The Silent History

The Silent History Entry ScreenI’ve been reading and hearing about an award-winning transmedia app created by former McSweeney’s managing editor Eli Horowitz. Suffice to say, I was both intrigued enough to want to download this app, but wary enough that it might be so hipster I’d want to avoid it.

I gave it a whirl after finding out The Silent History (please excuse my dodgy phone pics) was partially free for a short time—the classic first-hit’s-free way to turn you into a junkie. I have to say it’s worked. Last night I caved and bought the remaining instalments. Then I shirked work and responsibilities to plough through to the novel’s end.

The app design, with its beautiful, functional, and communication design-considered circles and complementary navigation is fantastic. And, as a typography-obsessed nerd from way back, the fonts and layout are like crack.

Crucially, though, underpinning all of this is a compelling story that combines serialised, multi-narrated, interview-based testimonials detailing a generation of children born silent but not stupid. Basically, Horowitz and co. have assembled an app around a good tale, not tried to tack on tales to high-tech tools.

The story begins with an emerging phenomenon: people start giving birth to Silents, or people who are born without language or any ability or willingness to obtain it (some characters disparagingly and politically incorrectly refer to them as ‘mutetards’). It’s new, it’s widespread; no one quite knows what’s ‘wrong’ with these people or what to do with them. Some people consider them freaks; others try to save them; still others try to take advantage of them for their own purposes.

The story is told through 120 individual testimonials that equate to about 500 hundred pages of text. These contained, snapshot-like segments subjectively narrated by parents, teachers, friends, doctors, opportunists, and impostors—an array of characters touched by the silent phenomenon, each with their own agenda and point of view; none entirely (or not clearly) reliable.

Complementing the testimonials are field reports, or short, site-specific stories that expand on, and are related to, the main story. You have to physically be at the location (i.e. your device recognises the GPS co-ordinates) to unlock these reports. Being in Australia, I’m clearly a long way away from doing so, although I didn’t mind—the story was meaty enough without these and I’m often annoyed by periphery.

The Silent HistoryBesides, I was too gripped by the testimonial writing, which is incredibly strong. Many of them are reminiscent of McSweeney’s monologues: understated, finely crafted, and containing incisive, view-altering insights that sucker punch you.

It’s impossible to convey some such entries here, although I will say I loved their reference to a ‘pet-friendly gambling park’ and how two characters hire a car for a dollar as long as they’re willing to be injected by microchips that make them thirsty every time they see a drink called Slush (these premises are beyond the realm of comprehension, and yet they aren’t).

The McSweeney’s monologue-isms were especially strong in the middle of the app, presumably because the writers had gotten the scene-setting aspects out of the way and could flex their creativity. Which they do, writing characters that are at times entirely unlikeable, bona fide crazy, and yet impossible to turn pages past.

Having finished the novel quickly and having read it chronologically, I’d be interested to go back and cherry pick characters’ versions and re-read them from the start. But I’m time poor and, I’ll admit, wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. It was—spoiler alert—not really an ending, slightly cop out-y and certainly without any concrete answers to what caused the Silents and more.

Still, The Silent History has set the future-of-storytelling benchmark high and it’s given me plenty of food for thought for my own attempts at transmedia work. I recommend checking it out (even if it’s only the first section while it’s free).

Why booklovers need newspapers

The SMH replica app allows a tablet user to see the newspaper as it appears in print.
After 14 years in newspapers of which 11 were with Fairfax titles, and seven were online, I have some pretty strong views about recent events in that great newspaper company.

As an avid reader and book lover so should you. Newspapers have long encouraged and supported their journalists as they add the writing of books to their creative output. Without their newspaper jobs, these journalists simply wouldn’t have been able to afford to devote their time to the writing of books.

There are too many current or past Fairfax journalists and columnists who have become authors to mention here, but some names that spring to mind are Maggie Alderson, Mia Freedman, Peter Fitzsimons, David Marr, Chris Womersley, Annabel Crabb, Roy Masters and Kirsty Needham.

I’m most concerned for those friends and former colleagues who have already lost their jobs, or may do so in coming months.

I’m also worried about how those who keep their jobs will cope with all the uncertainty and change.

I’m devastated about the impact cuts have already had and will continue to have on the quality of the content coming from the SMH, Age and Canberra Times.

I’ve also always been a passionate reader of Fairfax content, whether it’s in newspaper form (rarely these days), on the web on my computer, on my iPad via an app or on the iPhone as a mobile optimized version of the websites, and whether it’s content I’ve found by flipping or scrolling through Fairfax’s own pages or via a recommendation from a Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn contact.

However we find or read the content, it’s a huge enrichment for our lives.

As a journalist who was lucky to be poached from Fairfax by a small start-up publisher a year ago, before the outsourcing of sub-editors started the current doom and gloom, I have mostly happy memories of my time there. Fairfax is a great company. Its people are exceptional as writers, editors and mentors to those building media careers.

