11 September 02005

Re-shaping The Guardian and the failed promise of personalisation

Guardian cover, copyright Guardian Media GroupThe Guardian newspaper is re-designing itself, turning to a format that is midway between tabloid and broadsheet, with a new typeface. Back in 01994, The Guardian produced a projection of how it thought it might look ten years later — as pictured on the left. Here's a comparison between the projection and the reality, in a similar spirit to the reviews of user interface projections I did a couple of years ago (1, 2).

The projected prototype is more or less A4 size (same height, and about 2mm narrower). It's printed on DuPont Tyvek ®, which is water and tear resistant. The web site claims it is "ideal for all printing applications where durability is of prime importance", and certainly my nearly-11-year-old copy shows no sign of wear (though I tried to iron it flat to get a better photo, and it reacted spectacularly but disastrously to the heat). When 'delivered' the paper is folded in two, lengthways — as shown in the picture — so it would fit in an inside jacket pocket, but the pages open out to A4.

The other thing you notice immediately is that the prototype paper is only 12 pages long. This comes about through, first, the personalisation of the news, features and ads, which are tailored to the individual reader's profile and, second, through links to online resources. So the stuff that you're not interested in is edited out of your personal paper. The paper is personally tailored in terms of interests, length, reading level and location — the back page has a personal diary for the day and weather forecast for Brighton. The online resources include a video download of the earthquake that's just struck California, a live feed from Wimbledon of "Andre vs. Martina", a practice quiz on the history of the Irish troubles (the reader appears to be a history student), a chat-room to talk to one of the interviewees and, under the TV listings, "Ross Jones will mix your music and videos on Interactive Reviews@RJones.Guide/music".

Projected and actual versions of The Guardian in 02005
Feature Projected version Actual version
Size and layout Six loose-leaf sheets of A3, folded to make 12 A4 pages, and folded again for distribution. 'Berliner' format, in three sections, one of which will be a 36-page 'half-Berliner' stapled magazine (apparently if The Guardian were published in tabloid format it would be 250 pages on some days).
Use of colour Mix of black and white and colour photographs, all fairly small to fit the format. "Colour on every page of every section"
Paper "Good news that lasts on Tyvek" The preview sample in Saturday's edition of The Guardian seemed to be halfway between an inky and a glossy in paper quality [Update, 12 Sept: the first 'proper' issue of the paper is more or less standard newsprint]. The market need for a newspaper that you can't tear and which lasts for decades has not been demonstrated.
Personalisation and use of ads Adverts are restricted to one page, including personalised Music and Travel Choice, plus a range of classified ads. One of the latter offers version 7.2 of the Apple Newton with fax, wireless messaging, phone attachments and "audio player". Price appears to be 2,500 ECUs… No personalisation. Job adverts are seen as having significant value for readers. Apple iPods are the prize in every competition and the give-away in every promotion.
Integration with the net Most features in the newspaper have links to online follow-up from video to chat-rooms to listservs to educational exercises. Until now most features in the newspaper have simply been made available (after free registration) on the web, with a few web links but no additional resources. Some new web dialogue features have been announced, and an Editors' Weblog has just been started.
Natural disasters in the news Following a major earthquake in Southern California, the governor (see below) and mayor of LA are grappling with a "mysterious guerrilla group that took over a still functioning radio station last week". Much of the population has evacuated to Nevada, Colorado and Washington. Internet communications with the state have been down for a month and "roving bands of student hackers" have emerged and are exacerbating the situation. See photo of this story. Following a major hurricane in Louisiana and neighbouring states, the governor and mayor of New Orleans are grappling with looters and residents who refuse to evacuate. The behaviour of some sections of the police has also been heavily criticised. Commercial rival radio stations combined for the first time to produce joint broadcasts, so creating United Radio of New Orleans, though attempts to set up a special low frequency radio station for those evacuees sheltering in Houston's Astrodome are facing obstacles that appear to be politically motivated.
Politics in Northern Ireland The province (as was) is preparing for a referendum on its constitutional status, which has been brokered by George Bush (Senior) and Paul Hill (of the Guildford Four) — shown in the cover photo, above. "Old unionists, confident that Ulster will remain British, have surprised Downing Street with their full support for the referendum." The UK government, long committed to withdrawal, is worried that affluent Catholics might vote with the unionists. The Democratic Unionist Party is defunct, the Alliance party is "burgeoning", and Sinn Fein and the SDLP have amalgamated. See photo of this story. A referendum on a more modest constitutional change was held and passed seven years ago. It split unionist opinion at the time, and support has ebbed away, with a power-sharing provincial government repeatedly suspended. The Democratic Unionist Party has more MPs than any other in the province, the Alliance party has more or less disappeared from the reckoning, and support for Sinn Fein has overtaken that for the SDLP.
Kate Bush Writes about Damien Hirst in the Arts Choice section of The Guardian. Just about to release her first album in 12 years.
Diana, Princess of Wales Having converted to Buddhism, Mrs Diana Windsor went missing. Prince Harry is searching for her in Tibet, "supplying hour-by-hour updates" via a blog site (though not called by that term) at http://www.Hal.Royalnet.co.uk Dead and buried for eight years.
Bill Gates "Computer software entrepreneur turned renegade hacker" Gates helps Oxford's Professor of Conspiracy infiltrate a cabal of "self-serving elitist mafia" who have subverted the democratic potential of the net to, well, serve their own elitist aims. Continues to focus on single-minded business acumen at the expense of quality and taste.
Madonna US Ambassador to the UK. More successful at nurturing US-UK relations than US Ambassador to the UK.
Bono Dublin's cultural affairs ambassador. Global civilisation's food, health, justice and cultural affairs ambassador. Hasn't stopped singing either.
Arnold Schwarzegger Governor of California. Governor of California.

