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 $2.99 iPhone version of its December 2009 “Man of the Year” issue—or rather, part of the issue, as most of the articles seem to have been omitted in favor of photos (including timeless ones of Paul Rudd in a pink bathrobe, Twitter’s Evan Williams and Biz Stone tweeting behind each other’s backs, and the new Captain Kirk flying a paper Starship Enterprise).

The GQ iPhone "Man of the Year" Issue on iPhone -- Twitter's Biz Stone (L) and Evan Williams (R)The only interesting twist in the GQ app is that if you hold the phone vertically, you get a scrolling table of contents and Web-style article pages, and if you hold it horizontally, you get tiny facsimiles of the corresponding pages in the print magazine. You can double-tap the screen to zoom and navigate between pages by flicking. Alas, I couldn’t get all the way through the magazine, as the app kept crashing on me.

A few digital publications are getting slightly more creative. Jettison Quarterly, a Flash-based online periodical focused on the Chicago arts and culture scene, still has the goofy Zmags-style page turn animations, but it veers away from the literal magazine metaphor in a few respects. For example, it uses fonts that are sufficiently large that you don’t have to zoom in to read the text. And it usually plasters words and images right over the gutter, the area around the fold in a traditional magazine spread.

However, Jettison is inconsistent on this score—and the page turn animation is built around the premise that there is a fold, meaning the readers are never quite sure what they’re meant to be looking at. Is it a print spread? A Web page? A billboard? It’s odd to see Jettison‘s designers confining themselves to the old paper metaphors when the magazine doesn’t even have a print edition.

Flyp - A Sample SpreadFlyp, a multimedia publication based in New York, is taking more chances. It’s still guided by the magazine spread metaphor (and it’s still got the goofy page-turn animations!) but its tagline—“More than a magazine”—is accurate. Flyp‘s creators aren’t just churning out the standard text and photos. There’s also audio, video, and animated Flash infographics, and the feature packages come with Hollywood-grade video introductions—the intro to Flyp‘s piece on end-of-life care is a nice example.

I like what Flyp‘s designers are doing so far because they’re not slavishly imitating print magazines. Rather, the publication uses new media to carve out a space analogous to, not the same as, the one that magazines inhabit in the print world.

What do I mean by that? I think there are a few fundamental things that set magazines apart from newspapers. One is the tone and intent of the articles: A little less rushed and ephemeral, a little more synthetic, analytical, and writerly. Another is the imagery—especially large-format photography and things like charts and maps. Then there’s the design, meaning the way text and images are juxtaposed, and the way typography itself is used as a graphical element. In the hands of good editors and designers, these things can be brought together to create an immersive experience that makes full use of the possibilities of print—the “affordances” of the paper medium, as an interaction designer might put it.

But if you just transplant that same experience from paper onto a screen, the way Zmags and Zinio do, you create something that immediately feels stunted and incomplete, because digital environments provide different affordances from paper. (You can scroll an online article up or down infinitely without ever having to “turn” a page, to name just one.)

Flyp‘s articles are well written and serious, and they integrate story material with photos, videos, and animation in a way that feels inviting, not imposing or forced. (This piece about Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, the married architect/designer couple behind the new Institute of Contemporary Art building in Boston, is especially good.) With Flyp, you get to explore a subject at your own pace in a guided setting. You aren’t overwhelmed with data, but since the whole thing is running inside a browser window, Google is only a click away. The publication hasn’t 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.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. 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.