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College Newspaper Warms Up Its Digital iPad Press

College Newspaper Warms Up Its Digital iPad Press

The student newspaper at Abilene Christian University isn't waiting for iPads to hit the shelves before taking up the opportunity the device holds for print publications. The Optimist has developed its own app for the new platform. "We can't wait until [the iPad] is adopted by a critical mass of people," Professor Kenneth Pybus said. "We want to be up and running and there when they're ready for us."

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
02/22/10 5:00 AM PT

Among the media redwoods that will be displaying their wares on Apple's iPad when the tablet arrives on the shelves next month will be a sapling from a small college in West Texas. Abilene Christian University will be among the first colleges to offer editions of its student newspaper, The Optimist, designed specifically for the new hardware platform.

Adding an iPad edition of the newspaper was a natural move for the publication. It's already offered in print, on the Web and on the iPhone and iPod touch, which are issued to students at Abilene Christian the way laptops are allocated at other universities. "In the fall, all students will have iPhones or iPod touches," Journalism Department Chairman Cheryl Bacon told MacNewsWorld.

"Making our students comfortable with mobile news delivery just makes good sense academically," she maintained. "They're going to be going into work environments where they have to adapt very quickly to technological change, and they have to understand how mobile delivery differs from other types of news delivery."

Hands-Off Design

Designing a publication for hardware one can't get one's hands on yet can be challenging, admitted ACU Assistant Journalism Professor Kenneth Pybus. "It's like designing a newspaper without paper," he told MacNewsWorld. Even with the developer's kit for the iPad issued by Apple, "there are some things that we're not sure how they're going to work," he noted. "We're deciding, how much of the built-in Apple operating system do we use, and how much do we build on our own?"

Without an iPad on hand, Pybus has had to get creative to help the design team acquire a tactile sense of the device. "I made up some boards from wood and painted them to look like iPads just so they could get the feel for size and how they would use it and do some imagining because they don't have the device," he explained.

When the university created its iPhone edition, it decided to use a plug-in application rather than create an app from scratch, Pybus explained. The app, WPtouch, is a WordPress program than converts a WordPress Web site into pages suitable for viewing on an iPhone or iPod touch. The school did not spend a lot of time developing an app, he noted, because it didn't feel it could do something significantly better with an app than it could do for its existing Web site with something like WPtouch.

Better Media Integration

"The iPad, though, is different," he continued. "It's big enough to do so much more that we think it's worth making the app."

Compared to the iPhone edition of The Optimist, the iPad edition will better integrate video, photos and text, Pybus explained. "That's something that iPhone isn't able to do," he contended. "If you want to view videos that our students worked on, you have to go over to YouTube.

"The iPad will be different because the app will allow us to import video into the design in a way that we weren't able to do before," he added.

He also noted that the iPad will be able to build greater interactivity with readers. "We anticipate that we will have multiple ways that people can interact with the news besides just commenting," he observed.

Part of that interaction will be better interfacing with Facebook. "For college students, that's their primary source for news, so we want to interface with that as much as possible," Pybus said.

New Meaning to Hyperlocal

A feature that could be exploited by an iPad app is geolocation, according to Bill Rankin, director of educational innovation at ACU's Adams Center for Teaching and Learning. "With the app, you should be able to feed news based on location," he told MacNewsWorld.

"A major difficulty facing people right now is the absolute flood of information that's hitting them," he added. "If devices can help sort that information, help narrow that stream of information down, then they can help people with a problem they have. One of the ways to do that is by location."

Although the number of iPads on campus will probably be minimal when The Optimist's iPad edition is released, the university wants to be ahead of the curve for its students. "We can't wait until it's adopted by a critical mass of people," Pybus declared. "We want to be up and running and there when they're ready for us."

A burning issue in the news industry now is how to make news delivery profitable, Bacon explained. "A product like the iPad has great potential for that," she argued. "It may or may not prove to revolutionize the industry, but it certainly creates some opportunities for the industry to deliver their product differently and perhaps in a profitable way. If we can be a part of that discussion, then that's an opportunity for us to be part of something very important."


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