Saturday, March 20, 2010

INTERNET: I'm Divorcing

When I was ten, my parents made the decision that they weren't going to get the Toronto Star anymore. I looked forward to reading it every afternoon (Yes, newspapers came in morning and afternoon varieties back in the ancient mists of time). I decided I would subscribe with part of my allowance. Best decision I ever made.

Later, in high school, I got a really good grade for writing a paper called "The Toronto Star - The Best Bargain for 25 Cents," after I visited the printing plant (then downtown) on a school trip. Later, I started making money from the paper as a High School Reporter, phoning in scores from various games at Bramalea Secondary School. After graduating and after my ever-so-short sojourn at Ryerson Polytech, I started hustling the scores to The Star for ALL high schools in Peel region. Did it for the Sun and Globe, too. In fact, for a very brief period of time, getting three bucks times three for each score for each school made me one of the top ten paid non-columnist sports reporters in Toronto. The gig didn't last out a year, but it was fun while it lasted. Later, I covered the Toronto Tornados of the Continental Basketball Association (I was fired from that post) and wrote free-lance stories for the Star's Business section and for the regional inserts.

Through all of it, including the later-reversed firing, I continued to subscribe. My morning STARTED with the Star. I watched the paper wane from a marathon read to a 20-minute peruse. But I still kept getting the paper. Star blood ran through my veins. The decades passed. Unfortunately I frequently had an issue with the ever-changing delivery people. I will not accept a paper thrown on the stoop or shoved into the mail box. The paper must go into the space between the front door and the screen door. No danger of it getting wet or blown away. No danger of it holding the mailbox open to the mercies of the weather. Nope, it has to go into the inside of the door. This of course would require complaining once in a while. Rarely would I need more than one complaint to have the newest delivery person adjust to my conditions.

Then, late last year, the idiot delivering in my area ignored FIVE complaints. I told the dolts managing the idiot that that that was the last straw. CANCEL MY SUBSCRIPTION. For the first time in 43 years, I wasn't getting a daily newspaper delivered to my house. And I was a 15-year veteran of the sports journalism wars. BUT, I had the Internet to fall back on. In fact, I was reading most of what I would read in the morning around 4am every day. I was not happy, but I wasn't unhappy. You can't take the computer into the reading room (well, I could, but I don't). On the other hand, I didn't have to bundle up newspaper for the trash weekly anymore.

I could live with the Internet Star. And I knew it was only a matter of time before the decision to switch would have been forced upon me anyways. I got out of the newspaper game just ahead of the unionization of the paper I worked for. I wouldn't have handled that well (I worked waaaay more than 40 hours a week and didn't take a vacation at one point for a 30-month stretch, things not possible in a union-interfering world). The newspaper business I grew up in doesn't exist anymore. It was dying even back then. It's been bruited about that 2020 will largely be a newspaper-free year.

But an unfunny thing happened on the way to the future. The Star decided to redo its web-site. And myopic designers and COMMITTEES (aka groups of people who don't actually USE what they are making) managed to mangle my reading experience. Why? Because the designing dufuses doing this re-design decided merely to transport the hard-copy reading experience to the screen. Function defines form. I 'think' that comes from Marshall McLuhan, but I certainly could be wrong. That said, the same design that works on the screen doesn't work on a big broadsheet paper. And, more importantly, vice versa. And yet, that was EXACTLY what the re-design accomplished. Ignore function, retain form. The reason? Impossible to figure out.

The reading experience at has deteriorated incredibly with this 'beta' design that is, in fact, the final product. The reason is INSERTS, sidebars that add information to the story you are reading. These inserts are supposed to add bite-sized informational morsels. In the paper, you can glance at them and read them in a second or two while between paragraphs. Or you can read them after perusing the whole story. Not much effort beyond shifting your eyes. Works well on the printed page.

On the screen .... not so much. Look I run high-end graphics on my computer. I can see a WHOLE lot of the length of any screen page. I even have AutoPager set up in Firefox and a very easy-to-use scroll wheel. But reading the Star story is arduous at best. First, the story stars in a minuscule-width column on the left to allow for a picture on the right. Then it snakes back to the right to allow for an OBLIGATORY INSERT, which means a more than a minuscule, but not much more, width column of story text. Finally, at the end of the insert, we get the the full width of the column to fill with story.

And let me say something here. I trundle through this, including having to scroll BACK UP to read the insert, because the quality of the writing in The Star has never wavered. It's the best written. It's the most complete. It's the most informed. (of the major Toronto dailies).

But today, the straw broke my back. In particular, the feature on Tom Tango, written by Robert Cribb. Well done. Informative. News to me, and I follow the Blue Jays again, these days. And a pain in the posterior to read. The reason? The insert went on for four screens on my 2000x1148 screen with very, very minimized headers in Firefox. I work hard, very hard, to maximize the amount of the page I can actually see at any given time.

Enough. I've complained TO the idiots (maybe the same group that foisted Buzz on we Google Mail users). I get back a platitude expressing thanks for my opinion. Nothing to address my complaints. I have friends amongst the writers and I've sent them begging requests and screeds to address the fools. And they have. And they universally report back to me the most incredible of all statements. "Every time I mention some of these problems to our web editors, I'm told there is no problem. They're quite happy with this, believe it or not," emailed back one of my old workmates who now has a prominent column. If that is the case, and I believe my guy, then Cyril Kornbluth's "Marching Morons" has become less science fiction and more fact.

The Star, to the best of my investigation, is the ONLY newspaper that uses this 'template.' EVERY other site I have visited runs the notes-kind of sidebar where it needs to be in a web-site. At the END of the story. EVERY other site allows me to read the story in the fewest key-clicks/scrolls as possible. They understand ticking off viewers is NOT the way to keep their eyeballs. And eyeballs is how you sell advertising. You know, the money-making machine BEHIND the continued jobs everybody has, writers and web-designers alike.

Also, finding stories on The Star's sports front page is pretty easy. There's ten, I think. Big headlines, easy to find by-lines. Now, if you want something that happened a few hours ago and is no longer among the top ten stories time-wise, well good bleepin' luck. You'll be clicking yourself into apoplexy or using the search box and hoping you get the keywords right that they index on. The Toronto Sun, nowhere near the quality of writing of The Star, gets it right. Show the headlines and then include that MORE at the bottom of the time-sorted list of stories. Sure, the tabloid newspaper's stories often only run a few paragraphs, but you can get the news if you are interested in something that isn't one of the BIG stories of the moments. In effect, The Sun is more of a newspaper while The Star has become a wretched artistic exercise in making me work.

No more. As of today, I will be reading the columnists I currently read. I mean, Doug Smith is the hardest working sports reporter in Canada. I'm not going to kick him out of my life just because his employers are myopic and totally ignorant of the mess their minions are creating for them. But for news, no more. The Sun and the TV will suffice.

After 44 years, this love affair is over.

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