asap: An Inspired Failure
The Associated Press’ asap, a trail-blazing Web product aimed at young people unfamiliar with the phenomenon of ink ruboff, will cease operations in October, the mother ship has announced. Refreshingly, it appears the suits came clean and just ‘fessed up: asap wasn’t making enough money.
Fair enough. AP’s biggest revenue source remains newspapers, and these days we all know how sentences that begin that way end. Nobody should blame the company for sticking a plug in a money drain.
But let’s hope the suits are also telling the truth when they say they’ll transplant some asap mojo to other AP services. This would be wise. Asap has some great features–and a frisky, creative young staff–worth saving.
I think of asap, at its best, as a younger version of Slate, but without the smarter-than-you swagger. And without as many words. Like Slate, it’s full of stories you could easily live without. But you come away feeling somehow better, if not precisely smarter, for spending time with them.
- Check out this multimedia feature on hats. Great use of video (nice background music), handsome simple graphics, targeted precisely at young people just beginning to think about grown-up matters like, well, wearing hats. These multimedia stories are what asap does (did?) best.
- The site often knew its target audience well. While not an inspired production, this essay by an AP intern on why she’s decided to attend Virginia Tech in the fall is perfect for the asap audience. [Note to producers: No links to multimedia elements of the VT coverage? Yeesh.]
- Look at this brain-opening article on a military manual for soldiers posted in Iraq–from 1943. [Text is too long, though.]
- Embedding audio clips in articles, even when well-produced, provides a lousy user experience. The clips are often incoherent when used as a podcast, so their “best” use is as a media supplement to the on-screen story. I’ve said it before in this blog: If there is anyone who has clicked on an audio file (even music) and not gone on to some other task (either on the computer or around the office) while it plays in the background, I’ve yet to meet that person.
- Way too much stuff, especially recently, appears to be half-thought-out enhancements of regular AP copy, often presented under the heading “Reporting Back.” It’s as if someone on high said, “Original productions are too expensive, let’s find a way to media-up our AP stuff and put it on the site. Kids like multimedia. Don’t they?” [In fact, I’m sure that was said. If anyone out there knows who said it, please feel free to leave an anonymous comment here. For that matter, if the perp wants to confess here, that’s even better.]
- Way too much material consists of longer versions of AP-ish stories. This is based on a theory so out of date it’s scary. Time was, people would say “space in the paper is limited, but we have all the space we want on the Web.” People said this before they realized that a user’s attention is the most precious resource on the Web, even more precious than it is in print. This calls for much shorter, tighter and designed-to-be-scanned text on the Web. Yes, you can add supplemental documents, links to supporting info and so on to enhance an article; indeed, that’s a Web-journalism best practice. But you can’t write long and loose just because there’s noone telling you to keep it to 14 inches and file by 2 p.m.
- Another example of multimedia abuse (not even a misdemeanor in most jurisdictions, but it should be): photo galleries apropos of nothing. This piece on the environmental consequences of biofuel production makes a fascinating point. It consists of a longish, loosely edited article with a 14-photo gallery. The gallery is beautiful; the music behind it elegaic. But in the end, it’s National Geo eye candy; it fails to create a narrative or even accomplish exposition. It does not advance the story, it merely indulges it visually.
It appears asap failed commercially because AP is not positioned to monetize it, and (I’d argue) editorial direction got diffuse. But deploying smart young people to explore the world from their perspective, using an emerging set of multimedia tools, is a great thing to try. Someone should glean the lessons and reach the next level.
Will it be AP?
The answer to that question, as usual, lies with the suits.