Digital Magazines Emerge—But Glossy Paper Publishers Haven’t Turned the Page on the Past

With all the drama this year around newspapers, including the Boston Globe‘s near-death experience and the actual demise of several other papers such as the Seattle P-I and the Rocky Mountain News, there’s been slightly less hoopla over the fate of magazines. They’re dealing with many of the same problems as newspapers, including a falloff in advertising, competition from online-only media, and the ever-rising cost of paper, printing, and distribution. One difference is that it’s happening on a timeline that allows a bit more breathing room, given that most magazine publishers aren’t saddled with the same kind of debt that’s crushing the big newspaper chains.

That means magazines have more leeway to experiment with new publishing and business strategies that could help them through the digital transition. For most newspapers, it’s already too late. When you’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year, as the Globe still is, you’re fixated on cost-cutting to keep the doors open a couple more quarters, not creative ideas for the long-term future.

So, what use have magazines been making of this time? What delightful and innovative digital creations have they unleashed? It’s a question that matters to me personally, given my past experience at magazines like Science and Technology Review, and my natural concern for the future of journalism.

Sadly, the answer is not many so far. If I had to pick a word for most of the e-magazine experiments I’ve been seeing lately, it would be “unimaginative.” Magazine publishers seem to hope that they can get away with transplanting their existing print layouts onto the electronic screen—as if it were enough to take the finished publication files, export them to PDF, and be done with it. This way, publishers wouldn’t have to do the hard work of rethinking the kinds of work they commission, the ways different types of content fit together, or what makes magazines special in the first place.

Zmags screen shot from SmartCEO magazine

Take a look at Zmags, a Boston company that works with magazines such as SmartCEO. Zmags has a tool called Publicator that takes print magazine spreads and frames them inside a PC browser window. Of course, cramming a whole spread onto a computer screen means making the text pretty small, so Zmags provides a handy magnifying-glass icon that lets you zoom in on a particular article or advertisement. It’s a lot like another e-magazine interface made by San Francisco-based Zinio, the main difference being that Zinio magazines are displayed inside a standalone e-reader program rather than a Web browser. (Technology Review experimented with Zinio while I was an editor there.)

Both Zinio and Zmags generate a nifty little page-turn animation when you want to look at the next spread. And both companies seem to have concluded that what readers want from digital magazines is absolute fidelity to the print product, right down to the familiar experience of turning the page. (Well, that’s a little unfair. What they’ve actually concluded is that to sell their software to publishers, they have to make it fit with the existing print-magazine workflow, which revolves entirely around tools like QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign that were developed for laying out print pages.) [Update 12/18/09: Joakim Ditlev, director of global marketing operations for Zmags, sent me a note this morning to say that the Zmags platform is very flexible—he pointed to this Danish e-magazine—but that most publishers don’t take full advantage of the technology. “The point is—it is self-service and only a few publishers think of digital magazines as another media with different capabilities. For most of them, digital magazines are just replicas of print versions,” Ditlev wrote. Which is my point too.]

Things aren’t much better in the mobile world. Zinio is reportedly developing an iPhone version of its reader that will give mobile readers access to the same Zinio digital editions they’ve purchased for their PCs, and vice versa; users will be able to skim through magazines using the now-familiar flicking gesture. Gentlemen’s Quarterly is already trying something like that with the … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “Digital Magazines Emerge—But Glossy Paper Publishers Haven’t Turned the Page on the Past”

  1. Jules PieriJules says:

    Oh I feel like a dinosaur when I read an article like this….I love my paper magazines. I don’t want to read them on a computer. My computer gives me carpal tunnel syndrome. My magazines give me a smile.

    More than that, when I have a paper version it is much quicker for me to grasp the full content of the magazine and I am likely to read more broadly, rather than selectively. That is what I want from my media….to broaden my knowledge and perspectives.

    Perhaps the new formats you highlight will solve all those problems for me (except the carpal tunnel aches).

    I guess you caught me at a tough moment, given that my favorite magazine, ID (formerly Industrial Design, now International Design) just announced its own demise. I became worried about that magazine when I tried to share an article from it this summer and found that the online version was a whole issue behind, weeks after I got my print version. THAT’s when I did want the digital version and I remember grumbling about whatever arcane practice led them to delay digital distribution.

    Anyway, thanks for broadening my perspective today….I will try and have an open mind about these new formats.

  2. Hi Wade,

    It’s a really interesting post. I agree with you about that most digital magazines are just print formats placed into an online page turning tool which offer no real benefit apart from perhaps basic search within each issue.

    We do quite a bit of conversion of print into digital magazines for publisher clients in the UK. However, we tag each article on the page with another resource which might be a document, video, or a podcast.

    We also build in search capabilities to enable search on related articles in the archive of each magazine. This is not what most online magazines offer and limits their appeal to customers.

    Publishers also benefit from being able to resell their back list more easily.

    Thanks again.

  3. Hi Wade

    Interesting article and you raise some valid points about the lack of innovation within this new medium. It’s true that there aren’t really many digital magazines that are fully exploiting what can be done using the digital setup.

    I work for a publishing company and have this year been tasked with launching and promoting digital versions of our titles. Due to the number of titles we have and a lack of resource to focus on producing and integrating multimedia content, the majority of our issues are going out as direct print replicas. While I agree that there is scope to do a lot with the format, i have noticed that a lot of our digital readers are happy with the basic print replica setup and are more focused on getting the same content as they would with the printed magazine but for a cheaper price and in a more convenient way.

    Having said that, we have produced a few interactive digital supplements which have integrated video, podcasts and Flash animation and these are a lot more fun to both work on and look at as a reader.