Why do we still have bulky newspapers of which each reader takes in only a very small proportion? I think the reasons are a mix of ergonomics and economics — with the latter, as usual, the more dominant.

The projected personalised newspaper has a lot going for it ergonomically, at least on the surface. It's small and handy — and safe to read in the bath. But it achieves this through the personalisation and targeting of news, listings and advertising according to individual profiles. Do newspaper readers value their papers for only telling them what they most want to know? Or would they miss the serendipity effect that comes from browsing all the rest of the stuff that they're only half interested in — especially if the newspaper performs a function in filling in those times during the day when their brain is 'in neutral' (e.g. on a daily commute)?

I haven't a clue what the answers to those questions are, but I have a hunch that the picture is more complex than the evangelists of personalisation would have it. Personally, I didn't buy newspapers much ten years ago, and I never do now unless I'm away from a net connection (I pick them up occasionally in my local café to read the cricket columnists). My news gathering is a mix of email, web and RSS newsfeeds from many sources, plus subscriptions to specialist magazines. I change that mix in ad hoc ways according to my mood — whether my brain's in neutral or not — and how much time I've got.

And I think that points to one of the major 'user-acceptance' problems with a personalised newspaper. Many people will not trust personalisation done on their behalf by another party, especially when — as is the case with 'hard copy' publishing — they cannot easily tinker with the personalisation, see what has been 'filtered out' for them, and change it on the fly. Readers want to be in control, and if you just give them everything, they can control what they read, even if it does take them longer to find it. (There are parallels with other tirades I've made about over-hyping of 'intelligent' technologies that woefully underestimate how much intelligence they need to be effective and really understand what users want — see 1, 2.)

Then there's the economics. One aspect of this is the cost of printing and distributing copies of a paper, each of which has a readership of one. Again I don't know for certain, but I suspect their prohibitive. As a publisher you'd need a high subscription level to guarantee sales. Or would readers ultimately be able to decide on impulse that they feel like reading a paper today and send an SMS to have that paper printed and ready at the nearest outlet within the time it normally takes to queue at a newsagents?

But I reckon the killer factor may not be the readers' preferences or the publisher's direct costs but the advertisers' confidence in personalised ads. Advertising pays a very large fraction of the costs of producing The Guardian. Advertisers might pay more if they could be shown that highly targeted ads got much better results for them. But I don't think the sophistication of targeting is anywhere near being able to show those results, at least for print media. The era of effective personalised advertising beyond niche areas (probably mobile phone services and some Internet retailers) is still some way away.

Sample pages, copyright Guardian Media Group

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Miscellany on 11 September 02005 | TrackBack

do you have a copy of the psychic prediction of arnies ascent to political stardom?

Posted by: Josh on 8 November 02007 at 9:24 PM

Josh, It's in storage in my loft at the moment, I'm afraid. I may look it out sometime next year, but it's not very accessible.

Posted by: David Jennings on 18 December 02007 at 11:41 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?