Ink to Bits: Tablet Magazines Should Fret Less About Pricing and Workflow, and Dream Big - SoDA - The Digital Society


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Ink to Bits: Tablet Magazines Should Fret Less About Pricing and Workflow, and Dream Big

by Albert Poon / May 23, 2011

Note: This blog entry is available in English only.

Dead trees

I started my career in a building with a huge, warehouse-sized newsprint printing press. It featured a production room with pasteboard technicians, plate makers and camera operators – and was a beehive of activity everyday from 3 to 11pm. The distinct hum and vibration of the press could be felt in the body. From that single press room, over 300,000 copies of the daily newspaper were printed, cut and bundled in rapid order in the span of several hours.For decades, publishing invariably ended with a scene like this one. Editorial meetings and ad sales led to writing, art and photography that flowed through to editing and production which fed the frantic scramble to make plates for ink on paper and finally to a multi-story behemoth that ate paper and disgorged portable, lightweight, inexpensive newspapers.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the hyperlink

In 1994, after a few years tenure as an editorial designer, I was assigned to my paper’s online arm to consider how to design for the new-fangled World Wide Web, pre-Netscape. My natural first reaction was horror. The web was really ugly. Typography? None. Imagery? Barely – and only if it could be compressed into a 5k gif file. Layout? Laughable.But something about the web was special and that something was the hyperlink. Unlike type, art and layout, which were invented for print, the hyperlink was the web’s unique secret sauce. It was the fundamental idea that enabled bits to transcend ink-on-paper. For the last decade and a half, we have all been on an endless adventure powered by the hyperlink.

Today, web typography, imagery and layout have finally come along. Sophisticated visual expression has finally caught up. And along the way, the web introduced everyone to digital audio, video and the amazing possibilities of interactive media.

The Internet is coming for your business model too

Over the last decade and a half, the Internet has decimated regional print advertising. I am certain Craig Newmark’s face has been affixed to many a dartboard in the executive offices of every newspaper in the country. Circulation has stagnated or slipped and these once reliable profit machines were under serious existential attack. Newspapers spun out their own web sites which have become as essential for news readers as the paper edition. Unfortunately, publishers have not been able to replicate the lost revenue on the web.Magazine publishers warily observed the carnage of their newspaper brethren and prayed the Internet would not come for them too. With the launch of the iPad, magazine publishers hoped they could smoothly transition from print to digital. With the large, bright touchscreen in an appealing tablet package, could the iPad save them the disruptive force of the Internet? iTunes and the App Store demonstrated users would be willing to pay for apps, songs, movies and games. Magazines desperately hoped digital editions would join that list of revenue-generating downloads.

In May 2010, Wired Magazine, the acknowledged chronicler of the digital times, introduced the world to their first digital edition which sold over 100,000 copies. Early digital sales of Wired and other titles spawned early excitement, but faltered with subsequent issues. Wired slumped to an average of 31,000 in following months and further still to 22,000 for the October and November issues. All the while, iPad sales accelerated – 3.3 million sold its first quarter, 4.3 million in the second and 7.3 million in the third. By the end of 2010, 15 million iPads had been sold.

Critics of digital magazines rightfully pointed to the perceived high prices and the lack of subscriptions as a drag on sales. Both publishing heavyweights, Hearst and Condé Nast have made recent announcements of a new subscription model and lower single issue prices. These moves have again piqued interest in digital formats and the promise to revive sales. But price is only one aspect of forging a successful digital publishing business.

Porting print

Curiosity undoubtedly drove initial sales, but the print-derivative format didn’t captivate the reading and buying public. The idea of buying a slightly enhanced PDF with a few multimedia elements didn’t resonate with readers. These early editions were hacked conversions of the print experience and they just weren’t cutting it.

Generations of designers and editors have honed the appealing qualities of printed magazines – attractive covers, beautiful layouts, a pleasing sequence and variety of formats. But these qualities are best suited for paper.

The tablet, though capable of imitating them, wasn’t being used in compelling ways best suited to its strengths. Publishers were trying to recreate the same print experience in digital formats. But digital editions were an afterthought – forked from the print edition at the production phase, not during editorial planning. At this point, it was far too late in the process for the editors and designers to truly conceive of something distinctive and engaging. They didn’t offer anything different and worthwhile for tablet readers. So why would anyone buy them?

