My Love for Magazines Lies Bleeding

MUD day 17:

There are days, perhaps when my inner curmudgeon breaks through my usual resistance, when I’m convinced that magazines, as a useful format, are truly dead. Yes, it may just be me or my desperation for a topic in this month of mandatory daily blogging. Ask me tomorrow and I may feel more hopeful. But what has me worried is my oddly sour reaction to this Folio article on magazine design. A few years ago I would have been vitally interested. Now it just seems irrelevant.

It’s not just the paper version of magazines I’m pessimistic about, but the very concept. There are some who feel that tablets will be the salvation of magazines. I’m not so sure. One of the negatives in Linda Holmes’s review of the new Kindle Fire today is that its 7-inch screen is too small for magazines. Full magazine pages, she says, don’t work well: “You can zoom, but when you [turn] to to the next page, you pop back out to seeing the full page, and to read anything, you have to zoom again.”

But having just last night downloaded with some interest the December issue of The Atlantic to my iPad, more than a third larger than the Fire, I’m not so sure size is the real problem. Paper pages just don’t translate well to the screen—the turns are slow, images build too slowly, the fonts are too big or too small. You need to enlarge and shrink too often, or tap too many times to get to the better “reading view.” The articles might have been pretty good—but I don’t know. I was too distracted to actually do any concentrated reading.

To me, books seem like an eternal format. They work as well for me on a tablet as on a page. But the format to which I dedicated most of my professional career has a poor prognosis in any medium. I fear I will soon be attending a funeral for my old friend, the magazine.

A Word Every Publisher Should Know

Skeuomorph. It’s one of those words you have to look up several times before you can remember it. For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia defines it nicely: “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” Some of the examples the entry cites are helpful: fake stitching on a plastic product once made of leather, spokes in an automobile hubcap, or, one of my own bugbears, tiny, useless handles on small maple syrup jugs.

The skeuomorphic design of iCalWhy should publishers care about skeuomorphs? Because as they shift themselves and their products into the digital age, one of the most important questions they must ask is whether to evoke the functionality of the old forms of their output or leap wholly into the new ones. There isn’t a single right answer. But if they don’t ask the question, they will probably get it wrong.

Though it deals with computer user interface design rather than publication design, one of the most helpful discussions of skeuomorphism I’ve read is from John Siracusa’s landmark review of OS X Lion. In it, he describes the odd nostalgia of Apple’s design of its iCal and Address Book applications. They evoke the look of their old analog counterparts so faithfully that they include stitching, torn paper, and a leather look. Though it might give users a sense of familiarity, the look actually impairs functionality, as Siracusa says of the Mac calendar:

 Usually, each page contains a month, but there’s no reason for a virtual calendar to be limited in the same way. When dealing with events that span months, it’s much more convenient to view time as a continuous stream of weeks or days.

Even worse, says Siracusa, is Apple’s Address Book, which “goes so far in the direction of imitating a physical analog that it starts to impair the identification of standard controls.”

For traditional, analog publishers, the most immediate application of skeuomorphism is to the process of going digital. As I noted last week, one challenge for companies like Ziff Davis Enterprise in going digital-only is whether they should retain the old functional metaphors of print—the page turns, the layouts, the display ads—or drop them in favor of inherently digital functionality.

But even for natively digital publishers, functionality will evolve, perhaps more rapidly than ever. As new ways of delivering and presenting content arise, will they look backwards and mask the new with the familiar veneer of the old? Or will they look resolutely forward and ask readers to adjust to the new in order to gain its full benefits?

The point here is not that skeuomorphism is inherently bad. It can be a useful and even compelling way to help people understand new functionalities. But in going digital, you need to consider the difference between when looking backwards is really helpful and when it’s just a sentimental gesture. So on your next digital product design, don’t just think different—think skeuomorph.

The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity

MUD day 8:

There’s been a lot of excitement in the past week about the new Web publication The Verge. Founded by Joshua Topolsky and several other former Engadget staff, it’s been praised for its dynamic design and for features like StoryStream, which aggregates the site’s content into timelines. But if it succeeds, will it be due to great design, or inherently great stories? Does its future lie in becoming a great destination site, or in creating a unique identity for its content?

The Verge

When Topolsky appeared last Sunday on This Week in Tech, host Leo Laporte asked a key question. After suggesting that The Verge is what magazine design should be on the Web, or rather, what should replace magazine design, he asked whether it mattered. “You’ve made a great destination, but I just wonder: Do destinations matter anymore?” How he and many others now read content, he argued, was in aggregation: “So if there’s a great Verge article on the Jawbone Up, I will see it in my Twitter stream or in my RSS feed, I’ll read the article, but then I’ll leave the site.”

