Magazines don’t belong to the pixelheads or the pagesniffers. They belong to the audience.

by PETER HOUSTON, THE MEDIA BRIEFING

September 2015

Before the digerati reach for their pitchforks, let me clarify. What I mean is that there is no binary solution to the problems that currently plague magazine publishing.

No ‘On’ versus ‘Off’

No ‘Good’ versus ‘Evil’

No ‘Print’ versus ‘Digital’

There is only what the audience wants and, in case you didn’t know, the audience wants it all.

From smartphone apps and tablet magazines, through social media and the web on mobile and desktop, to mainstream and independent print, people are viewing more magazine content in more places than ever before.

Binary has a crucial role to play in the future of magazines - digital publishing is all about ones and zeros read and shared on digital devices. But magazines also have an analogue future, a paper-and-print future that will be as long and distinguished as its past.

Maybe this sounds like a ‘have-yourcake-and-eat-it’ position taken by a perplexed publishing professional hedging his bets until the future reveals itself properly. Possibly, but I prefer to think of it as a ‘best-of-all worlds’ position that celebrates the amazingly varied publishing landscape we find ourselves in.

It’s also the position that has been enthusiastically embraced by magazine audiences who see no reason why they can’t read their magazines wherever and whenever they want.

Searching for sustainability

Last autumn I published The Magazine Diaries, a little book about how magazine makers were feeling about their chosen profession. In the introduction I wrote of the magazine business…

“Everyone is frantically searching for a sustainable future, endlessly debating where our industry is headed, how best to make money, how best to save money, what new platform will or won’t work.”

The next 60 or so pages of The Magazine Diaries collected the thoughts of 100 publishing professionals, all submitting 100 words on how it made them feel to be working through the biggest disruption in publishing history. Each entry is a little different, from the naively optimistic to the cynically pessimistic. A few bemoaned the industry’s impending doom, but many took the chance to write their own love letter to magazines and the skills needed to make them.

For some people - the Pagesniffers - their affection was reserved exclusively for print. They represent a small, but vocal minority that just can’t bring themselves to see digital magazines as real magazines. For them it’s all about the look and the feel and the smell of ink on paper. 

Magazines have a digital and an analogue future, a paper-and-print future that will be as long and distinguished as its past.

Others - the Pixelheads - are desperate for print to go away and leave them to get on with the urgent business of deconstructing the magazine format into a digital-only media proposition. They are enthralled by the opportunity to swipe and tap, to stream and share, to watch and listen as much as read.

My favourites were the ones that said nothing about print or digital and simply focused on the job at hand, informing and entertaining people with a passion for a subject, building relationships with them, making them feel like they belong to an exclusive club. My favourites were the ones about the audience.

Growing up

Speaking at the Digital Magazine Awards last year, I said that the digital magazine industry had to grow up and that the start of that process had to be the realisation that old-school magazine publishing values still matter.

The iPad’s introduction in 2010 made digital magazines sexy again. Before that, we’d been struggling with the vertiginous zooming of Flash page-turners on the desktop; now we had interactivity and portability. Unshackled from the desktop we were back out on the street, in cafes, on buses, and back on the couch.

For a little while it really felt like the tide had turned for magazine publishing. Print might have been flat-lining but who cared? The iPad was going to save the day. The euphoria lasted maybe two years - publishers were getting plenty of downloads, but too few subscribers and nowhere near enough advertisers.

One of the problems was that publishers forgot what it was that made old-school magazines work: 

Content that is good enough to keep readers interested; Readers that are interested enough to spend their cash or their time with the publication; and enough revenue from readers or advertisers to pay for interesting content and distribution.

As I said in that speech, marking five years of the Digital Magazines Awards and five years of digital magazine development, “I’m not sure the mix has ever been completely sorted.” Digital magazine makers have found it really difficult to strike the right balance between what is possible and what really works for the reader.

Failing at both ends

Strangely, the digital magazine industry has actually managed to fail to deliver at opposite ends of the technology spectrum simultaneously.

Operationally-led publishers have pumped out PDF replicas, maintaining their print production cycles and turning off ‘always on’ readers. In the worst instances, readers have been left wondering why they’ve bothered to download a 500MB magazine when they could have had exactly the same content delivered directly through their letterbox.

The publishers need to create publications that make the most of the possibilities offered by digital publishing technology, but don’t make the reader work too hard for their magazine fix.

Innovation-led publishers, desperate to be seen working the new platform, have thrown every trick in their ever-expanding playbooks at digital magazines. While these publications are impressive, regularly making us reconsider what a magazine can be, they generally aren’t commercially sustainable or actually particularly engaging for readers who are struggling to find something to read. So what is the right balance?

