Let’s accept that newspapers do not understand the Web. Why, though, do they not even understand HTML? Why do they need a so-called Center for Public Integrity to ride into their newsrooms on the white stallion of a white-label version of Treesaver? What this yet-unnamed beast is called – an “HTML5 product” – tells us a lot about the newspaper industry’s susceptibility to magic words.

  • Treesaver isn’t a product. It’s a Web browser that uses CSS to lay out documents in columns. You don’t need an iPad to do that; the CSS3 columns module was finalized (went to Candidate Recommendation) almost a year ago. (Treesaver’s CTO notes that this glorified browser uses custom JavaScript libraries, which are not the same as black magic and are functionally reproducible.)

  • “HTML5” is not some kind of new technology different from old technologies. It is merely HTML. For newspaper usage, nothing can be done in HTML5 that cannot be done in HTML 4.01. (I mean that as written – audio and video are both readily achievable, and no newspaper will ever, at any time, use new elements like ARTICLE and ASIDE.)

The unnamed product isn’t a for-profit venture, so the following comparison is imperfect, but its existence and implied reason for being remind me of the hucksterism involved in persuading corporations that they need to pay for Web-server software (namely IIS) – which, it turns out, always works worse than installing Apache at zero cost. The only kind of software that corporations understand is software you pay for. The only kind of “Web solution” that newspapers understand is a solution wrapped in buzzwords that claims to be different from the actual Web. Newspapers are different from the Web; the Web threatens newspapers; hence a third different thing seems like just the ticket to rescue newspapers from the threat of the Web.

“We think we’ve created a better way to consume investigative reporting,” John Solomon, the chief digital officer, [said], and at a much lower cost than developing apps for different devices.

To the bifocal-wearing computerphobes who run newspapers, that sounds like a solution to a real problem. To a legitimate Web developer, that sounds like a failure of CSS; to a legitimate Web designer, it sounds like a failure of graphic design and typography. Legitimate developers and designers could remedy both failures without an “HTML5 product” if only newspapers would bother to hire them and let them do their work.

The existence of this “product” demonstrates that newspaper editors never knew they were even using HTML on their Web sites. Nor did they realize their Web sites did not actually have to look like a single column of article copy with advertising down the side.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2010.11.28 13:08. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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