Life After Reports Published in Locked PDFs

By Christina Crawley

Friday, July 25th, 2014

The slowly becoming (in)famous World Bank report that admits that no one actually downloads or reads their PDF reports has been a hot discussion topic over the last month here in Washington, DC, a city full of non-profits, think tanks, foundations and international organizations who spend a lot of time on producing reports - many of them in PDF. 

In the open government space, we are surrounded by OGP action plans where countries include the steps they will take to get rid of PDF documents, and make their information more open and accessible. Because of this, we are used to giving anyone a hard time for continuing to publish in this format, yet the way in which we should publish isn’t always so obvious. Yes, we need to publish digitally in HTML, but how in order to make sure people access and read it?

Last week, we brought together a panel of speakers at the OpenGov Hub to discuss this topic. From publishing larger amounts of historic content with Jocelyn Blakely-Hill from the National Archives, to getting the word out from small news shops with Bill Gray from the Pulitzer prize-winning Center for Public Integrity, and making sure design plays a role with Kurt Voelker from Forum One Communications, it was great to delve further into the issue.

A few interesting observations thrown out during our discussion:

  • PDFs are 300% less usable than HTML
  • Even coders can be lazy and publish content in PDF instead of HTML
  • If you do a one-page impact report for each report you produce, you will lose your mind
  • Even Pulitzer Prize-winning content doesn’t get downloaded if it’s in PDF
  • People have a lower tolerance for sloppy digital printing than print material
  • Search engines love HTML, not words trapped in PDF

And a few helpful tips we all learned:

  • Think digital first and foremost when publishing content
  • If you absolutely must publish in PDF, have an accompanying HTML text
  • More interesting that ‘who’ your audience is, is ‘where’ are they coming from, and how are they getting to your online content
  • Gateway pages need to die. Take your users from the title to what they want to read in HTML
  • Perfectly tweetable takeaways at the beginning and throughout your content go a long way
  • If your report or story is important enough, don’t just make it a blog series: make it its own website

While we looked at a number of good ideas and examples of how to publish large amounts of content in an attractive way, the biggest thing that struck me was that people simply don’t read long content. They never have. It's only thanks to analytics that we now have the proof. Regardless, it does suggest that we really need to reevaluate how we publish content to make it catchier and to the point. And as for our long in-depth pieces of work: we must ensure that people can link to sections within them, and that the sections themselves have some tailored design.

In a world where content is being published and shared every second of the day, getting one's own stuff read will continue to be a challenge. But if we can think digitally for the really important highlights and messages, maybe we can make more sense of it - and make more time for it.

The session focused on publishing large amounts of content, i.e., long reports. Stay tuned for next time when we focus on the best ways to publish large amounts of data points.

Creative Commons License
The OpenGov Hub logo and opengovhub.org are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://opengovhub.org/about/