PaperLater is a new service from Newspaper Club (see previous entry on newspapers, and Newspaper Club.) As with Newspaper Club, it ingeniously wrangles the dynamics of both newsprint and the internet into something entirely new.
In short, PaperLater enables you to save articles off the internet to read later, via a little click of a bookmarklet on your browser (or sending the URL via email.) The text of the article is scraped off the page, along with an associated image. These articles are then automatically reformatted for newspaper layout, and batched up in a queue. When a newspaper’s worth of articles has been saved—around 20 pages—a single personalised newspaper is printed out (on newspaper printing presses) and delivered to your door. It’s like Instapaper, Pocket or Readability, but delivered in newspaper, Daily Me-style.
As a beta-tester, I was asked by Justin Ellis of Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard to comment on the service, leading to this article there. I’d found PaperLater interesting in terms of the product, as media, but also in the way that it works, arguably emblematic of what I’d call a ‘parasite service’ (highly benevolent, in this case) which we can see across other areas eg. Uber, Lyft, AirBbnb, Bridj etc. Does Newspaper Club exploit temporarily redundant resources in a similar way to Airbnb or Lyft?
I thought I’d share my fuller answers to Justin’s questions below, as a form of informal Q&A. Thanks to Justin for the questions, and to Newspaper Club for the service.
Justin Ellis: What were your first impressions of using PaperLater, what was it like to put together your own paper?
Dan Hill: PaperLater benefits from services like Instapaper, Readability and Pocket preceding it. Users are familiar with the idea of hitting a bookmarklet, and the core of the information on a page being hoovered up, stored alongside others in a stream of editorial saved for later, and with each article re-presented in a simplified text format, with a single image. The real delight is in a collection of articles landing on the doormat in a newspaper format. While the layout of the paper ‘just happens’, there is a pleasing sense that you’re building a collection; not exactly making a newspaper in the sense of editing it, or laying it out, but building something nonetheless. You’re curating.
Part of the value is utility; the newspaper format, as an interface, has been refined over a couple of hundred years, and works very well for presenting a certain kind of content. But part of the value feels like it is in the making of something that looks and feels like a newspaper. (Another appealing idea is that your paper is utterly unique—printed once, just for you—but I do wonder whether there is a service in terms of subscribing to the collections of others, just as people used to subscribe to each others’ Del.icio.us feeds, and, to some extent, now follow each other on Twitter.)
There are some nice, witty touches to the user experience, as you’d expect from Newspaper Club (and perhaps a British app.) It’s also lovely to think about the idea of little or no waste through personalisation—this paper is printed once—yet through a format we usually associate with mass media. While I’d like to see the delivery service thought-through to be as sustainable as possible (newspaper delivery via bike, via local kiosk, or paperboys and girls, like the old days), the fact that it’s on paper means it’s re-used, passed around, scribbled on, left on the subway for others, used to dry out wet shoes, clean windowpanes … All those aspects of the reusability of paper. In fact, seeing a few old copies of PaperLater with coffee cup rings and scribbles on them is pleasing, given the slightly absurd idea behind ‘printing out the internet’. It’s also, probably, as good a way as any to archive articles you’re interested. Despite being trapped in analogue, I’d guess it’s just as quick—and more enjoyable and serendipitous—to flick through some old copies of PaperLater to find an article as it is through Googling for it, or trawling through the vast uncharted steppes of my Readability account (PaperLater’s website displaying the cover of each copy you’ve made might help that recognition process.)
JE: What types of articles did you want to save? Why push them to print rather than reading later online?
DH: Naturally, I’d expect most PaperLater papers to consist of long-form articles, in the main. Mine certainly do. So it’s lengthier pieces from London Review of Books, New Yorker, The Guardian, Verge, Aeon, The Atlantic, Quartz, punctuated by articles from certain blogs—that kind of thing. The longer ones might fill a double-page spread. Some of the shorter articles might fill a single page nicely. I’m not even sure whether PaperLater can work at a unit lower than an article per page (Flipboard-style)—I’ve never tried. It does demonstrate that it’s still easier, and more enjoyable, to read articles off paper than screen, even Retina screens (reflected light versus transmitted light.) Of course I still use Readability on my iPhone and iPad, as well as read off my laptop—one doesn’t replace the other. But the other thing about PaperLater is that you know it’s going to take a couple of days to turn up—so it lends itself to less timely reads, a slower information. Hence more LRB and New Yorker than Quartz or Verge.
