Q & A: ABC News’s Paul Slavin

The ABC News Digital senior vice-president talks about his new, spherical iPad app

Earlier this week, ABC News released a new iPad app: a reader for the Web site’s content. The app is designed to resemble a three-dimensional sphere that can be manipulated by spinning or shaking the iPad. Each still picture on the face of the sphere connects to a video clip or text story. See a video of the app in action here.

Paul Slavin is the senior vice president of ABC News Digital, and was closely involved in the development of the app. He sat down for a few minutes with CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner to talk about it. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How did you come up with the sphere design?

I have always liked the idea of these personalized tag clouds, a cloud of text that is based on user input. We talked about a personalized tag cloud of text, in a sphere or a globe, and then someone said, why don’t we do it with video? One thing led to another, and—I think out of ignorance—we said, let’s put the video in a sphere and let’s make it 3D, assuming that we’d be able to figure it out. I’m told that this kind of thing has never been done before, and the level of math that went into this was cutting-edge. In six months everyone will have one of these on their noses, but right now, it was a real technological triumph for the group to be able to put this thing together. It also became apparent pretty early in the process that the sphere matched the ABC globe [logo], and it also matched our notion of ‘We cover the world,’ so there is a certain amount of kismet or subconscious intent there.

Why did you feel it was important to lead with video clips?

Videos are our big differentiator. There are a million outlets now that are doing text. I’m not going to suggest that text is easy; it’s just that there are a lot of competitors out there and video is a lot harder to do. We are a television network, first and foremost, so video is something that we know how to do. Text is still terribly important to us, and some of the images [in the globe] do take you to text stories, as opposed to video stories.

We wanted it to be visual, we wanted to be tactile, and to really put back the serendipity of a newspaper experience. On the Web site, increasingly people are coming in through a search, they’re coming in through linkage, they’re coming in for that specific story. Every Web site is seeing their homepage decline in percentage terms. We’re seeing more and more people coming in because they want that specific story. They look at it, and they go. That just seems to be the nature of where the business is. The iPad in a way brings back that earlier newspaper experience, or even the early browsing experience that people had on the Net, where they went to ten or twelve Web sites because the search wasn’t any good (this was way back in the old days of 2002). This brings back this notion of, I’m just going to go in here and I’m going to play, I’m going to look and I’m going to maybe find something I didn’t expect.

I think that idea is interesting, bringing back the nostalgic experience of touching something and moving it with your hands, like flipping through a newspaper. I just saw a new app that also came out this week, Flipboard, that turns your social media network feeds into an magazine format on the iPad that you can flip through.

Yes, Flipboard is great. In fact, if you go on the top free downloaded apps today, it’s Flipboard and ABC News. We’re hoping that this is just a cool experience. The best thing that happened was, my fifteen year old got a look at the app, and he goes into it and he says, ‘This is really cool.’ I can’t remember the last time he said anything that I did was cool.

Here at CJR, we’re interested in not just how these kinds of mobile apps can change the way people consume news, but how that technology might change the way news organizations produce and deliver the news. Have you thought about that at all?

I don’t know if we have thought that far yet, but the sphere is such a wonderful visual way of telling information that we’ll do more of that, because it’s just fun. To have a sphere that tells you which stock had the most volume today, that is a very simple thing, but to have it visually represented so you can move it and touch it, we’ll start populating it with lots of those kinds things.

I don’t think [the iPad app] will cause us to want to produce more video, because we want to produce more video, period. We have in a given month, on the ABC News Web site, we’ll do about 25 million video streams. Next year, we’d like to double that. We want to push as much video as we can. I think this medium actually says video almost more than any other platform that we’ve seen: better than the iPhone, better in a way even than the static Web site. That’s just my gut feeling.

I think the visual display of information, for us, will be more important on this device than on any others. The display of still images on this is also a beautiful experience. You can tell stories with still images that I think the desktop computer doesn’t do quite as well—at least within our traditional Web sites—and that the iPhone doesn’t do as well, but this thing, the iPad, is just beautiful. So I think we’ll tell more stories by still images.

I don’t know too many people with iPads. Is it naïve for people to say that this tablet thing is hype? Will tablets become less expensive, more increasingly available, just as laptops and cell phones have?

If history is any guide—and it has been an exceedingly helpful guide—these things will become ubiquitous, cheaper, and more powerful. In two or three years, you’re going to see $99 models—not necessarily the Apple one, but everyone’s going to start coming out with tablets. And I don’t know if they will necessarily cannibalize PC sales, or cannibalize phone sales. I think for a certain segment of the population, not an inconsequential segment, this will be additive, a third device. For another segment of the audience, for a lot of gamers or video watchers, people who aren’t processing words extensively, this could replace the PC, possibly.

Do you plan to charge for Web content in the future?

Every news organization would be remiss if they weren’t thinking about new revenue streams, new ways of helping to monetize their operations. I think, in our case, we’re looking for new ways to add value to the user’s experience. How we do that is something we’re looking at, but no decisions on that yet.

As a video-heavy news organization, do you have any advice for traditional print publications that are looking to improve their Web sites or develop new mobile apps?

As we increasingly move towards platforms that can manage videos, streaming and otherwise, I think they need to figure out how to do it. I guess my advice is, text is very, very, very competitive. And the CPM’s around text are not so great. I’m not looking for any more competition, but I think it’s very hard to live in this world today by being one thing only. Some people can do it. But just as broadcast is moving into text because there’s opportunity there, it seems that if I were a text-only operation, I would be vigorously looking for ways to supplement that.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner