The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity

MUD day 8:

There’s been a lot of excitement in the past week about the new Web publication The Verge. Founded by Joshua Topolsky and several other former Engadget staff, it’s been praised for its dynamic design and for features like StoryStream, which aggregates the site’s content into timelines. But if it succeeds, will it be due to great design, or inherently great stories? Does its future lie in becoming a great destination site, or in creating a unique identity for its content?

The Verge

When Topolsky appeared last Sunday on This Week in Tech, host Leo Laporte asked a key question. After suggesting that The Verge is what magazine design should be on the Web, or rather, what should replace magazine design, he asked whether it mattered. “You’ve made a great destination, but I just wonder: Do destinations matter anymore?” How he and many others now read content, he argued, was in aggregation: “So if there’s a great Verge article on the Jawbone Up, I will see it in my Twitter stream or in my RSS feed, I’ll read the article, but then I’ll leave the site.”

Though the design, usability, and coherence of site or publication design are still important, they matter less to the success of content than they used to. In an era when content is increasingly atomized and ubiquitous, the identity of that content becomes increasingly important. Traditionally, magazines were a collection of disparate items that relied on the container to give them a coherent identity. But containment doesn’t work on the Web. So how then can content serve its publishers?

The answer, I think, is that identity must be stamped into the content itself. More than ever, to rise above anonymous commodity content, it must be personal, individual, unique. People must be able to see immediately, for instance, that this content, wherever they find it, could only be from The Verge. The content must be imbued with the brand.

It seems to me that this is the biggest challenge for traditional publishers in adapting to new media is to rethink the value of their publications as destinations. Consider, for instance, what Ziff Davis Enterprise CEO Steve Weitzner recently told Folio: about his company’s move to digital-only publication: “”We will publish [eWeek] in the same way—it will go through the same editorial process, the stories will get vetted, they’ll be laid out by art, we just won’t print it or mail it.” Is that the way to go digital? To simply plop the magazine model into a digital space? Somehow, I doubt it. The container doesn’t matter anymore. Only the content counts.

A Boring But Mandatory Redesign Announcement

In my years as a magazine editor, one of the most irksome tasks was writing an editorial announcing a redesign of the publication. Sadly, there’s nothing fresh or original about saying your redesign is fresh and original. Would you deliberately aim for a dated and derivative look? Read one such announcement — “reader-friendly, modern, airy, blah blah blah” — and you’ve read them all.

The previous design of

The old look

So, you might ask, why am I writing this? Mostly because my few but faithful readers may be curious as to why I redesigned the blog. So for the rest of you, my apologies as I leap into a boring but mandatory explanation of this redesign.

Before yesterday, this blog used the Atahualpa WordPress theme. Though its default design is overly busy for my taste, its many options allow CSS wizards to  transform it dramatically.  Unfortunately, my CSS skills are limited, and after months of tweaking and prodding, I failed to come up with a satisfactory look.

When I saw the new default WordPress Twenty Eleven theme, released earlier this month, I was smitten. Its ample white space and emphasis on readability were just what I was looking for. But it was the default theme, for God’s sake. I couldn’t use that! But after a few days of trying to imitate it with Atahualpa, I put aside my blog snobbery and chose Twenty Eleven.

Modifications were still necessary, of course. If anything, the theme is almost too clean. In particular, the default version doesn’t allow for sidebars on individual posts. Though it’s a nice look that favors ease of reading, it doesn’t provide enough context for people who land directly on a post without going through the front page—as most readers do. This and the fact that I wanted to adjust the size of the header image have led me to use a child theme, the safest way to modify default themes. In my case, I started with Chris Aprea’s mod that simply adds the sidebar to posts. I then made my changes to the header image dimensions in the child theme.

For the rest of my customizations, I relied on plug-ins:

  • Blog Copyright by BTE to add a copyright statement to the footer. (I may yet switch to a creative commons license, but the traditional publisher in me still resists.)
  • The Really Simple Twitter Feed Widget to show my recent tweets in the sidebar. I like the minimalist look of this widget much better than the gaudy excess of the official Twitter widget used in the previous design.
  • The Subscribe/Connect/Follow widget to add links for RSS, e-mail subscriptions, and my various social-media identities.
  • Sharedaddy to allow readers to share B2B Memes stories more easily. (Really, I should have added this feature long ago.)
  • The Yet Another Related Posts plugin, to suggest stories similar to the current one. Again, this feature was overdue.

One more change I may yet tackle is converting my commenting system to Disqus. But for the moment, I’m going to let this redesign sink in.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably interested in this sort of thing. Why not share your reactions, positive or negative, in the comments? I’d love to know what you think.

