The Future of Digital Publishing
I was asked to predict the future of digital publishing this week. No, not really, but I was asked to answer a few questions about publishing in the digital era by an MA Publishing student working on a research study about the future of digital publishing. His emphasis is on the iPad and the replication of print periodical business models and values and how art direction can be used on the web.
Being as focused on re-purposing content as I am these days, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share my responses on the blog. If you have any thoughts about what I’ve said, please chime in, I’m sure my interviewer would welcome the input.
1. How do you think information consumption habits will change in the future?
The big issue for media consumption is fragmentation, both in terms of devices used and information sources. Consumers can access information on an ever growing list of platforms, from phones to tablets to TVs. This means information is more accessible, more places, than ever.
The economics of print publishing (magazines, newspaper and books) meant that control of what got published was reasonably centralized; digital publishing options have brought the barriers to publication down and the number of content producers has risen exponentially.
This is largely positive for consumers, the one problem it creates is how do people know what information to trust. This is the biggest single factor that commercial publishers need to hold on to and exploit when they are trying to figure out how to complete with startup websites, blogs and social media.
2. Do you think the iPad is capable of replicating the design, economics and experience of the print world?
Yes on design and reading experience – I think this is already happening with magazines like the New Yorker. But to be really successful the iPad needs to do more than replicate the print reading experience, otherwise what’s the benefit from the reader’s perspective? Readers might as well stick with print and not spend $400 for a reading device.
The economics of iPad publishing is a mess at the moment; the medium is still too new for the rules of the game to have been agreed. Advertisers, who fund most print publishing activities, are still wary of digital magazine formats. Readers are not paying for content in big enough numbers (look at recent coverage of the Daily), and publishers are struggling with Apple’s 30% subscription levy – do they eat it, or leave as the FT did and gamble on their own audience development efforts.
3. Looking at the figures for iPad magazines, it’s largely true that they haven’t resonated with the iPad’s user base. Why do you think this is?
Many things. One has been price – single copy prices have been too high and until recently have represented a double charge for the most loyal readers who already have print subscriptions. Also, many magazines haven’t figured out what they want to be on the iPad yet. I mentioned the New Yorker, which does a great job of transferring a much loved magazine format to the iPad. But if I could buy it on the newsstand, why would I read it on the iPad.
Popular Mechanics on the other hand does an incredible job of layering text, photography, video, animation and audio, but sometimes it gets just a little too complicated and overwhelming. People are still experimenting. Once they find the mix of bells and whistles that’s right for their audience and once the pricing/subscription issues get sorted out, I think take up will grow steadily.
4. With advancements in web typography and new web standards capable of achieving a richer user experience, do you agree with Khoi Vinh’s assertion that most content on the web will eventually return to it’s natural home – the browser?
I don’t know the answer to this and I actually don’t think it really matters too much. So long as readers can access content conveniently through an interface that makes sense to them, they won’t care. It’s a bit like arguing over whether perfect binding or saddle stitch is better for a print magazine. The reader doesn’t care so long as the pages stay together. This is really an issue for publishers and ultimately it will probably come down to which is most economical to produce and easiest to distribute.
5. Have you seen anything (apps or otherwise) that you feel is advancing the dialogue between digital publishing and the publishing industry? e.g. Flipboard?
I like the Flipboard and Zite concept, but the implementation is still a long way away from where it needs to be to truly add value. At the moment, Flipboard has maybe 20 publication integrated; it needs 20,000 for people to really feel that this is truly a personalized media platform and not just a funky Facebook viewer. Zinio, has this kind of volume, primarily because they plugged into the publisher’s existing production cycle. Long-term they will need to do more to help publishers optimize for multimedia, but I’m really interested to see where they end up.
6. If you were going to start a magazine or newspaper from scratch, what things would you take into account today? (In addition to anything mentioned above).
Same as it ever was, good content, strong audience need and a decent revenue stream. What’s different now is the content needs to be multi-platform and it’s crucial to find out what the most important platforms are for your audience. We did some research recently in the Scientific community and we were a little surprised to discover that the iPad just isn’t there yet.