The Flipping Pages Blog

Looking for the future of magazines

Come out from behind the curtain and engage your audience

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Pay attention to the man behind the curtainIn the good old days we sat in our offices and thought up great story ideas. We sent people out to write them and sooner or later the copy came back. We fixed it up, laid it out, sent it to the printer and, as if by magic, a magazine appeared. And as all this went on behind the scenes, our readers waited patiently for the waxing and waning of the moon and the delivery of the next month’s issue.

Not now. No one is waiting for anything. Your readers want it all and they want it now.

How is an editor to deal with that?

The biggest, bluntest instrument you have at your disposal is to publish online as soon as your content is ready to go. There’s an (old) school of thought that says you should put magazine articles online only after they have appeared in print to “maintain the value of the printed product”.

Newsflash: The value of your product these days is the sum of its parts, print and digital. It’s up to you to time the release of your content, but think of it this way; while your stories are embargoed by your print schedule, other publishers are bombarding your readers with fresh digital delights. The remaining few who only read print don’t care, but without regular online updates, you risk chasing the majority of your audience into the arms of your competition while they wait for the postman.

Going digital first takes the wait for the printer out of the equation, but what about the gap between having a killer story idea and your audience reading it. Print or digital, processing good content still takes time.

How about telling the story of the story? Every story we publish has its own narratives – the beginning, middle and end of the content creation process. Why not engage your audience with the process. If you have an idea for a feature, ask the audience what they think? Are they interested? What aspects of the article are they most interested in?

Questioning your audience about work in progress helps keep their attention

Questioning your audience about work in progress delivers twin benefits. It will keep you close to them and their information needs. It will also help keep their attention. By taking to social media and asking questions you have kept your readers engaged even before you have started to create any content.

As you or your writers research and report, share the interesting facts you come across with your community on Twitter or LinkedIn, publish pictures on Facebook or Pinterest, post video clips to YouTube. Write blog posts on the inevitable side stories you come across. Record your interviews and use the best bits as podcasts. Tell the tale as it builds and share the twists and turns under a hash-tag unique to the work-in-progress.

Once your content is ready, get it online, but don’t forget to sell the print version to your audience. It’s great if you can highlight any additional material you have in print, but promote your print even if the online and offline versions are exactly the same. People access content in different ways at different times and in different places. Upsell the value of the print package; it will conveniently land on your reader’s desk, it can be stored on the book shelf for when the Internet is broken; you can read during the digital darkness of takeoff and landing. Whatever works for your audience.

Your story might be in the can, but the process isn’t over. With the content out there in the wild, blog about it, tweet about it, ask the audience for feedback. Interview an expert about what they thought of the story or create a webcast to discuss the issues raised in the piece.

Finally, collect all the blogs, podcasts, videos and images alongside the final product and archive everything. Remind your audience regularly that it’s there by referencing it in related articles, blog posts and through social media.

Then start all over again on your next big idea.

The aim of all this is to remake the relationship you have with your audience by letting them see behind the curtain. By removing the dead time, letting them participate in the content creation process and watch as they content they value takes shape, they will feel closer to your brand and much less likely to turn to your competitors.

Written by Peter Houston

December 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Creating eBooks from magazine archives: the director’s cut

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Global Launch eBookPartick Smith’s closing comment on the The Media Briefing’s Making ebooks a news publishing revenue stream really struck a chord with me. Patrick is somewhat skeptical about asking readers to pay twice for the same content. His solution:

Maybe it’s best to think of an ebook as a special edition DVD, complete with a director’s cut, behind the scenes extras and cast commentaries. Something fans will pay for.

One of the last projects I oversaw before I left the day job was an eBook published for the iPad (it’s here if you’re interested). It’s a nicely designed publication, expertly curated from magazine archives to give readers a single place to go for comprehensive coverage of a single issue. The team added a concise overview video from the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, but otherwise it was completely repurposed content.

That project was sponsored and is free to download on registration but it’s valid to ask, as Patrick does, will readers will pay for a collection of articles that they may have previously read in a magazine or online. Some will. The convenience value of an eBook themed around an important issue shouldn’t be underestimated: This is the premise behind every yearbook ever published. But the idea of additional unseen director’s cut content has to be a powerful, additional incentive to purchase.

The problem is, where is the extra content going to come from? It’s natural for cash-strapped publishers to see eBooks as free money and the thought of investing in additional content doesn’t sit well. But if investing to create a more attractive product means sales will improve, then that has to be money well spent. Curate your existing content, spot the gaps and commission additonal content to fill them. This could be an up-to-the minute opinion piece that brings fresh perspective to archive material, an overview that ties together the threads of the various articles that make up the eBook, or video and audio that lifts the eBook beyond a words & pictures archive re-tread.