Writing, Photography, and the Art of Thinking Visually

As some of my recent posts suggest, I’m a big fan of adding visual elements to written content, whether with infographics, illustrations, or photos. For the last few weeks, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not putting too much stress on visual media. The graphic arts are brilliant tools for communication, yes, but words are every bit their match.Camera with "words" in lens

What started me worrying about this matter was a casual comment by Nieman Journalism Lab’s Justin Ellis. In his opening for an article on the quite different subject of photography’s potential to mislead, he made a “painful” admission.  There are times, he wrote, “when photos can tell more of a story than words could ever express.”

Sometimes the urge for a good lead makes you say things you don’t quite mean. But even if Ellis believes his claim, I’m not buying it. Writing can tell a story just as powerfully as a photo. But that’s only true if the writer learns to see and write in a visual way.

One of the reasons a photograph can seem so powerful is that it captures details of an event that many news or business writers might not think pertinent  or appropriate—a facial expression, the relation of people to their surroundings, the sense of place. But writers can see those same details. They just have to recognize their value and put them in their writing.

One writer who does so brilliantly is Steve Coll. Here is his opening paragraph from “The Casbah Coalition” in the April 4th issue of The New Yorker:

The office of the Prime Minister of Tunisia is situated in a three-story white-washed building with an arched Moorish entry. It faces north onto the Casbah, a plaza in the old quarter of Tunis. The view from the Prime Minister’s window is normally serene, taking in a tiled fountain and pruned ficus trees, but, by the afternoon of a day in late February, thousands of citizens had transformed the Casbah into what looked like a squatters’ camp. They had organized a round-the-clock sit-in to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ghannouchi, and they were joined each weekend by large numbers of like-minded protesters. The fountain was completely covered by tents; ropes hoisted tarps from the trees.

This is visual writing, but it is not simply a snapshot of what the reporter saw. It sandwiches two views together—the ordinary serene picture of the Casbah with an extraordinary chaotic one. It shows the collision of stasis and change, a process of transformation unfolding before our eyes.

I’m not suggesting that writers don’t need or shouldn’t use photographs or other illustrations in their work. Rather, I’m arguing against two dangerous temptations for writers.

First, the simple availability of visual media should not constrain the visual element in our writing. It’s a false choice anyway: I suspect that if you can’t write visually, you won’t be very good at choosing graphics either.

Second, one medium is not inherently superior to the other. They are not categorically different, but lie along a continuum of representational media.

In the end, the key is learning to think with your eyes. The more you do, the better both your writing and the graphics you choose will be.

Three Stock Photography Pitfalls to Avoid

I’ve written recently about the need to use meaningful visuals to accompany your text. In passing, I mentioned the downsides of that frequent last resort, stock photography, but left it to an article by Heather Rubesch, elsewhere on the web, to provide details.

Photo of dragon © istockphoto/zlisjak

Stock photo: Here be a dragon

The controversy in the last week over the use—or misuse—of stock photographs by VegNews magazine suggests that a deeper examination of the pitfalls of stock photography is in order.

The magazine has evidently been in the habit of taking stock shots of meat-based meals and using them to illustrate articles about vegan dishes. In at least one case, they have acknowledged using Photoshop to eliminate the bones from an image of what they wished were vegan ribs but weren’t. Some vegans have been deeply offended by this practice. One vegetarian and editor even went so far as to call for the editorial awards VegNews received from Folio: magazine to be rescinded. That might be ever-so-slightly extreme, but it illustrates the strong feelings that stock photography can inadvertently generate.

Rather than dwell on the VegNews example, which has been exhaustively covered on the web, let’s look at a couple of other recent instances of stock-art misuse. They point out three common pitfalls of stock photography.

One of those pitfalls is when a strong relationship is implied between the subject of the stock art and the subject being illustrated. That’s what happened on a website touting the presidential potential of Newt Gingrich.  On its front page, an image of Gingrich and his wife is superimposed over a photograph of a racially diverse group of men and women waving American flags.  Though to the naive eye it might appear that the people pictured are actual Gingrich supporters, the shot in fact comes from Getty Images.  The effect, as Rubesch cautiously puts it, is “to make Newt’s supporters look more multi-cultural and diverse than perhaps they are in actuality.”  Did the site designer intend the people pictured to be seen as real Gingrich supporters? Probably not. But they were surely meant to reflect the kind of people who support him.

Gingrich 2012 Screen shot If the shot had conformed to the picture most people have of Gingrich’s supporters, its stock-house origins would probably have gone unremarked. But because the the association looked so unlikely, it triggered doubts (and some amusing parodies). The lesson here is to respect the generic nature of stock photography. The people in that picture aren’t real people—they were effectively turned into icons by Getty Images. But the way the designer used the photo, they have been reanimated into specific human beings: real, live supporters. This wouldn’t have happened with a drawing because the iconic nature of the art would be too obvious. But with a photograph, it’s all too easy to slip into deception.

Statue of Liberty Forever stampA second pitfall can open up when stock photographs are not in fact generic, but very specific—or seem to be. When the U.S. Postal Service went looking recently for a close-up of the Statue of Liberty to illustrate a Forever stamp, they went to a stock art supplier for the image. The only problem, as the USPS discovered too late, was that the close-up was not of the actual Statue of Liberty, but of a replica in Las Vegas.

