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My ideal newspaper app is not very smart

Published on by Hidde de Vries in thoughts

For about 6 years, I have mostly stopped reading my daily paper physically, unless sipping lattes in a coffee shop. I used its app instead. In those years, they released various updates, and these updates got me thinking about what I want from a newspaper app.

My app-based news consumption was somewhat of a necessity. I was abroad and kiosks abroad very rarely sell Dutch dailies. I’ve since really come to like reading digitally, and it also saves paper and sending screenshots to friends is useful.

My ideal

Ideally, the app just downloads a PDF and lets me browse through that page by page. A screen that has all pages would be useful, too, so that it is easy to jump to that one cartoon that I know will be on the last page. Yup, that doesn’t contain links and isn’t easily updated, and it doesn’t peruse some of the unique features of the web platform. It’s boring, simple and not very smart. To read articles you even need to zoom in, as the text is not HTML, it’s not responsive, it’s literally a PDF (it does contain plain text for users who need or prefer this).

Two things I like about the PDF-style newspaper reader: first, it looks like the newspaper everyone else buys from the kiosk, second, this formatting is the one a editing team of smart people have chosen over the course of their night. Up until moments before the thing really needs to go to press, they can still tweak things. After that time, that’s it: the paper of that day.

The good thing about producing one paper a day rather than a continuous stream of news is that the daily deadline forces decisions about what’s most important. Even if that means the occassional ‘when this went to press, we only knew 80% of the election results’. I can live with that. It is good for my sanity to take in one thing a day rather than continuous streams of news.

I like artificial intelligence, but for some things human judgment clearly wins. Let alghorithms calculate my fastest route to work or what the best way is to distribute food droppings in a war zone. For news, I think intentional prioritisation and placement in the page are best left to humans.

Their innovations

Two things De Persgroep have added to their Volkskrant app:

I probably don’t need to explain what’s underwhelming about the addition of ads. This doesn’t belong here.

An animated page switch is cool, it keeps the interface fresh, but my tablet is too old to do the animation, causing it to freeze for a few seconds halfway an animation.

Both the ads and the animation slowed down the app considerably. This meant that, over the years, my digital paper became harder to read. That is remarkable for what is essentially a PDF reader.

What I’m not looking forward to

What I’m mostly concerned about is that my news will be displayed like it is on the newspaper’s website. This is great when one wants to see the latest news at a glance, but, with the bath water, it would throw away the daily carefuly curated prioritisation that news physical papers offer.

With CSS Grid Layout, the kind of layouts that are mostly unique to newspapers, are now possible in browsers. But until the process of filling a web based newspaper grid becomes a process similar to filling the physical paper with content, and I think having one daily thing that doesn’t change (much; small updates could be useful), I’m hoping the PDF-viewer version will stay on offer. Otherwise I would likely switch back to paper.

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