JE: What interests you most about a service like PaperLater?
DH: I’m interested as a user (see above). And as a designer of media, I’m interested in the user experience of such a thing. What’s interesting there is that the automatic layout is more than ‘good enough’, despite its foibles and occasional errors—it genuinely works, almost all the time, just by focusing on the basics and simplifying (see automatically-selected and laid-out Arjen Robben image above.) As a designer, that means relaxing about the details of the perfect layout, and instead designing systems that work for people at scale. So that’s interesting.
But also I’m also interested in PaperLater strategically, as an approach to contemporary services, as a kind of benevolent ‘parasite’ that exploits an underused resource—the printing presses of the newspaper business in downtime. In this sense, I’d say this kind of parasite service—and here I mean that in the best sense—has something in common with Airbnb, Lyft and others filed under ‘sharing economy’ (which are not really a sharing economy of course.) All these services occupy the gaps of existing infrastructure, and use the dynamics of new technologies to generate new services out of their inefficiency or redundancy. Newspaper Club uses the installed production base of a previous industry—the mass media of newspapers—yet attaches that to different editorial supply chain: the internet. So it’s interesting as a service, but also emblematic of a contemporary approach to business and culture.
JE: How do you see something like PaperLater fitting into your reading habits?
DH: It works for me as a kind of Slow Information, like the Slow Food movement, or slow journalism. So for me it fits neatly alongside weeklies like the London Review of Books albeit with a delay. It is probably best on a slightly longer loop. I also find that I put some things in PaperLater and others in Readability, and some things (football news!) I read there and then on my mobile or laptop. So again, it’s finding a niche in slower, longer reads—something for the weekend.
JE: Do you think the service can attract a sizable audience?
DH: I don’t see why not. The appetite for ‘long reads’ seems to have grown in recent years, and this is a medium for that. The service is fairly scalable, as a result of sitting on top of the existing news infrastructure multiplied by the web. Getting the price-point right will be key—for products with no precedent, that’s not so easy, but you can just compare with the sector it’s replacing in some way. I don’t see it mainstream like The Sun is mainstream, but it could still be sizeable enough.
JE: How do you think PaperLater and Newspaper Club are changing the future of printed news?
DH: I think the Newspaper Club offer isn’t so much changing news as simply giving people a way of making new things using printed news-like formats. I’d imagine most of their ‘newspapers’ are not newspapers as such, but physical accompaniments to weddings, photography portfolios, football club newsletters, project reports and brochures etc etc. That’s very useful and fun, but it’s not printed news, despite the fact it’s on newsprint.
PaperLater however does change that sector, as it’s an interesting twist for news organisations and media entitie. Stories written for printed news, like The Guardian, end up on their website and are then re-printed for someone’s personal PaperLater.
I think this is good for them—their stories are being read, after all—but it’s not quite obvious yet. And it is certainly slightly ironic that they don’t receive any revenue from the story being printed on paper, when they are in a business in which they are losing money as not enough people are reading their stories on paper anymore. But generally, I think it’s a good thing. PaperLater, in some senses, merely reflects the way I read anyway—I hop from site to site, story to story, stimulated by front pages, tweets and recommendations. But all of that was in the browser. PaperLater collates that into a physical entity again, with all the benefits of newspaper as interface.
So again, more stories are read, which is good for news. But given the stories are increasingly a progeny of the web, and the original newspaper continues to be read less and less, it’s not necessarily beneficial for printed news (unless we imagine a new generation of newspaper readers, trained by their use of PaperLater, in much the same way my parents reading papers taught me to read papers.) Whether or not it is beneficial for newspapers, it is beneficial for news.