But this is playing catch-up with legacy content. The best, and most cost-effective, way to add value is to schedule “behind the scenes extras and cast commentaries” into your regular content creation process. If you have it in the back (or the front) of your mind that an article will one day be re-published as part of an eBook, plan for it. It’s difficult to imagine all the places your content might end up, but if you can focus on the requirements of your key digital formats it’s not impossible.

The problem with so much crossmedia activity is that publishers are trying to satisfy new media expectations with old media. There’s nothing you can do about the past, and the fact that you don’t have boat loads of digital extras shouldn’t stop you experimenting with new digital formats like eBooks. But the sooner you start to plan for the enhanced content requirements of digital, the sooner you will be able to add the value that differentiates your digital offering from your established products and tap into new revenue streams.

Written by Peter Houston

December 13, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Do digital magazine readers want a “print like” experience?

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Tablet readers want "print like" experience
There’s been a lot of coverage of a research report by the Pew Research Center and The Economist. One of the key findings from the survey of American news consumers was that 60% of readers under the age of 40 prefer a “traditional, print-like” reading experience on tablets.

I get this in relation to news; readers want to access information quickly without the distractions of interactive elements like animation, audio and video. But is the same true for digital magazine readers?

More than newspapers, magazines have to entertain readers as much as inform them and immediate access to information doesn’t always trump design. I’m no designer, but magazine pages in print can be every bit as complex as on the tablet. Print doesn’t move or talk, but a sophisticated page layout can pack a mindbending array of graphic and text elements.

Thinking about magazines, the term “print like” isn’t really helpful. I’m not sure what the right term is – accessible, intuitive, legible?

Having just finished judging the 2012 Digital Magazine Awards, I have first hand experience of  publishers that have overused interactive elements in their iPad publications: Spinning stuff just sometimes gets in the way.

I suppose the mesage for magazine publishers from this element of the Pew/Economist study is that technology has to be used appropriately. If your readers want information quickly, you need to design to that. Simple layouts, clear typography, job done. But if they want an enhanced media experience, video, audio, animation can really add value.

The bottom line in all of this is that we are still in the very early days of digital magazine design. As one of the winning editors at the DMAs put it to me, digital magazine publishers are experimenting in public and they don’t always get it right. But playing it safe and reverting to print formats just won’t cut it. Readers need a reason to buy tablet magazines and giving them print products on a digital substrate isn’t likely to cut it long-term.

Written by Peter Houston

December 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Magazine people must become better storytellers

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Magazine people are, or at least should be, some of the best storytellers around. That’s what they do. But I’m talking about a different kind of story – the stories we tell inside our businesses about our industry.

I just read a post on Dan MCCarthy’s Media Transformations blog. In Who should CEO’s entrust with storytelling in the digital age? Dan says this about the importance of storytelling in business leadership:

The best leaders knew who they were telling the story to, why it would matter and what made the story important.  The best organizations lived their own stories — each employee knew that they were part of bringing the story to life.

Think about that in the context of the magazine business. The story that is most often told in our space is that print is dying and that digital is the future. Ask anyone who works for a magazine publisher what’s the biggest story in publishing. Like the piggies in Animal farm they’ll recite the mantra: Print bad, digital good… Print bad, digital good.

Magazine companies living that story, and that’s most magazine companies, are trapped in a tale where the evil resource suck of print is a distraction from the noble quest for digital profitability, which has so far proved to be as elusive as the Holy Grail. That doesn’t sound like a story that ends well.

How about we try telling it a different way. Print isn’t bad, different from digital undoubtedly, but not bad. Most publishers I know rely heavilly on revenues generated from print. More, the digital revenues they do have are very often tied directly to audience loyalty founded on print activities.

To sideline our print heritage like an unwanted stepchild is to dismiss the biggest assets we have built over a long time – attention, community, reputation. No one would argue that digital does not loom large in the future of the magazine business. But for the forseeable future, the majority of publishers have to see print and digital as parallel activities, not mutually exclusive but complimentary.

To be fair, some senior magazine people are starting to speak out about this. At the Association of magazine Media conference in San Francisco this October, CEO Mary Berner said she was “pissed” that the industry had lost control of its own narrative.

By letting others hijack our story, it has become one of doom and gloom, demise and even death. And that conversation is affecting our business.

Good news. The worm is starting to turn, but it will only make a difference if we take back control back and a different narrative is told to, and ultimately by, the troops.

Magazine bosses need to round out the plot. Digital is big and getting bigger. Staff need to embrace new technologies and innovate in their markets if pulishers have any hope of growth. But they can’t forget their roots in print or ignore the legacy revenues that currently pay to keep the lights on.