Needless to say, it helps to read the fine print. The Getty Images page for the photo, by photographer Raimund Linke, clearly states (now, at least) that the shot is of a replica statue in Las Vegas. If the website didn’t make the location of the statue clear when the postal service saw it, wouldn’t checking with Getty Images or Linke have been a good idea? No doubt the service would think so now.

The Gingrich site also highlights a third potential pitfall of stock shots: other people can use the same shots you do. This sometimes leads to memorable embarrassments: As the Wall Street Journal points out, the Gingrich crowd shot first appeared on a website for the late liberal democrat Ted Kennedy, accompanied by the phrase “we are the democratic majority.” The mind reels.

You can’t control who else uses stock images, so before you make your selection, ask yourself: What if your competitor, whether political or commercial, uses the same one? If that’s a concern, you may want to find an alternative to stock art.

In a perfect and well-funded world, stock art would never be needed. But the reality is that, from time to time, you will need to use it, and all too often when you’re on a critical deadline and can’t think clearly.  Tread carefully: As my own use of stock art above demonstrates, here be dragons.

UPDATE – April 26: As Paul Conley pointed out today via Twitter, when a stock photo is reused by enough people, it morphs from an embarrassment into a meme, as in the curious case of the Everywhere Girl.

Three Tips for Simple but Effective Infographics

Angela Alcorn's Advice on Infographics

Last Friday’s post on infographics got much more attention than I expected from an impromptu effort. It’s evidently a topic that resonates with all kinds of content creators, not just journalists. That being the case, it’s not really enough for me to say that infographics are useful and cool and that you need to use them.

That was the essence of a comment from JC, who may or may not be a spammer (suggestion: never start  a comment with “interesting post”). Whatever his motive for commenting, he had a good point: “How ‘bout some tips on getting started?”  Or to put it another way:  Enough with the lectures; show me how to do it!

Thanks to Scott Preusser and his brand-new blog, I didn’t have to search far or long to find useful infographic resources. After seeing my post, Scott wrote one of his own about how, among other online adventures, he did a search and came up with Angela Alcorn’s thorough overview, “10 Awesome Free Tools To Make Infographics.

The articles and resources Alcorn cites are enormously informative, but almost too much so. It would be very easy to get overwhelmed by all the tools and techniques and impressive examples and simply give up on infographics.

As I wrote last week, though, infographics don’t have to be costly, complex, and super-cool. Just remember these key points:

  • You don’t need to be a graphic artist. If you can work with one, great; but if not, you can probably find a simple way to produce the graphic on your own. You don’t need much graphic skill or expensive software.
  • Even if it doesn’t result in a graphic, the exercise of visualizing your information will benefit you. The process will help you better understand your topic, and can highlight unsuspected gaps in your data.

Three Infographic Tips

There are probably more, but over the weekend I came up with three cheap and easy ways to produce infographics. The results won’t make you look like another Jess Bachman, but they will add value for your readers. In some respects, these suggestions are stunningly obvious. But in a way, that’s my point—if the benefit of using a simple infographic is obvious, why not do it?

Borrow an infographic. Why struggle to create an infographic if other people are willing to lend you theirs? Depending on your topic, you may be able to find what you’re looking for in the creative commons collections of Wikimedia or Flickr. Or, if you’re mindful of copyright rules, you can simply do a Google image search. When you find something that works for you, ask if you can use it. More often than not, you’ll find that people are willing to share their work in exchange for an author credit and a link back to their site.

By Bendevlin (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Infographic from Wikimedia

Annotate an image. Using any number of photo-editing programs, you can add text and highlighting to an image to turn it into an infographic. Another approach is to use a browser plug-in like “Awesome Screenshot” for Chrome to annotate anything you find on the Web. Here, for instance, is an example of an annotated screen shot I created that shows how to download an image from PicasaWeb.

Annotated Screen Capture

Annotated Image: Click to Enlarge


Make a flow chart. Though you could easily overuse them, flow charts can often clarify written descriptions of processes. You may already have a program to generate flow charts, like Microsoft’s Visio or the Omni Group’s OmniGraffle, but if not, there are a multitude of online options. One mentioned in Alcorn’s article is Creately. Another, which I used to generate the flowchart here, is Gliffy.

Steps to Creating Your Own Infographics: Click to Enlarge

My flow chart may not have a sophisticated background or color palette, but for half-an-hour’s work and my first time using Gliffy, it’s surprisingly polished.

Again, the point isn’t the quality of the graphics. If that’s all you’re concerned with, stick with stock art. But if you want to help your readers understand what you’re writing about, even the most modest attempts to represent your ideas or data graphically will pay big dividends.

UPDATE: I’m happy to report that JC is not a spammer. Thanks, JC!