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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Oct. 26, 2011, 11 a.m.

Meet Scroll, a new tool that wants to de-templatize the news web

Cody Brown and Kate Ray launch a new tool to help non-coders design on a story-by-story basis.

The 2010 version of the Knight News Challenge featured an entry for a very cool project: PaperNews, middleware that sought to “reinvent how we see news design on the web.”

PaperNews wasn’t, ultimately, funded. But part of its spirit lives on in Scroll, a new editor that aims to de-templatize news design. The tool, created by soon-to-be-serial entrepreneurs Cody Brown and Kate Ray, wants to take the basic design approach of print — start with a totally blank page, add elements — and apply it to the online world.

Its elevator pitch: “Scroll helps you make magazine style layouts for the web and iPad without needing to know how to code.”

In print, designers have more than a century’s worth of experience building visual structures to please the eye. Different stories get different placement on the page, different headline treatments, different kinds of accompanying art — even within the daily grind of newspaper production, there’s room to spend a little time matching a reading experience with a visual one.

On the web, though, most news sites dump every news story into a single — or, if they’re lucky, maybe a handful — of predefined templates. Those templates might be terrible or they might be great, but they generally render the news with all the style of an assembly line. A few special projects each year might get a special design treatment, but that often requires collaboration between coders and designers whose skill sets don’t overlap.

Which is the point of the without needing to know how to code kicker of Scroll’s elevator pitch. Tools like Scroll — a lightweight editor that generates html and CSS — can put journos of the coding and non-coding varieties on, literally, the same page, allowing them to collaborate to create online news experiences that mimic the intimacy and immersiveness of print.

“There are so many elements of an article beyond headline and body that lure someone into a read or make an impact and convey information that’s hard to express through words,” Brown told me in a Gchat. He pointed me to a piece Jack Shafer wrote for Slate this summer, in which the press critic extolled the benefits of the print experience over the digital. Shafer “assumed that you really couldn’t express those kind of print native nuances online,” Brown said. “I think you can.”

Print-ethos-online may well be best facilitated by rethinking news outlets’ content management systems entirely. (“The CMS needs to be burned to the ground,” Brown puts it.) But while most news orgs you talk to aren’t generally thrilled with their systems — “slow,” “unwieldy,” “industrial,” etc, etc. — they’d likely be even less thrilled at the notion of starting from scratch. Scroll wants to implement design changes incrementally. “What we’re suited for now,” Brown says, “is for people to experiment with us on features.” (Scroll is planning on a freemium model that’ll offer paying clients “more advanced features” and hosting.)

The history of WYSIWYG apps designed to make web design accessible to non-coders is long and not particularly filled with glory; most produce klutzy, bloated code that doesn’t work as well or as quickly as the product of actual coders. But Scroll’s code, at first glance, at least seems not to suffer from that problem; the growth of web standards and of grid-based web design has made it easier to generate pixel-tuned designs without relying on the hacks of the early web.

One thing that should help its pitch is the fact that Scroll is meant to facilitate design for both the web and tablets. (In the video above, the red lines are guides for the iPad’s screen.) We tend to assume that the web and the iPad facilitate completely different reading experiences that are reflected in completely different design aesthetics — that web design, essentially, has a pass to be busy, while tablet design must be print-like and pretty. But Scroll’s bespoke approach assumes that readers want clean, immersive consumption experiences regardless of what devices they use to do the consuming. As Brown puts it: “It’s 2011 and the print product of most newspapers and magazines is vastly superior to what they have on the web. They can change that but it takes a different workflow and different technology. We’d like to help them with it.”

POSTED     Oct. 26, 2011, 11 a.m.
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