Let’s start telling a crossmedia story. Yes we do digital, but we also do print. We do video and audio, but we still do words and pictures. The magazine narrative is complicated, don’t oversimplify it, tell tales of pixels and ink and maybe we can manage a happy ending.

Written by Peter Houston

December 11, 2012 at 10:28 am

Recycling is good for the editorial environment

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Repurposing contentThere’s a face editors make when you suggest they should repurpose content; something like the face people make when smelling milk from the office fridge. The milk’s probably OK, but the face says they’re ready for the worst.

Editors don’t like old stuff. They’re trained to value fresh content, news or features that they know no one has read before. Good for them, new content wins every time. But like our poor planet, editorial resources are finite and recycling helps publishing teams conserve energy for future endeavours.

You have probably heard this from me before, but you’ll have guessed I’m not beyond recycling a good story. When BBC3 launched, amidst the inevitable furore around repeated programming, a beleagured BBC executive explained to disgruntled license payers that, “it’s only a repeat if you saw it the first time”.

If a national television broadcaster with millions of viewers every day and 24-hour programming suffers fagmented audience attention, magazine editors certainly do. Repurposing content isn’t as cynical as it might sound. Every magazine’s print circulation is limited and it’s a fact that there are online-only readers out there who will value your content. And I’ll let you into a little secret: not every subscriber reads every article in every issue. Putting print articles online, in newsletters and on tablets exposes your content to different audiences.

Also, in stark contrast to the Highlander movies, there is no cosmic law in publishing that says there can only be one version of an article. Maybe your stock-in-trade in print is long-form features packed with illustrations. Online you can run abstracts formatted like news stories to give the essence of long-form pieces quickly. Podcasts, slideshows, videos can do the same job. For some readers, the snippet is enough. Those that want to move on to the real-deal can download a full-fat PDF straight from your pre-press department – your commercial guys will love it if you make readers register for the download.

Recycling doesn’t have to mean re-hash. You can add complimentary digital content that enhances your print content. Interviews in print tell the story, but add a sound clip on a digital magazine or a web page and now your readers can hear just how passionate your interview subject is about their story. Another example – a two or three page feature has some room for incidental art, but a complimentary online slideshow can add real depth to your photo journalism.

Think of recycling as a starting point – a way to reach new readers, a way to add value to what you’re doing in print. Do it well and you’ll improve your audience engagement and save some energy for creating fresh, new content.

Written by Peter Houston

December 10, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Vote for the digital magazine of the year cover

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DMA cover of the year

We’re in the home straight for this year’s Digtal Magazine Awards; judging finishes Wednesday night. This year’s awards includes the Digital Magazine Cover of the Year in association with the Huffington Post UK. This is the first time the DMAs have opened a category to a public vote. You have until Saturday 6th December to cast your vote for your favourite of the 12 finalists here.

Written by Peter Houston

November 27, 2012 at 11:54 am

Kindle VP says print-digital transition will be slow

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Print-digital transition for magazinesHow long have we been listening to the digital-media divas beat-up magazine publishers over their lack of progress in the print-digital transition? Well, this quote really cheered me up.

“Print is so good, that this is going to be a nice, long, slow transition.”

It’s from Russ Grandinetti, VP for Kindle content at Amazon, speaking at the Association of Magazine Media’s annual conference in San Francisco . Did you read what he said? Nice… Long… Slow. No doom, no gloom, just a nice, long, slow transition.

So what’s going on? Why has a guy who’s whole reason for being is digital content come over all warm and fuzzy about printed magazines?

Well for one thing it’s the truth. The rumours of print’s death have been greatly exaggerated – most magazine publishers would find it tough to turn the lights on in the morning without their print revenues. If only the magazine industry could stop panicking long enough to realise that.

More importantly Mr Grandinetti desperately wants magazine content on his devices and he seems to have, refreshingly, decided to ditch the Firefighter’s shrill cry of  “Jump! The platform’s on fire” for the Estate Agent’s soothing “How can we help you relocate with the least possible upset”.

None of this means that print will do anything but decline over time; without the miracle of an overnight switch from audience and advertisers, publishers are going to have to make their way in a predominantly digital world eventually. But woudn’t it be nice if the print disruptors and the digital enablers saw the sense in swapping  digital sticks for digital carrots.

Anything that helps publishers work with print and digital in parallel is a good thing. Grandinetti noted in his speech that when Kindle started out it was print books that were it’s toughest competition. Similarly, it’s print that gets in the way of  everyone reading magazine content on their Kindles or iPhones or whatever.

Much better then, to help publishers build out the complimentary advantages of digital – tracking, ecommerce, portability – and celebrate the enduring practicality of ink on paper, at least until the rumours of print’s death finally come true.

Written by Peter Houston

October 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm

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