Long Road Photography on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Don’t crAMP our style

Once again, the turkeys have voted for Christmas. The ailing news industry has rushed headlong into an alliance with Google, which is trying to stave off its own existential threats. It’s an alliance in which we are clearly the junior partner, and one that will hobble the diversity and development of digital journalism. And it could all have been avoided.

Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages project, or AMP, is one of those ideas that’s hard to argue with at first: an open source endeavour to create a subset of HTML that allows pages to be aggressively cached, and that limits the ability of careless web developers to create bad experiences on the mobile web by stuffing pages to the gills with badly made ads, overweight images, and six different analytics providers. Apps like Twitter (an AMP launch partner) will be able to show these pages instantly, and users will be spared a screen full of invitations to download-our-app or fill-in-our-survey before they can scroll past the ads to get to the article (which hasn’t actually rendered yet because the web fonts are still downloading).

It sounds great. But there are some problems.

Caught in the crossfire

The background to AMP’s development is important. The mobile web — open, but slow, crufty and unreliable — is (at least perceived to be) losing ground to native apps — closed, but fast and functional. For a company that makes most of its money selling ads on the web, this is a problem. Meanwhile, Apple’s decision to allow ad blockers on iOS is a gift to users on one level, but on another is a a strategic move designed to weaken Google. The two companies are at war, and we’re stuck in the middle.

Of the two, we should prefer to side with Google. Apple has demonstrated its contempt for editorial freedom by banning apps like Phone Story and Dronestream — actions that should prevent any news organisation from doing business with them, except here in reality, where companies as powerful as Apple get to behave as they please. By comparison, Google is warm and fuzzy.

And we should want the open web to win. But we’re setting the stage for a Pyrrhic victory, in which the web that wins is a crippled web.

Full disclosure

I should declare an interest: AMP could put me and my tribe out of work. I’m a JavaScript journalist at the Guardian (my business card says ‘interactive editor’, but interactivity isn’t always the defining feature of our work), and AMP disallows arbitrary JavaScript on the page.

Some people regard this as an inevitability, or even something to be welcomed — see, for example, Heather Billings’ Nieman Lab prediction for 2016 entitled ‘Static is the new interactive’, or Thomas Wilburn’s comments on ‘What AMP (maybe) means for news developers’.

I have a different perspective. The team I’m a part of produces journalism that couldn’t exist on a completely static page — that’s the whole point of it. Earlier this week we produced an interactive map that makes it easier for you to hold your elected representatives to account for their inaction on gun violence. A few weeks ago we made a scrubbable video player that allows you to examine footage of police shootings — footage that tells a different story when you’re able to watch it closely frame-by-frame, over and over. And earlier in the year we helped launch The Counted, an interactive database of US police killings, which the FBI are now going to copy.

And that’s before we talk about beautiful multimedia graphic novels, or simulator journalism that places you inside an otherwise hard-to-understand system, or articles that rewrite themselves to be more relevant to the reader. Often these are standalone set-piece interactives, but the trend in recent years has been towards greater integration between interactive teams and the newsrooms they’re a part of. The big experimental pieces prove out ideas and forms that eventually become part of the fabric of digital storytelling.

JavaScript journalism is expensive, because it’s time-consuming, and because there aren’t enough journalist-coders (most of us doing it professionally are self-taught obsessives), and because creating reusable code on newsroom deadlines is incredibly tough. We’re still figuring out the ‘grammar’ of interactivity, and we still get a lot of things wrong on a regular basis.

But the birth of JavaScript journalism is a pivotal moment in the history of news — journalism that has the potential to one day be richer, deeper and more personal than anything that came before. And there’s no place for it in Google’s vision of the future.

With friends like these…

The Guardian, an AMP launch partner, has a very close relationship with Google (literally — Google are currently building their UK headquarters a stone’s throw from Guardian Towers in Kings Cross), and the same is true of many news organisations. We like Googlers, they’re nice people.

Because of that, it’s easy to forget that our partnerships are based on mutual self-interest rather than genuine shared values. In its bones, Google doesn’t care about journalism — it cares about #content.

So we should be concerned when Google’s Richard Ingras confirms that AMP pages will get special treatment in search results:

we’ll actually show and feature articles from publishers using AMP in search results … there will be a carousel that will trigger on the page of results when there is sufficient coverage related to that query, so users can have the full benefit of getting the answers that they’re looking for and experiencing them in an instantaneous fashion.

Somehow we decided that it was okay that an advertising company gets to control what journalism sees the light of day.

Google have said that AMP won’t affect search rankings (except indirectly, because page speed is a ranking factor), and that there will be ‘escape hatches’ for all the unsanctioned stuff (‘click to learn more’, which experience tells us will generate as much engagement as a banner saying ‘To view this web content you need to install Java Runtime Environment’). None of it matters. If news organisations see AMP pages replacing a significant portion of their traffic, that’s what they’ll optimise for — bland, conformist #content. The incentive to experiment with new forms of storytelling will be vastly reduced when journalists have to explain to their editors that they want to create something most of their readers won’t be able to use. ‘Can’t you just do a GIF or something?’

Take a snapshot of what digital journalism looks like today. I hope you like it.

Frequently asked questions

Aren’t you over-reacting? Of course I am. I’m an endangered species! But I want the level-headed decision makers at organisations like mine to truly understand what AMP takes away, as well as what it gives us.

It’s better than Facebook Instant Articles though, right? Ugh. Yes. Anything is better than Facebook Instant Articles.

What’s the alternative? I’m glad you asked. It’s quite simple really: we get better. We build faster sites. We band together with other news organisations to enforce some basic standards around the quality of advertising code. We consolidate our analytics and stop tracking our users so much. (I’m proud to say the Guardian is an industry leader when it comes to all this stuff). In other words, we do the things the AMP project wants us to do, but we do it on our terms.

So thank you, Google, for being on the side of the open web, and for shaming us into doing something about our bloaty websites. But we’ll take it from here.

Thanks to Kenton Powell, Nadja Popovich and Kenan Davis for reading drafts of this article, and to Michael Keller for helping to refine these ideas. Thanks also to Caty Enders and Anna Codrea-Rado for convincing me that my wild-eyed rant would work better as a blog post, though they might have just been trying to get me to shut up.