I spoke yesterday about the issues plaguing the print industry as they make the switch to digital publications, and it got me thinking about what exactly I imagine a digital magazine to be. So I tried answering those questions by looking at the ways I consume news and text currently. Here are my conclusions.
Little amounts of advertisement. Preferably none.
I have some tolerance for non-disruptive, ignorable and targeted advertisements. Daring Fireball, 5by5, shawnblanc.net and a host of other “niche” websites supplement or derive their incomes from these kinds of advertisements. They come in two varieties: small icon advertisements on the websites main page or through weekly sponsors that appear alongside regular articles of the site and on their respective RSS feeds. I don’t mind these and occasionaly, I’m even interested in the products being advertised. I don’t have tolerance for messes such as this.
Given the choice, I’d rather pay than have to put up with RSS sponsors or small advertisements from The Deck. In some cases, as with Daring Fireball,that isn’t possible because John Gruber wishes for the content of his site to remain free, which I have no problem with. Other sites are trying to find ways around those issues either by offering member or patron status to readers who wish to become one. You can pay Ars Technica for a unpaginated, ad free version of their site.
Newspapers, like the New York Times, also offer digital subscriptions and memberships, but the paywalls are either incredibly high or aren’t compelling enough for me to jump over. There are other factors in play in this case because while I wouldn’t pay the Time’s yearly subscription fee, I would gladly pony up the same amount for access to Gruber’s work. We’ll get to that.
What I especially don’t want from digital print is the double-dipping allusion Marco Arment made reference to yesterday. Either have your content be free of charge with smart, discrete advertising or charge a flat fee for an ad free experience. Given the choice between the two however, I will likely always pick flat fee. Just don’t do both.
Legibility and Focus on Content.
Websites aren’t the ugly beasts they used to be a decade ago by any stretch of the imagination, but they still don’t make for a great experience dedicated to reading. The problem isn’t necessarily a fault of web designers or publishing houses, but rather the medium itself. Web design primarily lives in browsers and as such, must abide by the contraints, expectations and parameters of the medium. We want websites to be interactive, connected, filled to the gills with information and beautifully layed out. Those are the strengths of the web. What they aren’t however, are the strengths of the book or magazine page. Even where text is made the primary focus of a website, the results can often be mixed. Using Daring Fireball as an example again it is apparent that while the site emphasizes legibility and simplicity, the final result isn’t particularly breathtaking or aesthtically pleasing compared to Wired Magazine. While certainly practical and perfectly suited to the task, there’s something missing to make the entire experience more engrossing. While it’s entirely plausible that this is the precise way Gruber intends his website to appear, it’s also possible he’s making the best of what’s available to him; remember, his work is presented on a website viewed within the constraints of a browser.
More pressing however, is that most websites still aren’t built from the ground up for the “mobile” size factors of smartphones and tablets. Daring Fireball renders very nicely on a 13 inch notebook screen , but not so well on an iPhone(at least without tap to zoom). Apps have come along to remedy the situation; Instapaper, Reeder and even mobile Safari’s reader functionality all do a great job isolating text from a cluttered website and presenting it in a hyper legible format. But again, the results are pragmatic. They could be better. This is easy to read. This is easy and fun.
A digital publication should ideally treat a device’s display as a canvas for text, rather than a container. This is the magazine’s last remaining strength over the web; it can engage with text layout artistically, functionally and meaningfully. Digital text has by and large figured out the functionality aspect, but the other two qualities are what I’m aching to find on iPhones and iPads.
I mentioned earlier that while I wouldn’t pay The New York Times subscription fee for its content, I gladly would pay the same price for content from writers I enjoy like John Gruber or Horace Dediu. Price isn’t the issue; my perceived value of the content is. I do read the Times and plenty of other papers, but I don’t want to pay for all its content. I’m very specific about what I choose to read from every website I browse: the Times may be excellent for my editorial and political news needs, but I also turn to other papers for sports coverage and business and technology issues, not to mention the dozens upon dozens of writers I follow on all sorts of esoteric or mainstream topics I’m interested in.
Readers habits have changed, even Robert California knows this. This is why RSS readers, Instapaper and Flipboard have been such huge successes; not because they make websites more legible, but because they allow us to curate our own newspapers and magazines from a nearly limitless pool of information.
Perhaps if the New York Times broke its editorial sections into individual “papers”, many more people might be inclined to subscribe to it. For example, if they charged $5 a month for iPad and iPhone access to their opinions pages exclusively alongside the $20 fee for access to all their content, I’d be much more inclined to pony up the money to them in return for precisely what I want from them. To put into this into perspective, I pay Shawn Blanc $3 a month to be a member on his site (that isn’t to say that the budget needs of Shawn Blanc are those of the New York Times). The problem isn’t that customers aren’t willing to pay $20 a month for newspapers, but that they might prefer to pay 4 different newspaper $5 to get the content they actually want. Our desire for content is more specific than ever, and we are willing to pay for it.
Putting it all together
In the end, when speaking of a digital magazine, I’m not speaking of the literal translation of magazines into a digital format, or even of text presented with multimedia features and hyperlinks. Rather, I’m trying to describe a simple product that presents and exhibits short and long form text in a well designed layout that aims to visually aid and embellish prose, all the while taking into consideration the strengths and possibilities inherent to digital devices like tablets and smartphones. The magazine is a good template to use as a start because it accomplished this in the print world, but we need not stick to it with digital mediums. I’ve offered my vision of what kind of digital publication I would enjoy reading, one that is specific, focused on text and as free of advertisements as possible. The resulting product could take many forms: small magazines and newspapers that are narrowly focused, spiritual cousins to the Kindle Single, or perhaps a larger publication that can be customized to the reader’s pleasure.
The onus is on publishers to discover that product. They may yell and protest that their business model cannot adequately support content that is free of ads or cheaper than it is; to which I would say: figure it out. Suck it up and find new ways to get customers to become subscribers and loyal readers of your publications. It’s not impossible, since I’ve laid out exactly what I, and surely many others, would be willing to pay for. The challenges are enormous, but adapt. Barnes & Nobles is going from a brick and mortar store to a consumer electronics manufacturer with the Nook. If they can do it, so can you. Don’t settle for the status quo; you’re already dead if you do.
I’ll be waiting, credit card in hand.