The New Media Religion: ‘Platform Agnostic’

It’s probably inevitable that in these brutal times for news-gathering operations, a new lexicon would take hold to describe the baffling challenges of the industry.

One phrase we’re hearing a lot lately is "platform agnostic."

The phrase seems to have been around for some time now actually, to judge from a Nexis search on the string of words. It appears first in the Nexis database in 1991, but in terms of annual use doesn’t break the double digits until 1996, when the phrase appears 29 times. Then the word seems to have its big break, leaping from 64 uses in 1999 to 158 in 2000. So it’s definitely a phrase of the 21st Century.

What does it mean, though?

There doesn’t seem to be much agreement on the Web. One Web-marketing site has a definition of the term that seems pretty neutral: "Refers to code or an application that is able to run on any platform. A platform is a made up of the operating system, and hardware, such as the motherboard." Another advises Web entrepreneurs to avoid the term, classing it, alongside phrases like "leading-edge" and "world expert" as a "weasel word," not to be used when making presentations to investors.

Two Microsoft executives delivered a white paper heralding the 2001 development of "The Microsoft Layer for Unicode on Windows 95/98/Me Systems": "With this, Unicode applications can run on Microsoft Windows NT®, Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows 95/98/Me," they announced, and termed the new layer of code "platform agnostic" because it can run across several versions of Windows.

Still baffled?

The phrase does not appear in this article about a company that develops cell phone applications for news organizations looking for phone-readers; AP developed one with the company for use on the iPhone. Nor does the writer here refer to motherboards and hardware, or to versions of a computer operating system, but to competing delivery systems for news and information: a cell phone, a print newspaper, the Web.

Those, it appears, are the platforms that newspaper editors have been referring to with such gusto lately.

The New York Times’ deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman is fond of the phrase. Here are a few examples from his weekly memos to his staff:

March 14: (After the Spitzer story broke): "We’ve been talking about becoming a platform-agnostic news organization for many years. This week, maybe we really became one."

April 4: (Explaining some topics that reporter Tina Kelley had found for the web): Quite a portfolio for two weeks. And some of her work even found its way into the dead-tree edition. (No, that doesn’t hurt the blog; we’re platform-agnostic.)

July 11: Are we a genuine, platform-agnostic 24-hour newsgathering operation or what? Guy climbs building at 1:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning after the paper had closed and the print editors had left the building. Web staff is on the case. We publish the news at 3:11 a.m. We add new information as it becomes available. We mobilize Sewell Chan at 4:30. By 6 a.m. there’s a 1,000-word story with pictures. Good morning, New York.

It appears, then, that to Mr. Landman, the phrase "platform agnostic" refers to two platforms: the Web and the print newspaper. But the uses indicate different shades of meaning in each case. Discussing the newsbreak that ended Eliot Spitzers governorship of New York, Mr. Landman appears to mean simply that there is no preference for the newspaper over the Web as the place to break news: If the news comes out, it gets published both to the Web and the paper as soon as possible (which means the Web wins).

In the second usage, Mr. Landman reverses things a little bit: Reporter Tina Kelley had two weeks of great work for the Web, but some of it also appeared in the print edition. Here, "platform agnostic" seems to indicate a belief that appearance on one platform doesn’t compromise the appearance of the material on the other. But then again, hidden inside is something a little different from agnosticism. If Tina Kelley’s work was so great, why didn’t the print edition reproduce all of it? Presumably because some material works better in print than on the Web. That is, some material is better for the Web, some for print; some works in both cases. It seems you can be platform agnostic and still believe that some material is best suited for one platform or the other.

Which leads to the third use. All along, the term "platform agnostic" has referred to The New York Times as a news-gathering operation. Unlike the Microsoft guys, it’s not about making material that fits every platform equally well, but treating news the right way for both the Web and the newspaper, and not giving preference to one over the other. Thus, the third usage, which describes the journey of Sewell Chan’s story from the Web to print.

This much broader use is also favored by Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymoth:

May 20: While there are lots of questions about the future of print newspapers, I am confident that The Washington Post has a bright future. The world is changing, but the principles that guide us are permanent, and are platform-agnostic.

July 15: She says it to the Observer.

What remains to be seen is how platform-agnostic publishers will be next year, the year after, when it comes time to draw up their budgets for both print and Web versions of their publications. The market, after all, does like to make decisions.

The New Media Religion: ‘Platform Agnostic’