Three approaches to iPad content creation

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At last night's Columbia School of Journalism panel on apps, representatives from Gourmet Live, The New York Times and Popular Mechanics talked about their different approaches to iPad content creation.

The panel, moderated by Emily Bell, the director of the J-School's new Tow Center for Digital Journalism and The Guardian's former director of digital content, included: Glenn Dureene, the senior technology editor at Popular Mechanics; Adam Kaplan, mobile software architect for The New York Times and developer of their iPad app; Alexandra Hardiman, the Times' product manager for mobile; and Kelly Senyei, content producer for Gourmet's high-profile iPad app.

"Experimenting" was the second-most used word at the conference, after iPad. Experimentation and taking reader feedback are key factors in the creation of iPad content. Creating iPad content is fundamentally a dialogue between the publisher and the reader. In that sense, reader feedback is a major part of that conversation.

"Will the iPad save journalism?" was the first question asked. Although the question  was never quite answered -- the jury, to be sure, is still out -- all of the panelists stressed the importance of media companies having a digital footprint on the iPad.

"Anyone who tells you they have figured out digital magazines is either lying or is supremely confident," said Dureene of Popular Mechanics. Quality journalism and solid design, all on the panel agreed, will never go out of style. But many of the panelists noted the changes in the digital newsroom creating iPad content.

Conde Nast's Gourmet Live, now entirely a digital entity, is seriously looking to community building through social media, or "the more people you bring to the table," as Kelly Senyei puts it. Also, interestingly, reader feedback. "(Gourmet Live) gets hundreds of emeails a day and we read through all of it," said Senyei, who also noted that their app is now offering a la carte options -- 99-cent recipes, special offers. Each week two to three rewards are hidden for engaged readers of their content.

The New York Times's iPad app, with its standard three-column layout, stresses a "simple and sustainable" news experience. With a single tap of the screen, a photo can be viewed in "its full glory." The video section has essentially the same layout as the photo section.

The latest iteration of the Times app also features blogs -- through their Bloglist -- more prominently than before. Adam and Alexandra both acknowledged that the iPad is a fundamentally different type of experience than either print or even the web, presenting them with a lot of problem solving and guesswork in their daily routine. 

Expanding the reach of journalism to readers that have a strong connection with the brand is their stated aim. Alexandra also noted that the Times is experimenting with the ratio of advertising and content so as not to overwhelm the reader. Adam Kaplan added that a HTML5 framework would allow the New York Times to scale across platforms beyond the iPad.

Dureene had four points regarding iPads and publishers.

  1. "Don't reinvent the magazine." Magazines -- at least not his -- are not in trouble, he said. Popular Mechanics, perhaps because it is a science and technology magazine, has only experienced flat circulation -- as opposed to the major trauma experienced by most publishers -- in the last five years.
  2. Experiment -- there's that word again -- early and often. Dureene gave some interesting examples of Popular Mechanics experiments at reimagining the Table of Contents for the iPad.
  3. The editorial formula is now different on the iPad. Durene noted that Popular Mechanics has a programmer at all editorial meetings so iPad opportunities are integral to all stories. When writers pitch a story, there is now an editor, an art person, and a programmer in the room so iPad opportunities are integral to all stories. Parent company Hearst, he added, "does not outsource coding ... (we are) insourced."
  4. Embrace the fundamentals.

Perhaps it is the fact that it is Popular Mechanics -- a space friendly to all things digital -- that these changes in publishing are not perceived as particularly traumatic.  Dureene gave the quote of the evening, noting "if you are a media company in the 21st century, whether you know it or not, you are a tech company." He continued, "there is a bias in the media that editorial does content and technology does technology ... (but) once your content is technologized, it is now data."

Kaplan of the New York Times supplied the most interesting tidbit of the evening. Steve Jobs is, of course, going to be an invisible presence throughout the conversation on publishers and the iPad. Publishers, clearly, have mixed feelings over the man. Apparently, during the creation of the first iteration of The New York Times app, Adam was approached by Apple and flown out to Cupertino, Calif., where he spent over three weeks for 16 hours a day working with Apple engineers on the Times app. He was not permitted to discuss anything he was doing with anyone -- including his boss, Martin Niesenholtz, the senior vice president of digital operations at the Times.

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