A little part of me is angry about some management decisions made over the years, particularly the ones that involved head-in-the-sand statements like, “No, you can’t publish that online, it’s a print exclusive” and “No, we can’t publish a replica app because it might impact on print sales”.

The latter particularly frustrated me because replica versions (like those found on Zinio or PressReader) seemed like such a simple and cheap way to get Fairfax content onto tablets for readers interstate and overseas, or for those who had an allergy to newsprint, and who thus couldn’t access the print edition.

I replaced my print delivery of the SMH with a replica app subscription in 2010 and haven’t looked back. I’d do the same for The Canberra Times today if they offered one.

I’ve always believed that if your readers want to receive your goods in a particular way, and you can provide the goods to them in that way relatively cheaply and easily, then you should do so.

Print has been over for a long time, and the direction CEO Greg Hywood has finally shifted the business in is the right one.

A digital first policy and the appointment of social media editors for each title are necessary steps forward. A little late, maybe, but better late than never.

As for Gina Rinehart, well, wouldn’t it be great if everyone who felt strongly about keeping her off the board invested in a few Fairfax shares themselves. Don’t hold your breath.

What do you think the future holds for newspapers?

Do you, like me, believe Fairfax should pull back further on printed editions to save on printing and distribution costs and provide print subscribers with tablets and app subscriptions?

I reckon that will happen in time.

I also think they should look to charge for longer form journalism, focusing on depth and expertise rather than trying to compete on breaking news, though this will only work if they expand still further on their social media plans to ensure their content is discovered.

As for how you can help to support Fairfax’s great journalists, the most important way is to pay for their content. Subscribe to an app or paid website. Buy a print edition (if only to show your grandchildren so they know what a newspaper used to look like). Buy some shares. Or join the Get up! Campaign to promote its editorial independence.

My iPhone

A couple of months ago I finally decided to join everyone else in the 21st Century by getting myself a smart phone. Up until then, I had been using an old Motorola flip phone and I’d been reluctant to get rid of it simply because it felt a bit like using a Star Trek communicator. 🙂 But that phone finally died, and so I took the plunge. Being a Mac person, I of course decided to get an iPhone. It has been an odd experience thus far. Aside from making me feel old, it has proven to be a far more useful device than I had expected.

It’s funny how technology moves forward, but people often don’t. I remember when I started my first office job, not long out of Uni, and how the older people in the office would often come to me for help with their computers… not that I was any sort of computer expert, but simply because I was familiar and comfortable with the technology. I’d smile patiently and try to explain things in simple non-tech terms. Now, suddenly, I’m one of those older people. When I bought the iPhone, the young sales assistant had to explain to me the basics of its operation. Smiling politely, he talked to me in very basic non-tech terms.

After a few weeks of trial and error, I’d figured out the basics of the phone. But I still felt that I was missing out on functionality simply because I didn’t know about it… so I booked myself into an iPhone tutorial at my local Apple store. I was the youngest person in the class… apart from the tutor who didn’t look a day over 20. But I still felt old, because I needed someone to explain to me in simple terms how to use some pretty basic technology. On the plus side, I did learn heaps about the use of the phone, so it was worth the effort.

I am now most definitely enamoured with my iPhone. As well as replacing my old phone, it has also replaced my iPod. It’s rather nice having all that in the one device. I’ve put some games on to it, mostly to keep the kids amused when we’re out and about. And despite what some people warned me about, it’s great for phone calls — much clearer and easier to use than my old phone.

“But what’s all this got to do with books?” I hear you shout. “Why are you waxing lyrical about your phone on Literary Clutter?”

Well… for starters, it can be used as an eReader. Mind you, I haven’t progressed to using it as such… not yet anyway. Yesterday I downloaded a few kids’ read-along eBooks in preparation for an overseas trip. I figured that rather than just having games and videos on there to keep the kids amused during long bouts of travel, I’d try putting some books on there for them. And there are LOTS to choose from… many available for free or for a very low price. I’ve had a look at them, and they are rather cute. Although they’re still not enticing me to read that way, they may have some impact on my kids. I’ll report back after our trip.

Interestingly, I’m finding the iPhone particularly handy as an author. How? In a few different ways.

As a writer, I like to carry a notebook and pen with me for when inspiration strikes. But, on a number of occasions in the past, I’ve found myself caught without writing material when needed, desperately trying to keep the brilliant idea in my mind until I could write it down… and usually failing. That will never happen again… because my iPhone has a notepad. And I don’t even have to type into it. I can just speak into the phone, which will then transcribe it for me. Very nice!

Then there is the ability to have videos on the phone. I’ve got my book trailers on there. During a meeting yesterday, when talking about the trailer, I was able to pull out my phone and show the trailer I was talking about. Very handy.

And then, there are the apps. I’ve got a dictionary app. And I’ve downloaded the Melbourne Literary app (see “Literary stuff with an iPhone app”) — a great little resource about literary stuff in Melbourne.

