Thursday, November 11, 2010

News Nose-To-Nose: USA Today Print Vs. USA Today iPad, A Professional Journalist Compares The Two

It keeps changing so fast, 
maybe they should change the name 
to USA Right Now

By Tom Dulaney

Are you missing anything if you read USA Today on the iPad instead of on paper? Does the iPad version offer the same news as the print version?

The answer is “yes” and “no.”

Today we take a look at USA Today's front section, carefully checking how the iPad edition—as read through the day—stacks up with the on-paper edition printed in the wee hours last night. The exam takes a bit of time, so Planet iPad will split up the four sections of the paper—"Front," “Money,” “Sports” and “Life” for good hard looks.  Today's it's the front section's turn.

The front section, housing the latest breaking news, can be expected to fluctuate through the day. Business will see plenty of changes hourly, as will sport. The Life section might settle down and be more static. The latter reports will be posted here in following days.

Comparing the printed USA Today with the iPad edition gives readers a new view inside the decision-making processes that go on behind closed doors as editors decide which news stories to show you, which to hold or scrap.

Thousands of issues go into the choice of what to print. With limited space, especially on paper, what do our readers need to know? What do they want to know? How to balance the typically more dry “needs” with the sexier “wants” in a responsible way that will leave readers informed, entertained, and coming back for more. Without readers, there are no advertisers. Without advertisers, there are no newspapers—in print or online.

“Navigating” the print and iPad editions is quite different, of course. In print, you spread the pages wide, hold them at arms length, puddle the bottoms in your lap, bend and twist and mutilate them. They never return to the nice, crisp little package they once were. Advantage: Readers can quickly scan headlines stretched arm's width and trailing down the length of said arms.

On the iPad, the reader taps and flicks. Tap a headline to open a story. Flick from left to right or back to advance between stories in the section. Flick from top to bottom and back to read down longer stories. Advantage: No printer's ink on the thumbs, greater ease in moving from story to story and through each story.

Though USA Today does little of it, other newspapers employ the “jump.” From page one, usually in mid-paragraph (by design, to force you to turn the page to read on), the story might leap to page 2 or page 22. Nothing aggravates more than when the jump tells you to go to the wrong place. In some cases, the story will jump once more, inside from say, page 8, to page 27. That's usually done to accommodate placement of an ad.

Oh, and there are ads on the iPad edition. You might be surprised when flicking through pages of text to face a full page, full color beauty of an advertisement vying for your attention. It's much harder not to look on the iPad than it is in the print edition.

But What About The News Lineup?

Today's print edition featured two leading stories: Center page top “cover story” about the disabled cruise ship, and a right-hand leader on the deficit titled “An uphill battle for plans to cut the deficit crunch.”

On page 1 below the fold the paper offers “Perks offer veterans some 'thanks'” in a nod to the Veteran's Day holiday today.

The front pages of the print and iPad versions differ markedly, mostly for physical and design reasons and not news reasons. The print edition had space only for three major stories on page 1. A “Newsline” column takes up most of the left hand column of the front page. Newsline is effectively a table of contents for top stories found throughout the inside of the paper.

The chart, for which USA Today is known and sometimes ridiculed, in the lower left of the print edition today graphs how Americans will get to their Thanksgiving destinations. (77% by car, by the way.)

“Smoking Can Kill You” is a black and red graphic calling attention to new FDA labels proposed for cigarettes. At the top of the column are a photo of a flag and cues to 5 stories inside related to veterans.

Now for the iPad edition, if it will hold still for a minute.

And that's one major difference between the iPad USA Today and the paper USA Today. Things keep changing, by the hour if not by the minute. The news doesn't sit still after a paper is printed. The iPad handles the volatility with updates sent wirelessly.

Unlike the printed edition, the “front page” of the iPad edition doesn't carry the beginning paragraphs of news stories. Instead, a long scrolling line of two-column-wide headlines, decorated with thumbnail photos, keys the reader to the full stories “inside.”

Once again, the immediacy of the frequently updated iPad edition has a big edge over the printed paper.

Even “major stories” lose their luster quickly. The upper right-hand print story on the “Uphill battle for plans to cut the deficit” floated down from prominence by late morning today. It showed up in about the 8th slot, and was augmented with new information as the day wore on. An while later, it fell out of the lineup entirely.

At the top of the iPad queue was a new deficit story instead: “Obama to Congress: Stop shooting down deficit proposals.”

A story about “Navajo Code talkers” being honored moved to fourth place on the iPad, up from page 2 in the print edition. If it weren't Veteran's Day, its position on the iPad might well be different.

As the minutes roll by while this reporter frantically looks from printed to electronic USA Today, the iPad version keeps changing.

Page 2 in print carries a story about the “mystery missile” in California. The iPad version lacks a few paragraphs about a North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) statement. NORAD, in print, was quoted as saying they didn't launch any missiles, nor did any did any foreign entity.

The paragraphs were missing in the iPad edition, despite a huge amount of blank space at the end of the story on the screen.

“NORAD said it determined there was no threat to the US homeland,” it still says in black and white in the print edition. Toward the end of the day, that and other comments attributed to NORAD had vanished in the iPad edition.

