NPR: The kind of news you’d expect from an iPad

Here’s the bottom line. Bottom line readers generally avoid NPR broadcasts because they never get to the bottom line. NPR reporters would rather fill in the color than reduce the news to sound bytes. However, even if you’re not a fan of NPR, their iPad app is a model for interface design in news delivery:

NPR news reader is innovative but solid

  • The interface allows easy navigation to any story
  • Provides options for play listing and offline reading
  • Provides a wide variety of content

In addition, I rag on Apple for leaving Flash content out of the iPad for the three thousandth time (and hardly the last), discuss the role of digital media in the promotion of a free press and explain why corporate sponsorship makes a true liberal bias in the media far less likely than some people suppose.

More and more news organizations are moving operations to the iPad. The leap isn’t too hard, unless they were using Flash to deliver content. Apple pulled the rug out from under those news sites.

I suppose those organizations could sue Apple for interference with a free press. I mean, yes, they could shift their delivery systems to something other than Flash, but this requires them to expend more capital during a time when news organizations are supposed to be in financial decline.

This would then put Apple in the delicate position of publicly acknowledging that they were aware they were restricting viewers access to those news organization’s free speech content on the iPad, or admitting what many of us suspected along—that Apple is engaging in unfair competitive practices against Adobe, the company that helped put them on the economic map.

I say “many of us” because I don’t personally believe Apple was actually trying to hurt Adobe or news organizations that delivered Flash-based content. I think they were just too lazy to make the iPad Flash capable. Just as I think they’re too lazy to fix their mail programs, or add tabs and in-text search to the iPad version of Safari (even though third party developers have been doing so for a couple of months).

When this void for slick, interactive news delivery developed because of the conspicuous absence of Flash, a surprisingly small news organization with a limited audience but a sense of public service (one might even call them the little news bureau that could) stepped up to the plate and delivered a truly innovative news delivery app. That organization would be National Public Radio.

Even though their mission is not to convey content in print (and technically, the iPad isn’t “print”), they managed to extend their coverage to a new audience, young, hip kids on the go who use iPads and the internet. Young, hip kids like me.

Very soon after the iPad was released NPR followed with an app that delivered news in a slick interface that opened up the ease with which readers could access their content. There have been a number of news readers released, but none quite like this. At least until ABC tried to steal their thunder with a spinning news ball and an advertising blitz unlike any other save for the iPad itself.

I’ve already reviewed the heavily hyped ABC app, so I thought it only appropriate to look at the NPR app which probably influenced ABC’s rolling ball interface. I certainly think NPR’s developers should receive credit for the idea of scrolling through multiple stories at once.

I could have looked at other apps, and there are a number of strong news organizations trying to make an IPad presence. But I’m as interested in the interface as I am in the news. So I’m going to sidestep apps like the New York Times Editor’s Choice, simply because there is nothing new about the way they deliver news online.

I also realize this will cause my conservative friends and readers no small displeasure since NPR is, after all, the most liberal outlet of liberal misinformation by an already liberal media. Everything NPR produces is tainted with an unmistakable liberal bias.

Nor will I argue with them. If you take your news directly from objective sources such as Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and the Colbert Report, you will no doubt detect a liberal bias in NPR coverage. Of course, Charlie Gibson, Diane Swayer and Katie Couric exhibit a noticeable liberal bias in comparison. Hell, Regis Philbin and Jay Leno have a liberal bias compared to Beck, Reilly, et. al.

On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that NPR is as far to the right of Trotsky as Beck and O’Reilly are far to the left of Hitler (at least I hope they are). I can also say for a fact that NPR has become a hell of a lot more conservative since the Republicans gutted public Public Broadcasting funding in the nineties.

I listen to NPR and I could always count on listener mail to complain about their liberal bias in the seventies and eighties. Now as many letters seem to air complaining about NPR’s veer to the right. A lot of this may have to do with the fact that so much of their funding is now corporate. They can nibble at the fingernails of the hand that feeds them, but that’s about as far as they can go these days.

And I suspect the same is true of any news organization dependent on corporate sponsoring or advertising dollars. I worked for several newspapers in the eighties and the first question the publisher asked when reviewing an important story was, “how are the advertisers going to take this?”

With that in mind, I thought it might be worth looking at the NPR iPad app.

Scroll away, scroll away

NPR’s three-pane scrolling interface is pretty ingenious. The developers divide the screen into three panes, which they refer to as “tape.” Each tape is a category of recordings and text from NPR broadcasts—news, arts and life, and music.

You can use your finger to scrub the tape to any story, an ingenious adaptation of video and audio editing to the reading process. As soon as you spot a story that interests you, you can read a brief synopsis and, if you’re still interested, jump to the story directly. The tape for that category remains visible at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to scrub back to any other story.

