Why being digital doesn’t change the definition of insanity

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Allow me to preface what I’m about to say with this — I absolutely love magazines. They are gorgeous artifacts melding prose and imagery in a way that manages to both captivate and enlighten. In contrast to the more utilitarian daily newsprint, magazines consistently offer the kind of high-quality photography, well-researched long-form writing, and meaningful discourse afforded by a monthly publication schedule. But, I’ll just say it now, magazines as we know them are dead.

The Slow, Painful Death of the Magazine (Issue)

Before the digital revolution brought the public never-ending streams of content, monthly magazines and traditional newspapers were the best way to get quality information. But as we all know, the Internet has changed everything. The Internet has shifted the news and information game from push to pull.

Try as they might, the big media companies can no longer control what gets reported, or how, or where, or when. The Internet has eliminated the primary barrier to publishing — the cost of printing , distributing, and selling something physical. And with so much content on the Web that is fast and easily accessible, online publishers and social media are making magazines (as we once knew them, at least) obsolete.

The all-you-can eat content buffet and our now-constant connectivity has caused us to develop a serious information addiction along with a case of digital ADHD. We want content and we want it right now. And then we’re on to the next thing. Reading an in-depth news article a week or month after-the-fact in a magazine isn’t going to cut it. The traditional magazine news cycle and weekly or monthly publication schedules are simply no longer relevant.

Revolution Not Evolution

Evolutionary adaption is an effective strategy in the face of gradual, continuous change in external pressures. But lets not forget — it’s also the process that killed off the dinosaurs in the face of a rapid, extreme change in the environment. The Publishing industry needs revolution.

It’s no wonder that the “digital edition” (i.e. the almost pixel-perfect digital rendering of print magazines) has not fared so well in the marketplace. In retrospect, how could they succeed? They sacrifice nearly everything to retain the magazine’s visual style and advertising, while retaining the production costs of print. In particular, in August of 2011, WWD reported that Condé Nast’s digital publications cost between $20,000 and $40,000 per month to publish. Compare that to your prototypical blogger-in-a-basement, and you start to see why these cost structures make no sense in the age of the Internet.

Even worse, digital editions also fail to take advantage of any enhancements that the digitization enables. The laws of physics dictate what you can do with print publications. But the digital world has no such constraints – allowing a rich, dynamic, interactive, and engaging visual experience. If the phrase “dead-tree” applies to print publications, then digital editions are “dead-electrons.”

Unsurprisingly, the net result has been low circulation and uptake. Of the 65% of US magazines offering digital editions, those digital editions comprise only 3% of the total circulation. Wired’s first iPad edition sold a respectable 100,000 copies, but fell off to 30,000 shortly thereafter, behaving much more like an app than a magazine. The Daily, after a promising start, shut its doors completely.

You Can’t Expect A Different Outcome by Doing the Same Things

A number of publishers are experimenting with ways to differentiate their offerings and business models in the digital realm, generally variations of the deeply flawed newsstand model. For example, Next Issue is offering an all you can eat subscription from their 75 title-deep catalog for $14.99 per month. Hearst is offering five-day early access to issues through Apple’s Newsstand.

Other publishers are going further by working with mobile-native readers like Flipboard to get reach and readership, at the expense of commoditizing their products as yet-another-stream, by distancing themselves from their audience, and in the words of Andrew Rashbass (CEO of The Economist), by “giving the opportunity to extract value to somebody else in an area that should be your own.”

And perhaps beginning to steer the ship in the right direction, Atlantic Media has created a new, free, digital-first brand (Quartz aka QZ) to focus on “obsessions,” which they expect will gain traction through social media.

Five Steps to Rebirth

Ultimately, these experiments show that none of the publishers have figured out the new world order or how they fit the real-time nature of the Internet. So, how does the publishing industry of the future resolve this tension?

Step 1: Abandon the Issue And Go Native

Periodic issues make perfect sense in the world of print publications — the physical creation and distribution processes are expensive so you want to minimize the number of times you have to make the magazine. However, with the Internet, there are no such costs, and customers are used to paying for an intangible service and for receiving continuous streams of information. Publish your content when its ready, not according to a calendar.

Similarly, the fixed structure of a print magazine is a catastrophic limitation in the digital world. People — your audience — carry and engage with your content on different kinds of devices, from desktop computers with huge screens, to laptops with native HD screen resolutions, to more intimate tablets, to the claustrophobic mobile phone, to black-and-white eInk eReaders. So, your content must adapt to remain compelling (rather than frustrating) on each of these platforms. And the only way to do that is to go native.

Step 2: Curate

Much like museums define the standard for significance in art by way of their curators, magazines have long defined the standard for significance in content within their area of focus by way of their editors. So, leverage this, and allow your editors to curate content from around the web that supports and enhances your own.

I’d love it if, in addition to their original content, GQ published the best articles, blog posts, and videos on men’s style and health interests, film, and sports. The Daily Beast has mastered this with it’s “Cheat Sheet ,” which they’ve billed as “must reads from all over.” There is tremendous value to your audience, here. Do this, and you’ll be my first (and possibly only) stop — you’ll be my routine.

Step 3: Create Your Layout Once — For the Web

On the surface, PDF and other print-like digital media seem like a reasonable solution to dealing with the breadth of devices that one will encounter in the world. But in practice it falls apart. Reading these kinds of media on a small screen is an exercise in pinch-zoom, scrolling, and accidental page-flipping frustration.

Thankfully, the world has another ubiquitous technology that’s able accommodate the diversity of devices, operating systems, and form factors that exist in the modern world — the Web. Or more correctly, HTML5. There’s even a phrase for adapting a single visual identity to different-sized screens by taking advantage of HTML’s native separation of content and layout — “responsive design.”

Use this, and you solve almost all of your layout, design, app, and third-party integration problems all at once. HTML5 is well-supported, dynamic, interactive, and supports touch interfaces, allowing you to re-imagine how your audience interacts and engages with your content. All of the modern mobile platforms support rendering HTML5 elements within a native app.

Step 4: Integrate with the Open Web

I get it. You want to control the experience and your content, and under the newsstand model this makes perfect sense, since access is naturally constrained (and is thus valuable) by the physical limitations. But this model does not translate to digital.

By operating as a walled garden, you exclude yourself from the daily digital consumption habits of the exact people you’re trying to reach. And since information moves freely on the Internet, they can and will go somewhere else. So, rather than controlling the ball and being at the center of the game, you are making a decision to put yourself on the sidelines.

Instead, you must embrace the Internet by putting your content in a branded form on the Web that rivals and goes beyond print – by supplementing your articles with contextual recommendations to additional content from your own archives and the greater web, by making your content easily sharable, and by actively sharing it yourselves through your own branded assets on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and the like. You want each piece of content to become a gateway into your brand and identity.

Step 5: Open Up Your Archives

Your content archives are, perhaps, your greatest treasure and your most valuable asset for directly increasing your relevance and engagement on the Web by providing supporting material and context. Your archives don’t have to be free, but they must be available and they must be searchable.

David G Bradley (the owner of Atlantic Media) told the New York Times during the launch of Quartz that “It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital without any legacy costs, massively trumps print.” The leaders of the publishing companies clearly understand that their survival depends on the transition from print to digital. However, transitioning from “dead tree” to “dead electron” still leaves you dead. To survive, publishers must become heretics, abandoning the idea of a digital newsstand, embracing the dynamic, open, free-flowing nature of the Web and of mobile, leveraging their editors to curate content from all relevant sources.


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