Bigger dreams

The success of the digital edition will not be discovered in optimizing the production workflow. Hiring a tablet editor to augment production won’t create something new. What’s required is imagination and risk-taking.Fortunately for magazine publishers, they possess inherent assets for crafting new kinds of compelling experiences. They have editorial expertise and credibility. They have familiar brands that are finely tuned to the needs of their audiences. These qualities are as relevant to tablet experiences as they are for traditional ink-on-paper.

The future is rooted in capitalizing on the unique qualities of a digital. Here are some easy wins that make for a truly successful and connected tablet experience.

01. Adopt 24/7 timeframes
Unlike print magazines, Internet-connected digital versions are unencumbered by the limitations of time and printing presses. They can publish anytime, adding stories or keeping them up-to-date and fresh. Why limit publishing to once-a-month or once-a-week? Publishers should explore pushing a variety of content in a variety of frequencies. It’s a 24/7 Internet-connected world after all.Content can be augmented by information retrieved dynamically. Readers can download a compact initial file and have additional content downloaded when requested. Publishers can push down additional information incrementally and when needed. This dynamic delivery lightens any required downloads and keeps the content fresh.02. Embrace the Facebook era
Digital content can be shared by readers in ways magazine clippings never could. Driven by the explosion of social network activity, sharing has been proven to start timely conversations and win new readers in the web world. No self-respecting web publisher would omit the ability to share or link its content. Digital editions should take advantage of this essential social mechanism to connect to new readers and raise its prominence among potential readers.

03. Enhance original content with aggregations
While print publications rarely quote or reprint, the web rewards those who not only create, but also aggregate. Internet-connected tablets should aggregate content from other sources, supplementing their original content with curated content like YouTube videos, Tweets or blog posts. Magazine editors, like your Facebook friends, can add commentary to linked content that tell a fuller story with a distinct point of view.

04. Craft something uniquely interactive
Tablet screens do not yet rival the crispness of a well-printed page. Images are blurrier and text is a bit tougher to read. But tablets rival print in size and weight. They are increasingly powerful, personal computers. Content from digital editions can be layered and animated with video, sound and motion. Users can interact with information in ways that is impossible on a printed page. Well-crafted and well-produced interactive content are proven means to delight readers.

05. Enable the audience to contribute
Aside from the Letters section, print magazines don’t do a great job of showcasing the voice of their readers. Internet-connected tablets can facilitate interactions where readers become contributors, creating new kinds of dynamic content where they can add and shape the dialogue – not just consume. Web-proven commenting systems can augment digital editions as well. In addition, the introduction of Facebook authentication has raised the overall quality of the commentary.

06. Look beyond magazine models
As magazine publishers experiment and innovate, new forms of narrative and publishing are emerging alongside magazines in the App Store. The History Channel’s Civil War Today app and Al Gore’s Our Choice app both represent brand new formats that aim to capitalize on the unique features of tablets.

The Civil War Today app invites users to visit daily as events unfold, just 150 years later. Readers can explore high-resolution images of original documents, photos, illustrations and maps. These large files are not downloaded as part of a single app, but fetched on-demand like a web site, rather than compressed and downloaded at once like a book.

Al Gore’s Our Choice app features innovative and playful interactive graphics, well-produced movies and dramatic photography as well as long-form prose. The interactive content conveys key concepts in a compelling and seductive way that static printed pages could not.

07. Develop geo-targeted ad strategies
Internet-connected and location aware tablets can deliver specific content or advertising based on where each reader is. If readers are in the right location, they can submit content to add to a story. If the reader is in a specific place at a specific time, customized and targeted advertising can be delivered.


Fortune favors the bold

The digital era has not been particularly kind to traditional media. Business models have been upended and those unable or unwilling to adapt have ceded control of their fate to the forces of disruption.In a little over a year, accelerating sales of the iPad has proven that tablets are here to stay. The potential audience for tablet editions is an amazing opportunity. However, in this new world, publishers do not just compete with other publishers, but with Facebook, HBO Go, iTunes, Netflix and Angry Birds as well.

A compelling new format is essential for the survival of magazine publishers. Digital editions will need to be more engaging than today’s PDF-like experience if publishers want get beyond tepid sales and disinterest. It will require a significant investment that goes beyond hiring a handful digital editors and production artists and dropping them into the tail end of the production process. It will require new thinking, new ways to tell stories and new ways to connect with their audiences.

Publishers still hold tremendous advantages. The question is whether they are willing to take the necessary risks to not just survive, but thrive.

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