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One is Not Bound to Text — It’s Time to Put Digital First


  • In today’s digital world, where most people own smartphones and expect to find information instantly, your ideas need to be easy to access and share.
  • Digital information has an advantage over other mediums because it is interactive and easily crunches raw data in real time. To make your content appealing, it’s key to take advantage of that dynamism, especially because everyone is a publisher on the internet.
  • While transitioning to digital-native content may be daunting, there are some easy steps you can take — among them, retire outdated mediums like Word docs and PDFs, and work on more projects that don’t require documents as deliverables.

This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2015 issue of Change Agent

In his original 1989 proposal for what would become the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee contemplated a system metaphorically resembling a diagram of circles and arrows, where the circles represented pieces of information (“nodes”) and arrows the links among them. Designed to solve an internal information management problem at his employer CERN, the idea — on which Berners-Lee’s boss famously scribbled “vague but exciting” — envisioned nodes that “could stand for anything.” At the time though, this meant large numbers of text documents. Berners-Lee would base his new system on hypertext — a type of linked human-readable information, unconstrained by conventional hierarchy — which had been around for a few decades. While his initial outline focused on interconnected text objects, about half-way through comes this: “The other idea, which is independent and largely a question of technology and time, is of multimedia documents which include graphics, speech and video. I will not discuss this latter aspect further here, although I will use the word ‘Hypermedia’ to indicate that one is not bound to text.”

The internet’s evolution into a mass communication medium and the web’s continued technological advancement over the last 25 years have brought that “other idea” center stage. The vast majority of the population is now online — close to nine in ten Americans (87%) use the internet. The internet has surpassed all but television as the public’s primary source of information — 50% of the population now use the internet as a primary source. High-speed broadband internet connections are the standard and getting faster. Seventy percent now have a home broadband connection capable of delivering high-quality streaming video, audio and other bandwidth-intensive content. The introduction of internet-connected mobile devices has put the web into millions of pockets and purses. The latest data in October 2015 show that nearly seven in ten (68%) Americans now have smartphones, and already nearly half (45%) have digital tablets, which didn’t even exist five years ago. In addition to mass adoption, increased speed and mobility, these 25 years have seen the development of substantially more capable web browsers, huge leaps in processing and data handling power, and the introduction of new web programming standards and platforms that support increasingly immersive, interactive, and visual online experiences. This confluence of factors has ushered in a new era of digital information. The question of technology and time has been answered. Let’s call this new phase the “digital-native” era. Publishing now less and less resembles a holdover from the print age, and more and more shows off the unique and expanding capabilities of the digital medium. The digital publishing future “not bound to text” that Berners-Lee foresaw at the birth of the web has come to pass.

What does digital-native mean? What are the characteristics of modern digital information that are impossible in any other medium? Three are most significant.

  • First, interactivity is in many ways the defining characteristic of digital media. Interactive information is experiential, adaptable, non-linear and responsive to user input whether a mouse click, a tap, a swipe, a scroll, a voice or a keystroke.
  • Second, native digital information is capable of computation, crunching large amounts of raw data and presenting results on demand in real time.
  • Third, true to Berners-Lee’s notion of hypermedia, digital-native information simultaneously blends video, audio, motion, text, graphics and interactions into uniquely digital concoctions.

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Digital-native information is no longer a novel experiment of coders and designers. The maturation of programming tools and techniques, the processing power and bandwidth to support rich media, and increased audience demand for advanced online content have made digital-native the expected norm. The digital-native approach is evident everywhere information is generated. Whether they’ve started out in print, television, radio or were born digital, all fields are converging on this emerging digital content standard. Innovative news journalists, for example, are moving beyond the conventional article format to new digital-native forms like interactive information graphics, advanced data visualizations, and immersive multimedia stories that mix video, text, animation, photography, illustration and user interactions.

The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, ProPublica, Texas Tribune, ESPN, CNN and others have put together dedicated units that merge web coding skill, design talent and traditional journalism. The results have been head-turning. The New York Times turned a long-form magazine article about a deadly avalanche into an online fusion of text, video, photography, animated maps and graphics…and turned that into a Peabody and a Pulitzer. The same spirit of digital-native innovation at the Times led a small team of developers to turn an academic study of American regional dialects into an interactive tool that became the most accessed piece of online journalism the paper has ever produced. This most popular Times “article” of 2013 and 2014 wasn’t an article at all. Similarly, we’re seeing digital-native reinventions of other print-era forms: books that reveal storylines and change the narrative based on the geographic location of the readers’ tablet; magazines that map real-time seismic data in an “article” about earthquakes; textbooks that integrate video explanations from experts and interactive learning tools throughout a completely re-imagined digital volume.