Scrub the tape to search for stories.

Or, if you find the tape distracting, you can hide it until you’re ready to move on.

What makes the interface more useful than ABC’s rolling ball interface, if not quite so cool, is the fact that the you can access the story tape without leaving the story. You don’t have to return to the ball and scroll through random windows to find the exact story you want to read next. And the story tape never presents the same story in three different windows.

As I said, hardly as cool, but far more useful for reading.

You can scroll through the story pane
without leaving the story you’re reading.

Navigate anywhere from anywhere

NPR also provides the reader and listener with any number of options for accessing the media. You can navigate to any section of the app or news site from any location. In addition, if you don’t have time to read while you have wifi access, you can mark any report for offline reading. You even designate entire sections of the site for offline reading.

You can search for stories by topic then read offline.

You can add broadcast stories to a playlist or even create a list of favorite NPR affiliate stations which you can listen to directly from the app.

You can add recorded broadcasts to a playlist
or listen to any NPR affiliate live.

More serious content

I would like to say that NPR’s stories are better than those of the major networks, but I don’t want to get involved in discussions that involve reading taste. Since, I spent a great deal of time lambasting ABC for the quality of their online content, I thought I should at least run through some of NPR’s featured stories.

The news emphasis is slightly more on hard news than fluff pieces like “Mother bear rescues cubs” and “Troy Ailkman rats out Dancing with the Stars” featured on the ABC app. I would definitely say the focus is less on promoting NPR and more on promoting information and artists less likely to be well known already. In fact, NPR seems to take a particular delight in promoting little known bands not only before they become famous, but even if they never become famous. Reviewers also like to bring listener’s attention back to performers and writers whose popularity has faded.

There are lighter pieces, but NPR doesn’t throw them into the mix as news. They reserve the arts and life section for pieces that lack immediate news value or political perspective. It’s easy to compare NPR and ABC as classical music verses pop music. But the truth is I like classical music and I like pop music and jazz and alternative and world music. NPR likes to promote music along a similar spectrum. The pop music promoted on NPR seems a little fresher than bands like the Oak Ridge Boys or Black Eyed Peas, bands that have talent but have also long ago settled on a formula that promises to sell downloads rather than take serious musical risks.

Occasionally clunky

I have noticed that the story tape is still a little sticky even though the app has been in release several months. Recent updates are a lot smoother, but I still find occasions when I’m trying to scroll the window and the tape sticks, launching a story instead of previewing the titles. To borrow from the audio editing metaphor, it’s almost as though the playback heads are sticky and the tape sometimes gets caught.

Since when is music not an art?

Maybe I’m being overly picky here, or perhaps I’m subconsciously searching for something to criticize so readers won’t think I’m just another bleeding heart liberal who loves NPR unconditionally. But my heart pumps the piss of contempt pretty much as often as it bleeds (as some readers have written to complain) and I only love software unconditionally when it deserves to be loved.

The question remains, why does NPR have a category for “Arts and Life” and then an additional category for music? Isn’t music an art? I know that school administrators and politicians looking to cut the purse strings treat art and music with the same scorn, derision and red lines across their budget items.

Perhaps NPR believes music is commercially viable, whereas art is often supported by grants and benefactors. But the producers seem to consider literature one of the arts. Isn’t literature commercially viable (if only for publishers and the handful of writers they actually choose to promote)?

Maybe it’s because NPR uses music to segue between segments so the user doesn’t experience dead air. Music makes more sense than cutting from a hard hitting piece on Afghanistan to ten seconds of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and then to a feature story on garden plants that are rapidly becoming extinct in northwest South Dakota.

Oh, wait, Carol returned this from proofreading with a snide remark that no one wants to download a two minute sound clip of “Finnegan’s Wake” or even Chelsea Handler reading from her book.

That makes sense.

Never mind.

Jenny Manytoes rates NPR

Let’s face it, Jenny would much rather watch the ABC ball spin because ABC has more stories about cute kittens and cats. So I’m going to overrule her, exercise my professional judgement as a writer and interface designer and make biscuits on the NPR news app myself.

The Jenny Manytoes Rating System

Jenny Manytoes, our polydactyl cat
  • When Jenny makes biscuits on a product she thinks she’s in heaven.
  • When Jenny purrs over a product she’s very happy.
  • When Jenny naps next to a product it’s okay with her.
  • When Jenny bunches her tail she can live with a product, but she has higher expectations.
  • When Jenny leaves it in the litter box….I don’t think I need to explain this one.

iPad Envy is created entirely using apps from my iPad
iPad Envy.


About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
This entry was posted in 5 Stars - Biscuits, Entertainment, iPad, News, Reading and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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