Blackstrap shows that Web publishing is best written in pixels, not ink

By Nathaniel Mott , written on April 22, 2013

From The News Desk

I had no problem justifying my purchase of a third generation iPad -- the one that introduced the Retina Display to Apple's tablets -- when it was first released. I mean, come on. Have you seen the commercials? Or how crisp and lifelike text looks on that screen? This thing was made to be the perfect reading device, and damn it, I had to buy one!

All of that is to say that if you told two-years-ago me that he would end up reading more books and longform articles on real, honest-to-goodness paper, he probably would've smacked you right across the jaw with Jony Ive's iPaddlin' board. (I hear most people just call them iPads.) But, as with most relationships, the infatuation quickly wore off, and three weeks ago I found myself ordering a booklet from Blackstrap, a company that prints Web content in an attempt to bridge the digital and physical worlds.

My booklet came in over the weekend, presenting its blue-green cover through a transparent, plastic envelope and inviting me to dig in to some of the articles I've saved to Pocket and never gotten around to reading. The booklet is, beyond its color, pretty unremarkable, amounting to nothing more than a bundle of paper and ink. Which is fine, as that is Blackstrap's goal and, ostensibly, what I paid $15 for.

Perfect, right? Well, no, not really.

Blackstrap's job was simple. It was supposed to print longform articles, bind 'em together and slap a blue-green cover on top, and then ship the finished product to my apartment. While this seems easy on paper (get it?) it must be more difficult than I first imagined, as reading through my Blackstrap booklet is worse than reading on the iPad I was so desperate to put down.

The booklet's binding prevents it from opening all the way, which isn't all that surprising, given that it's a paperback. But there isn't any space on the margins of each page to compensate for this lack of mobility, which means that the beginning or ending of each line is hidden in the booklet's binding. Opening the booklet wide enough to "get at the goods," as they say, feels like it might cause the booklet to come apart.

And then there's the problem of relying on third parties to parse text from articles and remove all the cruft -- you know, ads, videos, images, and so forth. Any inconsistency on these platforms leads to a botched print-out; the very first article in my booklet, the Verge's "Drones over US soil: the calm before the swarm," started somewhere in the middle of the actual post. Combine this with the bleeding margins mentioned above and the very first article in my booklet was essentially unreadable.

I'd hoped to enjoy a few minutes reading through the booklet instead of swiping through my iPad. There is, as I pointed out in my original post on Blackstrap, something romantic about words occupying a physical space, of the smell and feel of paper and ink, of setting aside anything with an "i" in its name for just a few moments. But romanticism is ever the victim of pragmatism, and for now it's probably easier -- and cheaper -- to just go ahead and read an article on the damn iPad.

Basically, this means that I paid $15 for a product that doesn't really do anything well. For that price I could've purchased a few magazines or a book (or both!) and had some money left over. But, because I wanted to read some Web-specific articles on something besides pixel-heavy displays, I gave Blackstrap a shot and bought articles that I could have just as easily read for free.

Maybe I had grown too accustomed to being able to manipulate media to suit my every whim, jumping between services like Pocket and and Readability with ease, reblogging items on Tumblr or saving articles to Evernote without stopping to wonder at the fact that I was able to move between so many services so easily.

At least part of that portability comes from the all-digital nature of each of those services and the ease of making my way back to the source. If something doesn't save properly in Pocket I can immediately view the proper Web page and read it directly from the site, just as its creator intended. This content was made for the screen, and embraces the fact that people  access articles and videos and whatever else primarily through brightly-lit, Web-enabled devices.

Bridging the gap between that digital content and physical media is harder than I anticipated. But, then again, now that I'm thinking about it, it seems that it would be just as hard to move physical media (newspapers, books, etc.) to the screen. I mean, come on -- what am I going to do, scan an entire newspaper and then hope that a service finds and stores each individual article? Shove a paperback into my iPhone's headphone jack?

No. That would be crazy. Being able to move an article between, around, and through services depends entirely on the fact that it's made of bits and bytes and presented on pixels; once you take those away you might as well be removing the ink and page-folds of a newspaper.

[Image courtesy nikkorsnapper]