It’s overused but accurate to say that in the digital age, everyone is a publisher. It follows that in the emergent digital-native era, everyone needs to raise their game. This has clear implications for foundations, non-profits and others in the social sector who, while not commercial media, nonetheless have important “owned” communications channels in the form of web sites and other digital publications. These channels are increasingly central to their efforts to inform audiences on their issues and engage stakeholders in finding solutions. Social sector organizations are nothing if not good document producers. They’ve filled libraries with important reports, evaluations, annual reports, white papers, journal articles and policy briefs. And they’ve spent 25 years very effectively transplanting those libraries to the web. “Click here to download the full report.” Unfortunately, that old-school document-centered approach to digital publishing will no longer cut the mustard. Ezra Klein of the leading digital outfit summed it up nicely at the 2014 Communications Network conference in Philadelphia — “If what you build online can be easily printed out, then you are probably not using the internet very well.” If you need some hard evidence of the inviability of sticking to the old strategy, consider a recent internal World Bank analysis of its web properties. It found that an eye-opening percentage of its PDF reports (31%) had never been downloaded at all. Not once. Zero. Another 40% were downloaded fewer than 100 times. I’m sure some readers of this article have similar stories to tell.

But there are some interesting experiments in the social sector of going “beyond the PDF document.” The Pew Research Center, with its wealth of unique public opinion data and demographic analysis, is among the best at finding innovative digital-native ways to present its findings. In addition to its popular interactive data graphics, Pew’s Political Typology and News IQ quizzes that put web users’ responses alongside the Center’s rigorous survey data have been used millions of times. That’s reach that would make a PDF blush. The Ford Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation have put fantastic digital-native twists on the traditional foundation annual report. The Gates “Annual Letter” weaves text, video, animation and interactive graphics into an engaging scrolling web experience. The Urban Institute took a page out of the New York Times playbook with a dataviz- and video-heavy feature on long-term unemployment. The Brookings Institution digitally reinvigorated the “Brookings Essay,” including one installment on online privacy that supported its point by displaying the reader’s IP address, geographic location and computer operating system that the essay was tracking as the reader scrolled through the feature. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s, transformed ten years of PDF reports and the embedded statistics into an interactive data site that went viral on Reddit and reached as many users in two days as the traditional reports would have in two years. (Full disclosure: I helped with this last one.) These are just a few examples of foundation and non-profit publishers getting into the digital-native act and showing that it works.

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Making the digital-native transition isn’t easy. Just ask all of those financially successful newspapers. For foundations and non-profits who’ve spent decades generating print-era documents, and structuring themselves to support that workflow, it’s daunting to consider a wholesale and rapid transition to an entirely new and often nebulous work product and process. Here is a quick roadmap:

Retire the PDF.
Schedule the party, order the cake, buy the gold watch. The PDF is the most visible symbol of old digital practices. It even stands for “portable document format,” the antithesis of digital-native communications. A recent Communications Network webinar did a commendable takedown of the PDF on technical grounds — the inability to copy and paste text, locking away data that might otherwise be reused, etc. But these technical issues aside, in a digital-native world, PDFs are just bad communications practice. It may have been sufficient two decades ago, but today so much more is possible and so much more is expected.

Banish Microsoft Word.
Word’s file format is .doc for a reason. In a post-document digital era, we have no use for it. We’re headed straight to the web. Use a plain text editor. The simpler the better. Uninstalling Word will change the organizational psychology from document production and digitization to modern digital-native publishing. As a bonus, your web team and firms will send you roses.

Staff up.
Hire or contract your own digital “newsroom” that is designed to intentionally merge the latest skills in digital production with the subject matter expertise you have in abundance.

Change the workflow.
Integrate your digital newsroom team’s input and skills at the outset of any communications effort. Evaluations, research, annual reporting, whatever it is. Chances are, the team will never recommend the old PDF way and will suggest a range of exciting alternatives. But that can’t happen if they are only called after the project is baked.

Program officers, don’t fund projects with document deliverables.
If the proposal calls for a report, journal article, white paper, policy brief or other document-based dissemination of information, then send it back for digital-native revision. Provide potential grantees with examples of high-quality digital products to expand their thinking and set a new course.

Don’t redesign your website.
Put down the RFP and slowly back away. In addition to being expensive and time-consuming, large web redesign projects too often end up with the same stuff in fancy wrapping. Invest instead in a handful of high-impact targeted content projects that test the possibilities of modern digital production. Chances are your audience doesn’t care whether your web site’s banner is blue or red, but they will return and share those fantastic and unique digital features. It will also be cheaper, faster and more fun.

See what happens.
Though it may seem like others have it all figured out, even the best in the business are flying by the seats of their pants. Everyone’s making it up as they go. That’s why this stuff is fun. In the foundation and non-profit world, we’re accustomed to our silos, routines and careful deliberation. Suspend that a bit and see what happens. Remember, as someone wisely said, it’s okay to be vague but exciting.

Jeff Stanger helps public and private sector organizations make digital transformations to their communications and publishing practices as president of CDI Lab and founding director of the Center for Digital Information. He founded the award-winning web firm NetCampaign and before that was Washington director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center think tank back when PDF documents were state of the art. He recently moved to the Bay Area from Washington, DC with his wife and two daughters..

For more resources and information, please read Did Heritage Foundation Just Make the PDF Obsolete? and see our replay of The PDF is the Enemy.


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