How Grandma Needs Digital Papers to Work

4 03 2010

I’m worried about Grandma.  Not for her health, or her finances, which are both in fine shape.  No, I’m worried about her time.

Simple things that used to be a breeze are no longer as easy for her.  Balancing her checkbook takes a full day.  Doing the laundry requires so much logistical effort that it takes weeks to recover.  It simply isn’t as routine to do the routine as it used to be.

I know I can’t help with all of this.  She still deserves to do many of these things for herself – she is still perfectly capable, no matter how long it takes.  But what I want is for technology to help with at least one of these.

So the topic I’ve chosen to reform is the newspaper.  It seems like a popular topic these days, after all.  Some areas have been improved by technology – I think Mint.com has made huge strides in the personal finance area, for example, so I will let them continue to be the experts.  But newspapers – well I think they have let Grandma down.  Things simply haven’t changed enough in the transition to digital to help her in any way, they are still the same newspapers, just on the screen.  So a while ago she literally said, “to hell with it” and stuck with her printed copies.  And this is where the problem lies.

You see, Grandma has always had a particular way of reading the newspaper.  She chooses the topics she is interested in, and then carefully and precisely underlines them.  Finally, she cuts the article out of the paper, and places it in a stack with the other articles related to that story.  It was that stack of paper that caught my eye.

This is what the digital age is second-best at, right?  Taking a stack of papers and making them easily accessible, searchable, archivable.  The stacks of paper were tenuous at best, susceptible to the breeze from an open balcony door or window, destroyed by a spill of coffee or vitamin-infused drink, mixed up in transport and painfully out-of-date within hours and days.  Grandma’s apartment didn’t have a convenient place for the endless stacks either, so they would become lost or trampled as new papers came in.

So how would the perfect paper work for Grandma?  The answer is surprisingly easy.  The effort required on Grandma’s part is to accept the digital copy, which would be difficult, but if we could show the value in the transition, she would do it without argument.  But the effort on the newspaper’s part is to allow her to personalize her content.  As she painstakingly underlines and highlights and selects articles from the digital copy, the paper itself should be recording her choices, developing a “Grandma L” algorithm that will determine which content to bubble to the top.

The presentation of today’s news would have to change.  First, the paper would show any updates to content Grandma had highlighted.  This would be general updates: new articles on her favorite topics, topics the algorithm had chosen as related to her favorite topics, etc.  Becoming fully informed takes hours longer than anyone has these days, let alone a busy Grandma who needs several hours for balancing her checkbook.  It needs to be easier to cut to the chase – she needs to know what is different from the last time she read the article – not another article revisiting what she already read.  The papers need to fix that, immediately.

Next, “today’s top stories” need to be presented in an easy-to-preview format.  Grandma can decide for herself which story is most interesting – she doesn’t need to wade through Page 1, Page 1A, and Page 2 to figure out which are the best stories for her to delve into.  She has been reading the paper for 60+ years – she can decide from the title.  The paper needs to realize everyone decides from the title and synopsis, so present it that way.

Finally, use keywords and meta-deta to attach current stories to Grandma’s favorites.  Google News does this to a certain extent, but let’s keep pushing the personalization.  Grandma and her historical society friends don’t discuss “today’s top stories” each day.  She doesn’t care about being exactly up-to-date.  She wants to know what are the larger issues that are affecting our world, and she does so by connecting a story about a local public works project with the President’s jobs bill.  The paper should help her along as much as it can.

This is merely an opening discussion on this topic – a brainstorm session.  There is so many possibilities with the new formats – we have to pursue as many of them as we can.  Please poke holes, propose changes, or just comment in general below.

Let’s make the paper work for Grandma again – her time is valuable to me.

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