Preparing Content Means Different Diets for Different Tablets

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By: Jim Rosenberg

Part 3 of E&P‘s June cover story on tablets.

The formats are all modern, but for newspapers looking to present content on a variety of tablets and e-readers, the process may seem like using several old typesetter languages for output. Must the same copy really be separately prepared for each device?

“Absolutely — that’s one of the big challenges,” says consultant Amy Webb, CEO of Baltimore-based Webmedia Group. The problem started with smartphones. Because every mobile device has a different operating system, each needs a software developer kit and, Webb cautions, maybe different programming languages.

“Every device manufacturer and online bookstore/newsstand has different requirements and limitations,” says Roger Fidler, Reynolds Journalism Institute program director for digital publishing at the University of Missouri, where he coordinates research and the work of the Digital Publishing Alliance.

Right now, one domain may take an XML feed, as Amazon does, or a PDF feed, as Sony and others do, and Apple supplies a software developer kit. “It isn’t a crazy amount of labor,” concedes Sean Reily, who’s just coming off a fellowship at the Reynolds Institute. Publishers, after all, already have PDF files and XML-tagged content. But because an automated script is needed to move coded content as and where needed, newspapers should expect some of the burden to fall on them, Reily says.

As a consequence, “nearly all newspapers are now outsourcing the conversion of content for e-readers, Fidler says. “The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today are the only U.S. newspapers I’m aware of that are handling most of the app development and content preparation for the Apple iPad and other tablet devices in-house.”

Gannett Digital Vice President of Mobile Strategy and Operations Matt Jones says his operation combines in-house and outsourced coding and technology but keeps all strategy, editorial and feed generation in-house.

For the rest, there are plenty of firms that can create applications, but newspapers should look for device specialists, Webb advises. “You have to really do your homework,” she says. “I can think of maybe three companies in the United States” that can work with most devices. Too many newspapers go with small local shops or expensive big names that lack expertise.

A better solution would be adopting standards for content-prep automation. One place to start, suggests Reily, editorial and business planning director for the Los Angeles Times, the Digital Publishing Alliance, which could jump-start the process by getting publishers together, and perhaps even “put out the first definition of standards” for comment.

Reily also says he wouldn’t be surprised if publishers simply demand manufacturers start making content preparation easier across devices.

It’s just not a rational approach to have 50 newspapers using 50 different versions of the required feed. And by cutting manufacturers’ content-prep costs, he suggests, standardization also may leave more income to be shared.


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