections still be a newspaper? Perhaps not, but it’s time we killed sections, so the newspaper might live.