While digital magazines at the bleeding edge excite as much as some replica editions disappoint, publishers need to find a middle ground. They need to create publications that make the most of the possibilities being offered by digital publishing technology, but without making the reader work too hard for their magazine fix.

Extended storytelling

The one constant in magazine publishing – in digital and in print - is to tell stories well, communicate passion and build relationships. In a media landscape that just keeps getting busier, good stories and relationships are gold ore and magazine publishers are uniquely positioned to exploit that rich vein across multiple channels.

Digital magazines should be part of a print, mobile, web, tablet social mix that the audience can access and share whenever it wants.

Digital magazines should be part of a multiplatform storytelling bundle, not hermetically sealed capsules, off in some walled garden, separate from other parts of the publishing operation. Every part of the portfolio should be joined up, each complimenting the other. Digital magazines should be part of a print, mobile, web, tablet social mix that the audience can access and share whenever it wants.

Audience appropriate

Digital magazines also need to be ‘audience appropriate’. It’s right and proper that a heavy metal magazine opens on the iPad with explosions and flames and stage diving videos. There’s probably less point to launching a cookery magazine with twirling, whirling cupcakes.

Take one look at a good print magazine, one that has survived for a while, and you can tell immediately who the target audience is. Calm, creative home makers or raucous, rugged adventurers – you know just by looking at the cover.

Too many digital magazine publishers, editors and designers have been seduced by what they can do digitally and have forgotten to think about what they should do. They’re hell-bent on delivering bells and whistles, regardless of what their audience actually wants. Not everyone wants layer after layer of tap and swipe, some just want to be able to read a really good article.

Timing is everything

Sticking rigidly to print deadlines makes less and less sense for digital magazine publishers. New tools have led publishers to look at magazine streams that release content to the audience as an article rather than as part of an issue. The Fast Company has done this using a beta of Adobe’s newest Digital Publishing Suite. The new app shoots out five new articles a day, making sure that I never forget that it’s there... at least it did until I deleted it from my iPad.

Publishers need to think hard about the type of information they are releasing and how often the audience will want it.

A constant flow of content really works sometimes. In the social media tsunami, FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real activity driver, goading people to check their phones over 200 times a day, just in case they miss something important. To win there, you need to be there all the time.

But magazine content is different; at least, good magazine content is different. Unlike a tweet or a status update, it takes a while to read a decent magazine article or watch a magazine video. With digital magazines, FOMO is in danger of becoming GAMO - Guilt At Missing Out. I have deleted more than one streaming content app because I felt bad that I just couldn’t invest the time every day to keep up.

So, while it’s fantastic to have the option to release content completely independent of a print deadline, publishers need to think hard about the type of information they are releasing and how often the audience will want it.

That’s why the multiplatform mix is so important; social media and the web can be used to deliver that constant stream of information. Facebook Instant articles and Apple News will add to that flow. But none of these can replace the tightly curated experience that a digital magazine can deliver, something the audience can finish, something they can wait for.

No blockers here

For the most part, digital magazine publishers have done a pretty lousy job on the advertising front. There have been a few clever sponsorship deals, but five years into their iPad publishing efforts and some of the biggest, best-known digital magazines are still publishing page-based advertising lifted straight from print editions without so much as an embedded hyperlink.

Take one look at a good print magazine, one that has survived for a while, and you can tell immediately who the target audience is.

At a time when web-based advertising is being decimated by banner blindness and ad blockers, why are digital magazine publishers not shouting from the rooftops that they have a solution? They can rent marketers’ prime real-estate where they can deploy the most sophisticated digital creative in an environment where ad blockers can’t touch them.

Probably the reason publishers aren’t shouting more about advertising opportunities is that they’re still not shifting enough ‘copies’. Firstly, premium advertising should not just be a numbers game. A small band of truly engaged digital magazine readers is worth more than a horde of uninterested passers-by. But, equally, publishers need to do more to get their digital magazine out there. Make them discoverable, in or out of any app store. Market them. Shout about them. Let people know that digital magazines are not just an afterthought and that they add real value to the modern magazine experience.

The beginning

Reading this back it seems like I’m being negative about the digital magazine sector. I’m not. There are incredible things going on in our industry, real innovation in content design, delivery and distribution. We just need more publishers to take on board best practices and take the whole industry forward, not just individual pioneers.

With that said, it’s too easy to forget that we’re only at the beginning of the digital-magazine journey. One of the entries in The Magazine Diaries is from the Editor-in-Chief of the Scots magazine, founded more than 275 years ago - that’s more than 50 times longer than we’ve had the iPad. I guess there’s still time to figure out what the audience really wants.