Though the design, usability, and coherence of site or publication design are still important, they matter less to the success of content than they used to. In an era when content is increasingly atomized and ubiquitous, the identity of that content becomes increasingly important. Traditionally, magazines were a collection of disparate items that relied on the container to give them a coherent identity. But containment doesn’t work on the Web. So how then can content serve its publishers?

The answer, I think, is that identity must be stamped into the content itself. More than ever, to rise above anonymous commodity content, it must be personal, individual, unique. People must be able to see immediately, for instance, that this content, wherever they find it, could only be from The Verge. The content must be imbued with the brand.

It seems to me that this is the biggest challenge for traditional publishers in adapting to new media is to rethink the value of their publications as destinations. Consider, for instance, what Ziff Davis Enterprise CEO Steve Weitzner recently told Folio: about his company’s move to digital-only publication: “”We will publish [eWeek] in the same way—it will go through the same editorial process, the stories will get vetted, they’ll be laid out by art, we just won’t print it or mail it.” Is that the way to go digital? To simply plop the magazine model into a digital space? Somehow, I doubt it. The container doesn’t matter anymore. Only the content counts.

One Way the Web Will Change the Book

MUD day 6:

New-media enthusiasts, myself included, sometimes talk as though print is dying. That’s a strategic exaggeration, of course. No form of media is ever killed off by another. Rather, each new form of media transforms those that came before it, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Consider for instance how painting was changed—even liberated—by photography, turning, in response, to new modes of expression like impressionism and cubism.

A Lesser Photographer by C. J. ChilversIn a similar way, I think, books will be liberated by digital media. That will happen in part because technology frees print from its reliance on paper and traditional, expensive production methods. But it will also happen because print will react and respond to the new forms of digital media, and function in new ways. Our very idea of what constitutes a book will be redefined.

One modest but telling example comes from the latest Tips from the Top Floor podcast, hosted by photographer Chris Marquardt. In it, he interviews C.J. Chilvers about his PDF book, A Lesser Photographer: 10 Principles for Rediscovering What Matters.

Chilvers observed that its length, just 25 pages, has prompted other authors he knows to ask “where’s the rest of it?” They argued that each of his 10 principles could be backed up with enough evidence and examples to make a much longer work. But, Chilvers said, “I feel that’s what the blog is for.”

There’s nothing new about pamphlet-length books, nor is the manifesto a new genre. But what does seem new to me is the way the Web has made it possible, even desirable, to distill what would otherwise be longer books into their essence, while offering other media to back it up, and provide the substance many readers will want.

I can’t say there will be fewer books in the future—in fact, their number may grow. But I feel certain that they will, on the whole, be shorter—and more useful.

Breaking News: People Who Like Print, Like Print

There’s been a minor buzz this week in B2B circles about recent survey results suggesting that paper magazines and newsletters remain extremely important to business professionals. I’m sure it’s true. I’m also sure it’s not very meaningful. Just because you like something doesn’t mean it’s not dead.

Results from Readex Survey showing print publications rank second among professionals.The findings are from Readex Research, and are based on a series of media usage surveys conducted over the last year or so. The results show that when asked what forms of media these professionals use in their work, 74% chose print publications, just three percentage points below the top choice, search engines, and tied with e-newsletters. These results, according to Readex sales director Steve Blom,  “help publishers prove to advertisers—whose own ideas regarding usage may be terribly wrong—that professionals haven’t replaced one media form with another.”

Now before I say anything more, I should mention that in my previous career in publishing I was a Readex customer for 20 years or so. I have nothing but admiration for the company and its staff. So anything I say here is not intended as a criticism of the company.

But the thing about Readex is that much of their work is for publishers. Those publishers usually ask Readex to survey their readers. And the readers who bother to reply are usually those who, first, recognize the name of the publication, and second, like it enough to bother replying.

In most of our magazine surveys, we asked our readers to rate us in comparison with our competitors.  We always found that our publications were generally liked the best and read the most frequently. No surprise, really, because the readers who responded were generally the ones who knew and liked us.

The Readex press release doesn’t give much detail on the demographics of respondents, but I’d guess that most of them are existing readers of legacy publishers. In addition, a significant chunk are probably older white males—the last bastion, I’d also guess, of committed print users.

So in essence, you’re asking people who subscribe to print publications and who are more familiar with print than any other medium, which media they prefer. It would be shocking if print didn’t come out well.

That doesn’t mean advertisers shouldn’t keep advertising—the numbers of print readers are still substantial. But it also doesn’t mean that print is particularly vital or that it has a bright future. Yes, many people still love print. But in the end, economics and technology will prove more powerful than emotion and habit.