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Why You Should Turn Your Investigative Report into an eBook

The digital media guru explains how eBooks make investigative journalism easier to access and read on mobile devices, and how they could provide a valuable revenue stream.

The Missouri School of Journalism’s Roger Fidler has been developing journalism eBooks, or “newsbooks”, since 2001. He tells ICIJ how eBooks make investigative journalism easier to access and read on mobile devices, and could provide a valuable revenue stream.

Why are eBooks a good format for investigative and/or long-form journalism? 

The widespread adoption of tablets and e-readers, notably the Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle, has created a huge demand for eBooks. While printed books are still dominant, eBooks are now selling at a much faster pace. There are two main reasons — tablets and e-readers provide a relaxed reading experience more like print media than a computer, and online bookstores are now well stocked with eBooks and are able to make browsing, purchasing and downloading easy and fast. Moreover, eBooks can be produced much more quickly and cheaply than printed books, and they can be any length. Investigative reports typically are shorter than most printed books. That should make downloadable eBook versions of investigative reports more appealing to tablet and e-reader owners who are frequently “on-the-road” and have limited time for reading. 

For news organizations, converting timely investigative reports into eBooks (I prefer to call them “newsbooks”) can be done quickly at low cost with relatively low risk. They also have the potential of generating revenue over an extended period of time.

 What have you found about the consumption of long-form journalism on tablets?

Since 2010, we have been conducting national online and phone surveys to gather information about the use of tablets, e-readers and smartphones for consuming news. We plan to repeat our 2012 National Mobile Media News Consumption phone survey in the first quarter of 2013 and hopefully for several years after that to see how usage of mobile media evolves over time. Summaries of our latest research results can be found on the RJI website. 

The Apple iPad and similar media tablets have clearly expanded and broadened the market for eBooks and digital editions of newspapers and magazines. Our research has shown that keeping up with the news and leisure reading (eBooks, magazines, etc.) are among the most popular uses for media tablets in all age groups. We’ve also found that media tablets are used most frequently in the evening between 5 and 11 p.m., which also has been the prime time for watching television and reading newspapers and magazines. 

We also have been encouraged by the high percentage of tablet owners who said that they preferred stories produced by professional journalists and that the source of news stories mattered to them. Taken together, these results would seem to suggest that newsbooks are likely to appeal to tablet owners. We plan to ask more specific questions about long-form journalism and investigative reporting in our 2013 phone survey.

Is there any research available into the comprehension of journalism when consumed as eBooks?

I’m not aware of any research in this area. 

What are the current best practices for converting investigative journalism into an eBook (in regards to content and presentation)?

It’s too soon to know. News organizations have only recently begun to repackage their investigative reports as eBooks. Only a few are being sold through online stores. 

Following on, should shorter reports be rewritten into longer narratives for eBooks? Is there any reformatting required? 

Length is not an issue. The quality of the content along with timeliness and relevance are what matter most.

Two of ICIJ's eBooks: Looting the Seas and Skin and Bone
Two of ICIJ’s eBooks: Looting the Seas and Skin and Bone

What is the best way to handle video clips, interactive graphics, and external web links?

Video/audio clips, interactive graphics, and external web links can add significant value to eBooks, but they also can be detrimental if they are not used wisely. 

Embedded video/audio clips should be short (less than two minutes) and used sparingly. Even with compression, embedded video/audio clips can dramatically bump up the size of an eBook file. The larger the file, the longer it takes to download and the more space it takes up in a device’s storage memory. Large files can be especially troublesome when tablet and e-reader owners use public Wi-Fi hotspots or cellular networks. They also can be difficult, if not impossible, to download in many countries. The best approach, in my view, is to use hyperlinks to the web pages where the video/audio clips can be played online.

Data-driven graphics or interactive graphics that involve multiple layers or animations also can dramatically bump up file sizes and can be troublesome to download.

External web links should be used sparingly within stories. Highlighted web links within stories can be distracting and make reading more difficult. Every time a link is clicked or touched, the reader is popped out the eBook into a web browser. Getting back to the place in an eBook where the reader left off can be frustrating. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that external web links only work when the device is connected to the Internet and they don’t work with all mobile devices.

Are there any trends you are observing with investigative or long-form journalism and digital delivery?

The most troubling trend is the steady decline in the number and depth of investigative reports being produced by news organizations since the turn of the century.

Do you see eBooks providing a future revenue stream for media organizations? Will readers pay for them?

If news organizations adopt a long-tail marketing strategy for their eBooks, I believe some “newsbooks” will be able to generate significant revenue over time. Owners of tablets and e-readers have shown a willingness to pay for digital content packaged within eBook formats. Amazon says it now sells more eBooks than printed books through its online store.

Can eBooks help journalism non-profits attract donations, membership and audience loyalty?

They certainly can’t hurt.

How can news organizations create newsbooks? What is the process if they create them in-house, or what organizations or services are available to create them?

Dozens of companies have sprung up in the past few years to provide eBook production and marketing services. There also are dozens of new eBook production tools that news organizations can now use to produce newsbooks in-house. However, in recent years most news organizations have had to make steep cuts in their staffs, which has resulted in fewer in-depth investigative reports as well as fewer people with the necessary skills and available time to produce newsbooks in-house. 

The Reynolds Journalism Institute's digital newsbooks website
The Reynolds Journalism Institute’s digital newsbooks website

At the RJI we have access to Missouri School of Journalism graduate students who are eager to acquire new skills that will make them more valuable to news organizations. We’re also a non-profit institute with a mission to advance quality journalism in this digital era. Consequently, we can produce newsbooks at no cost to members of the RJI Digital Publishing Alliance beyond their modest annual membership dues. We see this service as one of the benefits of belonging to the DPA as well as a teaching opportunity. 

With the help of a graduate student in the school of computer science, I created JavaScript tools for Adobe InDesign software that automate the repetitive tasks, such as building custom templates, adding hyperlinks and placing text, so that the students and I can focus our attention on the creative tasks. We usually can complete a newsbook in two to five days depending on the number of articles and the number infographics that we need to adapt. All of the newsbooks we’ve produced for news organizations so far are unsecured PDF files. With unsecured PDF the newsbooks can be quickly downloaded and read on any device with a PDF viewer. The file sizes also are relatively small. However, we are now exploring other formats, such as Apple iBooks, ePub and secure PDF. I plan to teach a capstone class in our convergence sequence that has as its project the creation of newsbooks or other types of eBooks using Apple iBooks Author.

Roger Fidler is the RJI Program Director for Digital Publishing at the Reynolds Journalism Institute of the University of Missouri. He and his team have produced ICIJ’s eBooks for Skin and Bone: the Shadowy Trade in Human Tissue, Looting the Seas I, II and III, Dangers in the Dust, The Truth Left Behind: Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl and Tobacco Underground

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