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

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moved completely beyond the metaphors of paper—but perhaps you can only stretch readers’ sensibilities so far before you have to stop and let them catch up.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether Flyp is a real business or just an experiment. Its parent company, Flyp Media, is financed by Alfonso Romo, the mogul behind Mexico’s Indigo Media, and so far the publication hasn’t been selling advertising or producing other visible forms of revenue. Flyp‘s editor-in-chief, longtime magazine journalist and editor Jim Gaines, calls the publication “a proof-of-concept experiment in terms of multimedia story telling” rather than a commercial product. I think the concept has been proved; I hope the company can find a way to monetize it.

If you really want a sense of what I mean by the unique affordances of digital media, and how magazine designers might use them, take a look at this concept video (also embedded below) produced by Bonnier, the Swedish holding company that owns magazines such as Field & Stream, Popular Science, and Popular Photography. Take the video with a grain of salt; it’s just a demo, mocked up by a design consultancy in London called Berg, and it will be years before the interfaces like the ones shown are working on real devices. But what the video demonstrates is that someone, at least, is thinking deeply about the “geography” of magazine content, as the Berg designer in the video puts it.

For example, even though text and images are, at some level, at odds with each other—one is there to induce and immersive reading experience, and the other is there to provoke amazement—they don’t have to compete. Instead, the video shows how each can be literally brought into focus when needed. (I love the Berg designer’s observation that the page-turn animations in most e-magazine readers are “not terribly believable” and that they “don’t feel very honest to the format of the screen.”)

There’s been a flurry of online discussion in the last couple of weeks about e-magazines, especially with the announcement by a consortium of publishers, including Condé Nast, Time Inc., Hearst, Meredith and News Corp., that they’re working on joint standards for some kind of digital magazine storefront. The details are still vague, but the consortium members no doubt feel that they can’t afford to let Amazon continue to make the rules in the e-publishing world. (About 40 mainstream magazines are available so far for the Kindle 2 and the Kindle DX, which actually make very credible e-magazine readers.) And they probably want to do what they can to pre-empt Apple, which—unless Steve Jobs has completely lost his touch—will try to use its rumored tablet device to disrupt the publishing industry in the same way that the iPod and the iPhone have disrupted the worlds of music and mobile applications.

Magazine publishers may finally be realizing that they need to greet the digital future proactively, or risk going the way of the newspapers. Let’s hope they also realize that this may require moving beyond familiar concepts like pages, and thinking instead about how to use the new tools at hand to tell more compelling stories.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

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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.