Monday, 21 January 2013

Future of Digital Media

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This story was published in our first “for sale” issue in October 2011. The fascinating thing about it is both how much and how little has changed in just over a year.

As an undergrad student at the University of Queensland I wasted weeks, possibly months of each year in the library, browsing magazines. OK. Maybe I didn’t actually waste that time, seeing as how I went on to work in magazines a few years later. Let’s just say I ‘invested’ a heap of extracurricular time with my feet up on the cheap, institutional coffee tables flipping through magazines I couldn’t afford to buy myself.

I still waste, or invest, a huge part of each week flipping through magazines. Except that nowadays, for the most part, I do it on my iPad. Sometimes, due to a turf war between old media publishers and Steve Jobs, on my Kindle. Each week, without fail, when I turn on my Kindle some time between Friday and Sunday, I’ll find a new copy of The New York Times Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Harpers, and occasionally the weighty, stentorian wordage of Foreign Policy. Each one costs me a couple of bucks a month. Less than I spend on store-bought coffee every day.

I work in the industry. I understand the difference between professional journalism and the risible lack of standards that characterise much of what we call citizen journalism when we’re being kind, and amateur ranting when we’re being accurate. I know what went into writing those stories I paid for. I know that for the most part I can trust them, even if in the case of, say, The New Republic, I have to apply an ideological filter when I read them. I know they are worth paying for.

And yet. And yet…

There are times when I scan my monthly credit card bill and I wonder why I am paying for this stuff. It’s not like I can’t find free alternatives, some of them every bit as good as the professionally produced copy in those mags. Sometimes I suspect I maintain my subscription for the same reason I pay an Apple tax for buying my digital media through iTunes. Because, as somebody who makes a reasonable living off pimping out his intellectual property I feel guilty stealing it from other people.

That makes me unusual.

It makes me so unusual that despite the bright and shining hope that attended the launch of the iPad — the hope that it would save magazines from their seemingly inevitable annihilation — the gloom which had been gathering around this old and much loved media form seems even darker and more foreboding now. As though the launch of the Jesus tablet passed over us like the eye of the cyclone.

(Allow me a momentary diversion. When I write about technology, as I do regularly, I go out of my way to be fair to Apple’s competitors in the tablet market. When discussing digital media in particular I will often use the generic term ‘tablets’ rather than iPad. Mostly I do this to avoid a flame war in any comment thread. But let me fess up now and say I agree with those other technology writers who insist there is no tablet market. There is, for now at least, only an iPad market. Hence, in this article, when I mean iPad I’m gonna say iPad).

Getting back to the reason we’re here; although I regard the Kindle as a superior piece of reading technology, once those magazine publishers work out their differences with Apple I’ll almost certainly read most of their stories on my ‘pad. The Kindle’s E ink screen is easier on the eyes than Apple’s lower-res backlit display, but magazines are not just about text. They are also about imagery and, on that front, the Kindle simply cannot compete.

For instance, reading The New York Times on the Kindle is a lesser experience than reading it on the iPad. The photography, the hyperlinks, embedded video, they all make for a much richer experience of the story. And in the end the story is all. Magazines exist to tell stories and they do so not just with words but with illustrations, photography, and increasingly in the digital realm, with rich audio and visual media too.

But therein lies the trap. So powerful are these new devices, so many options do they give us as storytellers, that we can sometimes forget that in the end The Story Is All. The temptation to throw everything at the reader can often see them buried under a crushing digital avalanche. Wired magazine for the iPad and Sports Illustrated are both examples of this. At first glance they present as unbelievably rich and varied electronic magazines, but as we delve into them, rather than helping to tell the story, the technology often ends up distracting us. It probably explains the dramatic fall-off in subscription numbers for some of the earlier forays into electronic publishing by big-name magazines.

But all is not bleak. There are some fine examples of digital publishing that seem to have learned, or re-learned, old lessons about the primacy of the story. One of the first mastheads to settle its differences with Apple, allowing it to provide a full subscription model on the iPad was The New Yorker. Previously, if readers wished to browse the iPad version they were forced to pay for each edition individually. There was no discount for a subscription. That problem has now gone away and Condé Nast have discovered, to their surprise and delight, that they seem to have a new, global market for their venerable title.

I am part of that market. Previously I may have bought one or two hard copy editions of the magazine every year. With digital delivery, however, a year’s subscription is cheap and effortless. No physical copies to pick up or dispose of. Guaranteed delivery every Sunday afternoon thanks to a well-placed international date line.

Perhaps, most importantly, the editorial team at The New Yorker have heeded the lesson of decades of obsessing about the quality and veracity of their stories. The Story Is All, and the presentation of the magazine’s iPad edition reinforces this. Most often when you open The New Yorker where you left off, you’ll find yourself staring upon a clean white screen, one half of which is occupied by a simple column of text. There might well be a small illustration, or one of the magazine’s famous cartoons, but that is the only clutter allowed. The iPad edition of The New Yorker feels even cleaner and simpler in its design than the restrained pages of its hardcopy forbear.

There are, of course, bells and whistles. Such as the ability to listen to that month’s featured poets reading their work, or the hugely popular option of viewing all of the cartoons all together. But those bells and whistles do not clang and screech in your face. They are discreetly hidden away where they will not detract from the story.

The same focusing on story can be found in a very different but recent launch, Fairfax Digital’s iPad editions of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Full disclosure time. I write a couple of blogs a week for Fairfax, so you may dismiss what I’m about to say as incestuous boosterism, but I believe those two apps to be amongst some of the finest examples of new media adaptation by the old media in the whole world.

Why?

The copy, which is the bane of many editors’ existence, is exactly the same as that available on the website or in the broadsheet editions. But in contrast with both those formats, the new apps are ‘native’ to the iPad in the sense that they have given up aping the conventions of earlier formats and instead opt for a much simpler, tiled presentation system. Four stories per ‘page’, with one dominating. Tap on the tile you want to read and you dive into the story presented in a clean, single column of text. No resizing, no dragging, no faffing about.

The Story Is All.

The app is good enough that I would consider buying a subscription were it to disappear behind the pay wall.

Why?

On my iPad I have another much loved app, Zite, a ‘personal’ magazine that refreshes itself every time you open it. Readers define the subjects in which they’re interested and the Zite fairies fly away to search the web, bringing back dozens of usually fascinating links, most of them formatted in the same, clear single column style used to good effect by The New Yorker and the Fairfax apps.

The difference here is that unless Zite takes you through to an old media site, say The Wall Street Journal, you will almost certainly be reading a blog, and with blogs you often get what you pay for. Some are brilliant. Some are a waste of pixels. All of them live and die by their traffic stats, so will often resort to throwing out link-bait in an effort to lure in readers and page gatherers such as Zite. Not a day goes by when I don’t check this app, but when real news starts to break, even the squalling white noise of Twitter links can be more rewarding to follow.

Can magazines, real magazines, survive in the new world? Not if they’re trying to live on banner ads — no! But, as Condé Nast seems to have found, and as iTunes has already established, there is a paying market for media. Yes, there will always be privacy issues and free riding and junk copy, but the tens of thousands of new subscribers to The New Yorker seem to indicate that if you tell your stories well enough, somebody will pay to read them.

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John Birmingham

John Birmingham writes for food. And your entertainment.

You can buy his books read his blog or follow him on twitter. Or all three - that's probably the best thing.

www.cheeseburgergothic.com/

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