By 5:20 P.M., the entire story was gone from USA Today's iPad edition.

The lack of that quote on the iPad could mean something—or nothing—depending on why it was cut.

Missing also from the iPad USA Today is a story on a post-Katrina police shooting. A piece by Pulitzer-winner Lewis M. Simons on “Why Indonesia matters” has left the front section in the iPad edition. So has a column by Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints: “Remarkable WWII vets still deserve our attention.”

Gone from the front section in its iPad version, also, are “softer news” stories on “Something rotten in Italy?” about the trash crisis there, and a story on cholera in Haiti's capital. True, cholera is not “soft news,” but more compelling news closer to home won the day.

The box with US death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan is either gone on the iPad, or tucked well out of sight.

There is another issue about the iPad USA Today. “Filler,” those short one- or two- or three-paragraph mini stories chock full of non-essential but usually fascinating information, are absent. In print, for logistics and graphic layout reasons, filler completes columns of type to please the eye.

Filler may be dead, if the iPad USA Today is an example. Though there is plenty of room at the end of many iPad-rendered stories, the space is white and empty.

However, the iPad newspaper comes alive with video. A beautifully presented image of the stricken cruise ship, shot from a helicopter, appeared with that story—for a while.

Overall, in the iPad edition, time and the news march smartly on. More compelling stories rapidly replace older ones. Those discards may have been interesting reads but were shunted aside by recent developments.

The same shuffling of stories, with the latest hot item moving down the list until it eventually falls out of sight, happens in the newsroom of print-only newspapers. For the print edition, there comes a point where the reporters take a deep breath, cross their fingers, and the order to commit to paper freezes the “news” as far as that edition goes.

On the iPad, there is no stopping the flow. News just keeps coming.

Overall, this reporter is just fine with that. Back in 1982 when USA Today launched, to the ridicule of many professional journalists as a “comic book newspaper,” I was in Washington covering meetings in Congress and at the White House. Over coffee, I poured through The Washington Post. On the city's fine Metro system, I read reports on the same stories in USA Today. Conclusion after a week: USA Today told me everything I needed to know, more concisely, in a more colorful presentation.

The conclusion is similar today, at least for the front section of the paper: The iPad includes everything I need to know, beautifully presented. True, some of the softer news stories would have been fun to read. But they aren't “necessary” news, and who has time for that these days anyway?

“Newsline,” the “contents page” for the print edition is gone. In its place: Your local weather, some sports scores, a feature called the “day in pictures."  The picture look great, jumping off the iPad's bright screen.  At the bottom of that column, which doesn't slide down to reveal more content, is a “News Snapshots” feature which lets you “talk back” to USA Today.

In today's “Snapshot,” when tapped, the paper asks if it can record your location and then poses a question and asks you to choose a response. Yesterday and today, the question was: “What is the best way to make Social Security solvent as our population ages?”

A tap, and your vote is counted, tabulated and displayed in a pop-up chart. Currently, with 4,855 responses, the answers to the Social Security question are: 26% said “raise taxes,” 16% said “cut benefits,” 50% said “let workers opt out,” and 7% chose “do nothing.”

On the iPad, you've just made news if you made a choice--impossible to do in the printed paper, of course.

A Closer Look At The Top Story

A scrutiny, from the headlines down to the paragraphs, of the Carnival cruise ship story reveals huge differences from print to iPad, and they are good ones. Today, the cruise ship story has been a developing story.

First, the print version headline reads “On disabled cruise, a nightmare.” A photo shows the ship, at sea, with a helicopter hovering just before its stack. On the iPad edition, that image was replaced by a shot from a helicopter of the ship, below. Later, an over-the-shoulder shot of people greeting the arriving ship appeared. Another shot on a “new front page” not long after showed workers aiding passengers on board.

Then, unceremoniously, by 5:45 P.M, the front page photo of the cruise had sailed on, replaced by a man running through a field, the sun a bright star on the horizon, and the headline: “Afghanistan veteran recounts tragedy, miracle.'

The ship was in, the passengers were being cared for and, like the biblical finger that “having writ, moved on,” the iPad edition had moved on. Meantime, the print edition with its “ancient” photo was ready for recycling.

The cruise ship story is a good one to study, to compare print with iPad editions to see what the iPad reader is missing.

Answer: Nothing. In fact, this story expanded through the day, with additional paragraphs adding new information from new sources.

At one point, one of these inserts revealed “the stricken cruise ship Carnival Splendor has limped into San Diego's harbor” and was expected to take another two hours to dock and several more for the 4,500 passengers to debark. Later revisions brought the story up to date.

Of special interest is this: In this story, in particular, nothing from the print edition was missing. Nearly every word appeared in the iPad edition, plus the updates.

That gets an A+ in class, in this reporter's opinion. Now, what did the iPad paper have to drop to “make room” for that new information? From within the story, nothing. Only additions were made.

All in all, I feel safe in sticking with the iPad USA Today for full news coverage--and then some.

Future intallments will look at the other sections of the paper, one by one.

The author, a Journalism graduate of Penn State, attended graduate school in Journalism at American University, and for 15 years was a newspaper reporter and magazine editor.

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