Is it possible to enjoy long-form investigative journalism in a digital age without a fancy tablet? A 5,000-word piece can be tough to get through on an ad-supported website. And while the experience on iPad apps is promising, an app is a costly investment — or investments, in a world with multiple incompatible platforms — for a news organization to make.
The nonprofit news organization Center for Public Integrity is announcing an alternative today at the annual Online News Association conference. The Center wants to make reading its work more enjoyable for the user, and a smarter investment for an organization rethinking its online and mobile strategies. The Center has a new HTML5 product that gives users an app-like experience in a web browser. The project is part of a new digital initiative at the Center, funded by $1.5 million in grants from the Knight Foundation.
“We think we’ve created a better way to consume investigative reporting,” John Solomon, the chief digital officer told me, and at a much lower cost than developing apps for different devices.
Solomon gave me a demo yesterday, and I have to say, I was impressed. You can flip through stories from right to left the way you can on an iPad or an iPhone. Text and images resize easily for whatever screen you’re on, whether phone or desktop. It loads fast and smooth and has a clean, easy-on-the-eyes design. The impulse is to keep flipping through, from page to page or story to story.
The product was created with Treesaver, a platform specifically designed to make digital reading easier. It’s a project of, among others, the noted graphic designer Roger Black, whose famous three-color dictum — “the first color is white; the second is black; the third is red: the three together are the best” — is in evidence at Treesaver’s website (and the Lab’s). Treesaver is also working with Nomad, a startup that plans to put out paid electronic magazines.
I spoke with Filipe Fortes, the developer of Treesaver, about what his product means for long-form journalism. “The idea is to be reader friendly,” he said. As an example, he pulled up a website of a large regional newspaper and had me click on a story. (No need to name names — the experience would have been similar across most newspaper sites.) “It’s really kind of hostile to the reader, I feel,” he said, pointing out all the ads and social media boxes that distract from the text of the story. “I think that’s why people are loving the apps,” he said. “It’s just a chance to finally read again. There’s a lot of cool things happening on apps, but people on desktops are missing out.”
Those distractions Treesaver is trying to spare us from are also what monetize the content — but Fortes says he’s not against advertising, just how we display it with the content now. By lowering the bar to the content (as he puts it), by letting users easily flip along, fewer, cleaner ads can be monetized more effectively. He showed me a mockup of a Nomad magazine that runs full page ads between pages, similar to an iPad app. “If you can get people coming in from a blog or Google and you get them to read three stories [by flipping along],” he said, “Congratulations, you just tripled your revenue on that user.”
Fortes is presenting Treesaver at the ONA conference this afternoon. He says he’s eager to work with more news organizations, and is in talks with several.