Gimmicks and the Decline of Print

In an article published this week on Folio:‘s Web site, Jill Ambroz reviews a panoply of print “innovations” that, she writes, “are breathing fresh air into a mature industry that is battling its own digital counterparts for survival.” It’s hard to tell how seriously she takes these innovations, especially as she twice refers to them as gimmicks (not counting the headline).

Either she believes the words are synonyms, or she’s sending a not so subtle message about her true feelings. Or perhaps she’s just fulfilling an obligation to be objective by looking for a middle ground between credulity and skepticism.

Fortunately, I have no such obligation, so I’ll just say it. They are gimmicks. That is, cheap tricks designed to attract attention, not tools to convey information. Far from saving print, they simply confirm its decline.

As gimmicks go, they are effective. What’s not to like about technologies like 3-D lenticular covers, tri-perf mix-and-match cover photos, or e-ink inserts—or the pure joy, evidently, of being able to “literally feel and hear” the head of a video game character tearing off as you turn a page? Maybe Esquire‘s recent augmented-reality issue fell flat, but at least it was fun for a few minutes to try it out.

To their credit, even the proponents of these gimmicks seem realistic about their value. The point is not to reverse the decline of print, but to get attention while you still can. “In this era,” Esquire‘s editor told Ambroz, “when everyone’s excited about new media, we need to do everything we can to make older media as exciting as possible.”

The reason these innovations cannot do more is that they, in essence, transform the medium of print into an object. They don’t enhance the communication potential of a magazine; rather, they give you reasons to possess it as a physical thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if, a hundred years from now, issues of Esquire appear alongside stereopticons and wind-up toys on a version of Antiques Roadshow.

I’m all for magazines playing with such gimmicks. But let’s be clear. True innovations they’re not.

Should B2B Get Excited about the Digital Magazine Consortium?

For B2B publishers, how big a deal is the recently announced digital magazine consortium?  Does the participation of industry titans Condé Nast, Time Inc., Hearst, Meredith, and News Corp., mean our magazines will all soon be read on cool e-reader tablets? Or is it just more hot air?

For me, the answers to these questions came from an unexpected source. Regular readers of B2B Memes will know that I have mixed feelings about digital magazines.  Likewise, my feelings are mixed about the one blog on the subject that I follow, from digital magazine producer Nxtbook Media. Like many corporate blogs, it’s a mix of lightweight stories about company activities, tales of customer success, and criticisms of anyone that doesn’t like their product. Last week, though, I remembered why I follow it: Sometimes it offers some excellent insights.

It’s unfortunate that the PR bulldog instinct came over the author, Marcus Grimm, in headlining last week’s post “Lies, Half-Truths and Other Innuendos About Digital Magazines.”  The inflammatory choice of words made me suspect it would be a hack job, but in fact it was a well-reasoned and sensible discussion of the consortium’s effort. (I suppose it’s too late now, but why not use a key phrase from the post as the title: “Top Five Things You Need to Know About the Forthcoming Digital Magazine Consortium”?)

If you’re interested in the topic, you should read the entire post. But here I will cite three key points Grimm makes in casting doubt on the relevance of the consortium.

First, as Grimm notes, “there’s no reason to believe this will be a solution for trade publishers.” The consortium is all about charging for content, not growing an audience. Hence, he says, “if you’re interested in the latter, there’s nothing here to indicate a better future for you, or even a different future.”

Second, he argues against the strategy of producing a dedicated device for digital magazines: “We DON’T agree that you should make readers choose a format. Instead, let them choose the content and have the format adapt to the device [they’re] on.”

Third, he points out the silliness of the magazine industry trying to build a tablet: “The fact that the consortium is working on an eReader device is further proof to me that they don’t fully get what industry they’re in. Hint: it’s not hardware.”

Now, I suppose there may be some behind-the-scenes politics or unspoken resentments at work here I don’t know about, and as a Nxtbook employee, Grimm is certainly not an objective observer. But he’s persuaded me that the consortium is not likely to hit a home run.

Personally, I hope someone is successful at forging a viable, widely-accepted approach to porting digital versions of B2B magazines to portable readers. For me, no matter how cool the technology, digital magazines on a computer just don’t cut it. But put them on my Kindle, add some color and better performance to the device, and I could be sold on digital magazines at last.

New Ethics for New Media? The FTC and Press Junkets

Since the publication earlier this month by the Federal Trade Commission of new guidelines on endorsements and testimonials, the place and nature of ethical guidelines in the new-media world have been a hot topic. The guidelines, frankly, are plain stupid. But they do shine an interesting light on how new media ethos is shifting from objectivity to transparency.

In the new guidance, the FTC specifically calls out bloggers for close attention. According to the FTC, “the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”

Responses to the new guidelines have spanned a wide range of opinion.  ASBPE president Steve Roll had a standard old-media response in a post entitled “First, Kill All the Bloggers.” Roll’s position is that bloggers, as an “industry,” have failed to police themselves and hence deserve to be regulated. For Roll, it appears, the FTC guidelines validate his belief that bloggers are unethical and not real journalists. (Might one venture to suggest that Roll is just a shade behind the times? As NYU’s Jay Rosen said almost FIVE YEARS AGO, “Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over.”)

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