No doubt, there is still heaps more my iPhone can do that I’m just not aware of yet. So I think I’m going to book myself in to the advanced tutorial at the Apple store. Who knows… maybe I’ll write my next book on my phone?

Catch ya later,  George

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A very appy bear called Paddington

Nostalgia reigned as I first shared the new iPad app edition of the 1958 children’s classic Paddington Bear with my son.

I suspect the same would be true for most of you.

A copy of follow-up title Paddington in the Garden is among the favourite children’s books to have survived on my shelves for decades, having inspired me to take ownership of my own little corner of the garden as a child.

The next generation will be no different. I bought a little Paddington toy a year ago for my son, and was touched to find upon reaching my desk one morning that at age 15 months, he’d thoughtfully popped it into my handbag to take to work.

HarperCollins Children’s Books (UK) is the publisher of the new iPad edition of Paddington Bear ($A1.99 from iTunes), having partnered with youth digital specialist Bold Creative on the software, and a fine job they’ve done in putting it together too.

The design is stunning. The digitised RW Alley illustrations are crystal clear, with bright colours and plenty of white space to boost their impact.

There are lots of in-app options: to buy the printed version, to appear in a portrait with Paddington, to record your own reading of the story, to send a message to author Michael Bond (who lives near Paddington Station in London himself, these days), to share news of the app’s arrival via email, Facebook or Twitter, and to be read to or read on your own.

The text appears on each page in a horizontal box that can be dragged off, to leave the illustrations in full view.

The app is full of very cute, yet simple, interactive animations. Touch a pigeon to giggle as it defecates on the footpath. Tap your finger on Paddington as he sits on a cafe table, and watch him fall over on, thus covering himself with, cake. Readers can tap on a London bus to hear a bell, or on a black cab to hear its horn toot.

My son loved all of this, but especially the pigeon animation, which he takes much delight in activating over and over again.

Watching him play with these elements reminded me of the fun he had with books like Spot’s Noisy Car – before he tore the flaps off and wore out the horn button.

The iPad can never replicate the fun of little fingers poking their way through the holes in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but it has other benefits Eric Carle may never have imagined.

The great digital newsprint struggle

The book industry has handled the transition to digital with greater intelligence, foresight and strategy than the newspaper business.

In the space of two years (given the Kindle arrived in this market in late 2009 and the iPad and Kobo in May 2010), all major book publishers and many smaller operators have begun to publish ebooks simultaneously with printed titles. Larger book retailers were either already selling ebooks, or moved as quickly as they could to partner with businesses that would allow them to do so. Customers who adopted ereader technology understood from day one that they would need to part with cash to buy ebooks, just as they had physical books.

Newspaper publishers have posted their content online since the mid-90s (making it available to their readers for no charge in most cases), but many are still trying to find a digital model that will make their business sustainable.

Perhaps it’s because newspaper editors are so flat out getting the next day’s edition together, they don’t have time to research, plan, and ponder their likely future, whereas book publishers are used to thinking long term.

Perhaps, like many who are opposed to taking action on climate change, the newspaper bosses see the so-called digital threat as a problem for their successors, and thus one they can ignore or pay lip service to without taking genuine steps towards a sustainable model.

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times examines some of these issues, and is a must-see for anyone who is interested in the changing face of the mainstream media. It’s showing in arthouse cinemas in Australia now.

A poster for Page One.
Rossi spent a year in The New York Times newsroom, focusing particularly on the media desk as it covered the dramatic changes affecting the reporters’ own industry.

During that year, the paper’s editors debated how they would cover WikiLeaks’ Afghan war logs, the release of the iPad, the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company (some serious scandals in that one, I’m definitely keen to read more about the workplace culture that filtered through to the LA Times and Chicago Tribune among other papers), NBC Universal’s merger with Comcast, media staff cuts impacting on coverage of the White House and the end of US combat in Iraq.

The film also looks at the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller incidents, the rise of Gawker, Pro Publica and new models for investigative reporting and charging for news online (the Times introduced a metered model of charging regular users of its website during filming).

The lively characters who fill the newsroom and those who commentate on the future of the Times for the cameras provide intriguing side-stories within the larger narrative. Media and culture columnist David Carr, a former crack addict whose 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, was a New York Times bestseller, is a star of the show.

But it is the newspaper itself that plays the leading role, surviving by adapting to make best use of new tools like Twitter and blogs and (as has been the case in newspapers here) cutting staff.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of newspapers. Do you still read them? How often? In print or online? Or via apps for smartphones or tablets?

Do you prefer to read native apps (purpose-built for tablets) or replica versions of the print editions, like those found in the PressReader app?

Or do you find you now read only the occasional newspaper story you’ve found via Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms?

Would you be prepared to pay by the article, ebook-style, to access quality, well-researched long-form journalism?

Finally, do you think newspapers will even exist in five or ten years?

I’ll write a follow-up post with some of my own thoughts on these questions (as a former online editor of three newspapers, including one that introduced a paywall a decade ago) soon.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.