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February 9, 2011

Filed under: journalism»industry

Store Policy

I have argued vociferously in the recent past that the journalistic craze for native clients--an enthusiasm seemingly rekindled by Rupert Murdoch's ridiculous Daily iPad publication--is a bad idea from a technical standpoint. They're clumsy, require a lot of platform-specific work, and they're not exactly burning up the newstands. It continues to amaze me that, despite the ubiquity of Webkit as a capable cross-platform hypertext runtime, people are still excited about recreating the Multimedia CD-ROM.

But beyond the technical barriers, publishing your news in a walled-garden application market raises some serious questions of professional journalistic ethics. Curation (read: a mandatory, arbitrary approval process) exacerbates the dilemma, but even relatively open app stores are, in my opinion, on shaky ground. These problems emerge along three axes: accountability, editorial independence, and (perhaps most importantly) the ideology of good journalism.


One of the hallmarks of the modern web is intercommunication based on a set of simple, high-level protocols. From a system of URLs and HTTP, a whole Internet culture of blog commentary, trackbacks, Rickrolls, mashups, and embedded video emerged. Most recently, Twitter created a new version of the linkblog (and added a layer of indirection via link shortening). For a journalist, this should be exciting: it's a rich soup of comments and community swarming around your work. More importantly, it's a constant source of accountability. What, you thought corrections went away when we went online?

But that whole ecosystem of viral sharing and review gets disconnected when you lock your content into a native client. At least on Android, you can send content to other applications via the powerful Intent mechanism (the iOS situation is much less well-constructed, and I have no idea how Windows Mobile now handles this), but even that has unpredictable results--what are you sharing, after all? A URL to the web version? The article text? Can the user choose? And when it comes to submitting corrections or feedback, native apps default to difficult: of the five major news clients I tried on Android this morning (NPR, CBS, Fox, New York Times, and USA Today), not one of them had an in-app way to submit a correction. Regret the error, indeed.

Editorial Independence

Accountability is an important part of professional ethics in journalism. But so is editorial independence, and in both cases the perception of misbehavior can be even more damaging than any actual foul play. The issue as I see it is: how independent can you be, if your software must be approved during each update by a single, fickle gatekeeper?

As Dan Gillmor points out, selling journalism through an app store is a partnership, and that raises serious questions of independence. Are news organizations less likely to be critical of Google, Apple, and Microsoft when their access to the platform could be pulled at any time from the virtual shelves? Do the content-restrictions on both mobile app stores change the stories that they're likely to publish? Will app stores stand behind journalists operating under governments with low press freedom, or will they buckle to a "terms of service" attack? On the web, a paper or media outlet can largely write whatever they want. Physical distribution is so diverse, a single retail entity can't really shut you down. But in an app store, you publish at the pleasure of the platform owner--terms subject to revision. That kind of scenario should give journalists pause.

Ideology and Solidarity

Organizing the news industry is like herding cats: it's a cutthroat business traditionally fueled by intra-city competition, and it naturally attracts argumentative, over-critical personality types. But it's time that newsrooms start to stick up for the basic ideology of journalism. That means that when the owners of an app store start censoring applications based on content, as happened to political cartoonist Mark Fiore or the Eucalyptus e-book reader, we need to make it clear that we consider that behavior unacceptable--pulling apps, refusing to partner for big launch events, and pursuing alternative publication channels.

There's a reason that freedom of the press is included next to speech, religion, and assembly in the Bill of Rights' first amendment. It's an important part of the feedback loop between people, events, and government in a democracy. And journalists have traditionally been pretty hardcore about freedom of the press: see, for example, the lawsuit over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, as well as the entirety of Reporters Without Borders. If the App Store were a country, its ranking for press freedom would be middling at best, and newspapers wouldn't be nearly as eager to jump into bed with it. The fact that these curated markets retain widespread publication support, despite their history of censorship and instability, is an shame for the industry as a whole.

Act, Don't React

Journalists have a responsibility to react against censorship when they see it, but we should also consider going on the offensive. While I don't actually think native news clients make sense when compared to a good mobile web experience, it is still possible to minimize or eliminate some of the ethical concerns they raise, through careful design and developer lobbying.

While it's unlikely that a native application could easily offer the same kind of open engagement as a website, designers can at least address accountability. News clients should offer a way to either leave comments or send corrections to the editors entirely within the application. A side effect of this would be cross-industry innovation in computerized correction tracking and display, something that few publications are really taking advantage of right now.

Simultaneously, journalists should be using their access to tech companies (who love to use newspapers and networks as keynote demos) to push for better policies. This includes more open, uncensored app stores, but it also means pushing for tools that make web apps first-class citizens in an app-centric world, such as:

  • JavaScript APIs for creating bookmarks on device homescreens (with, of course, user confirmation), so that a web application can be "installed" just like native code.
  • Support for "display: fixed" in mobile browsers. It's ridiculous that we still can't create toolbars without using costly DOM manipulation.
  • Better touch events. As PPK documents, the current state of touch events in mobile browsers is in real need of standardization.
There are other items that would be nice to see--access to accelerometer or camera sensors, for example--but these three are what most keep the browser from competing fairly. It's in the best interests of journalists with access to platform developers to push for these improvements for the rest of us. Otherwise, they're complicit in the unethical behaviors of the application stores that they're propping up.

We have so many interesting debates surrounding the business of American journalism--paywalls, ad revenue, user-generated content--can't we just call this one off? The HTML document, originally designed to publish academic papers, may be a frustrating technology for rich UIs, but it's perfectly suited for the task of presenting the news. It's as close as you can get to write-once-run-anywhere, making it the cheapest and most efficient option for mobile development. And it's ethically sound! Isn't it time we stood up for ourselves, and as an industry backed a platform that doesn't leave us feeling like we've sold out our principles for short-term gains? Come on, folks: let's leave that to the op-ed writers.

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