The Industrialists’ Dilemma

I could hardly agree more with this piece by Hanson O’Haver on The Outline: Not Every Article Needs a Picture. Go read it for yourself, it makes a lot of important points about internet publishing and how social networks have forced every last piece of text to come with an illustrative photo. As O’Haver pointedly remarks, adults don’t need pictures to help them read—and yet they’re everywhere.

The article struck a chord with me. Not only because prefer images to add value rather than just serve as thumbnails. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how work is presented online and how we can make it more compelling.

Because even though digital publishing has lots of advantages to print1, presentation isn’t yet one of them. Whereas good magazines use the blank page as a canvas, making the design serve the content, online publishers do the opposite: All content2 is shoved into relatively static templates.

Look at Medium: Although the platform has created a very nice reading environment, its strict formatting forces all writing into a generic shape. Sure, there are some slight customizations you can make (like adding a picture…) but the presentation is about as flexible as Henry Ford’s famous approach to car colors: “You can have any color as long as it’s black.”

I’m not the first to observe that “all websites look the same”, and I understand the reasons: Articles live in content management systems that have to output the articles in a predetermined form. Templates make sense to structure content. And the battle for attention on the web has led to huge amounts of content being produced and published every day. Even if large publishers wanted to, they wouldn’t be financially able to individually design each article. They’re like the early industrialist, producing at scale but without much variation in form.

On the flip side, this is a great opportunity for independent publishers to set themselves apart—we have a chance to publish articles on the web with the love and care usually reserved for printed pieces. We can individually design our articles, leave out images if we want to, and challenge the boring sameness on the web. The best part: It might give us some of the attention others are chasing with volumes of generic content. I believe that one compelling piece will always beat out lots of generic ones. And that’s a reason to be hopeful.

  1. It’s more accessible faster, easier, and can be updated after the fact 

  2. a term I truly dislike