The Digital Magazine Concept (for an extra buck you can touch)


Earlier this month, Time Inc pulled back the curtain on their “Manhattan Project” and revealed a prototype for a tablet-based digital magazine concept.  A few days later, Time Inc., Conde Nast, Meredith, the Hearst Corporation, and the News Corporation announced they were forming a consortium to build a platform for developing and distributing digital magazine content.  And yesterday another magazine publisher, Bonnier, released a demo video of their concept for a tablet-based digital magazine.

It should come as no surprise that the major media companies are taking a serious interest in tablet technology.  After falling behind with the web they appear determined to get in front of the next big thing.  But watching these prototype videos and reading some of their statements, it all feels very misguided, even desperate.

There’s a lot of good stuff to discuss here but I’ll try to keep it brief.  Here goes.

I see several flaws in the logic supporting these digital magazine concepts.  For one, it’s clear the publishers are still fixated on trying to replicate the print experience online.  This is true both in the touch interface and the insistence on the magazine issue as an infallible unit of content.  The implication here is that the web experience is somehow inferior, insufficient.  Users don’t want to pay for content because it doesn’t match the experience of reading a physical magazine.  Once the digital experience feels more like the paper-and-ink one, then readers will be happy to pay as they once did, and then the publishers can return to profit.

The error in this thinking is that instead of trying to adapt to the state of 21st century media, they’re trying to drag things back to an antique model (in the name of innovation, no less).  It’s understandable; they’re trying to stick to what they know.  But this line of thinking pays little respect to how electronic media has evolved over the last decade.  Web media is not a hold-over until someone figures out how to digitize the magazine—it’s a format that has far surpassed the print experience, a format that’s adapted itself perfectly to the needs of the 21st century reader.

In the age of blogs, Twitter, and real-time search, it should be safe to say that the magazine is dead.  Those ideas you had three months ago, that issue you closed two months ago, today they are irrelevant.  This is not to say that everything has to be about the hyper-contemporary.  There are certainly many meangingful things to be written about that stand apart from the real-time current.  (And I expect that the sometimes overwhelming nature of the real-time web will produce a backlash in which people will seek respite in the form of content charmingly severed from “now”.)  But I think these types of publications will be part of a small minority.

Another flaw is the reliance on touch interface as the sole key to this revolution.  These tablet devices, which don’t even exist yet, are entirely untested and unproved.  There’s good reason to think tablets will be a success, but we don’t know yet.  Do people really need/want a smart phone, and a laptop, and a tablet?  Maybe.

Everything demonstrated in these videos, minus the touch interface, can be done on the web today two years ago.  Embedded video, sliding pages, fancy tool-tip-style pop-ups, integrated social media. With all the libraries and APIs available today, it’s not even that hard.  So that means they’re staking everything on a method of interface.  It’s the same experience we could get on the web, but because we can flick stuff, now we’re going to pop open our wallets?

On the production side of things, it’s clear these companies want to produce something that blogs and small web media companies cannot compete with.  Tired of having lean-run web publishers eat their lunch, Time Inc. and News Corp. want to blow them out of the water and dazzle readers with a multi-media touch-tablet magazine experience, with sound effects and page-flip animation included (all for just $4.99 an issue).  Beat that, Deadspin!

“Dazzle” is the key word here.  In the end I think it’s a gimmick, not unlike those Flash page-flip “digital editions” that publishers love but real users don’t give a shit about.

Today’s user is faced with an overwhelming amount of information and choices.  Email, chat clients, social media, the temptation of another tab, thousands of possible news sources. Users digest content in relation to all of these things.  Which means the amount of attention bandwidth available for any one thing is very limited.  Users have to make split-second judgments about which things are worth their time.  Web pages that offer titles, abstracts, and thumbnail images accommodate this need well.  Video and full-screen PDF style viewing does not.  Sitting down and thumbing through an issue is no longer the way we operate (unless you’re in the dentist’s waiting room and just need something to absorb your nervous energy.)  You can lament our deteriorated attention spans or applaud our ability for extreme multi-tasking, but in either case the reality is the same.

This is not to say that tablets, touch-interface, and integrated multi-media will not play important roles in the near future.  I’m positive they will.  I’m not sure how it will all play out, where it will end up, but I feel reasonably confident that whereever this consortium of struggling, backwards-anchored corporations thinks it’s going to go—wherever they think they can force it to go—is one place it will not go.

Lastly, I have no doubt that many users are interested in this print-like experience.  Or at least they think they are.  But that doesn’t mean they’ll be willing to pay for it.  Focus groups may support the idea and I’m sure tech journalists will herald it as the future of all media.  But these are the same tech journalists who predict a new iPhone killer every month.  And focus groups, well, what the hell do they know?  (Kidding.  But not really.  OK, I’m kidding (i’m not).)

P.S. Time Inc, don’t show up to the game with zombie hands.

zombie-handsI’m inclined to say that if the public demonstration of your Manhattan Project involves “zombie hands” in any way, you’ve already failed.  When you’re proposing to revolutionize the very way people consume media you should be able to out-do the guy that does the How to Buy and Sell on eBay commercials when it comes to production values, even if it is only a prototype.

The Bonnier-BERG video, on the other hand, is beautifully and masterfully executed.  These guys are for real.  Based on these demo videos, if anyone is going to pull this off it will be them.  The speaker in the video, Jack Schulze, who interestingly does not work for a media company but for the design agency BERG, makes some very intelligent observations about how people interact with media today and how they might interact with it in the future.  If you work in eMedia or take an interest in it, you should go watch the video now. In fact, here it is:

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

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