Lean Back (to the 90s…)

Traditional magazine publishing had (and still has) it’s own set of roles. Journalists, subs, editors, layout… A current observation is that those roles are beginning to collapse into each other.

But what new roles are there in publishing? What roles should there be?

To answer that question we need to look outside the skill-sets that naturally come to mind and look at the media that publishing is transferring to. Because, to be frank, we keep treating digital media like it’s brand new – but It’s a medium with its own history. A history we can learn from.

Here’s an observation. I was recently introduced to the idea that publishers are only just beginning to differentiate between lean back and lean forward reading experiences. The introduction was entirely by accident.

I’m a University Lecturer with a background in multimedia design. About a year ago, I was explaining how digital journalism is taught to a magazine editor visiting our course.

I was asked if I’d heard of The Economist’s definition of lean back reading. Honestly, I hadn’t heard the term at the time. However, when the individual continued to explain the idea – something clicked. This was fairly basic, 20 year old Human Computer Interface design theory, just with different jargon.

Of course, we do already discuss different modes of reading with students.

But to discover that publishing is having a debate now that students of Human Computer Interface design had in the 1990s – and is coming up with it’s own new terms for it – is a little worrying. (See, for e.g. Taylor and Francis, Designing Usable Electronic Text, 1994, Peck and John, Browser-Soar: a computational model of a highly interactive task, 1992)

It made me think about the Dunning Kruger effect – the idea that individuals – or in this case, groups – measure their competence relative only to their own experience.

Magazine publishers are, of course, experts at packaging together and curating content. They are becoming experts in doing so for different environments (the lean forward environment of the web, the lean back experience of the Kindle, the flux of the tablet).

If we do this in isolation, industry risks a moment of future Satori where it realises that it has reinvented the wheel. And it’s a hexagon.

Expertise in one area does not automatically confer expertise in another. The Dunning Kruger effect is quite probably amplified if the context of incompetence appears rudimentarily familiar to the area in which the subject has a demonstrable expertise.

I wrote a thesis on multimedia production back in 1997 – called The Mirrored Screen (MMU, 1997). One of its conclusions was that interactive multimedia creation would not be the product of individual effort – but a team discipline requiring coders and creatives working together.

That’s how digital journalism in the 2010s must move forward – because digital journalism is becoming interactive multimedia creation.

Happily, there are some publishers taking this route, working with app developers and UX dudes to create content from scratch (rather than jam content into frameworks). And, predictably, it’s the tech press leading the way.

Has anyone noticed how lovely Tap! is? How about tech. from TechRadar Or, inversely, how eye-peelingly horrible The Times app is?

Everyone’s learning. That’s good. Let’s apply some of our journalistic savvy to learn better.

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