Ideas for the future of publishing take shape
INNOVATION TALK:Watching an industry in the throes of disruption – observing how certain firms react and adapt while others remain static and decline – is invaluable for understanding the innovative process.
The media sector, as it exists, is in the throes of just such a disruption, and the end of Newsweek’s print edition was a telling vignette – the final edition was a paean to the days when news magazines would have bureau reporters dotted around the globe. That era has gone the way of the transistor radio and typewriters – Newsweek is now looking to a future as a digital-only publication.
It’s tempting to see this as yet more evidence of the inevitable rise of the tablet publication – in a large survey of US publishers released by the Alliance for Audited Media last month, 87 per cent of respondents said they have an iPad app, while 63 per cent agreed that “tablets are the most important digital channel for their publication’s future”.
On the other side of the ledger, however, is the comprehensive failure of The Daily, the iPad-only newspaper that opened to such fanfare when Rupert Murdoch announced it in February 2011. That publication closed in December, with losses in the region of $30 million a year.
So is tablet publishing the future or not? History and experience suggest that whenever any disruptive technology arrives, it not only shakes up the old order but also creates opportunities for entirely new ideas and business models. All it takes is time, imagination and experimentation for those ideas to crystallise.
A vision for this new era in publishing came last November in an instantly seminal manifesto by US technologist, designer and writer Craig Mod called “Subcompact Publishing”.
Subcompact publishing is a lousy name, for sure, but Mod used the term to describe the possibilities now open to small publishers who can craft magazines for distribution on tablets, charge reasonable amounts for content, and actually pay writers for their work.
Crucially, Mod also criticised the trend for incumbent publishers to simply move their publications, and indeed their business models, from the newsstand to the tablet.
The phrase “digital skeuomorphism” has gained currency in recent years as a way of describing the trend for software interfaces to mimic their real-life counterparts – with calendar apps looking like a physical filofax, or a list of ebooks that appear to sit on a bookshelf. It’s a widely criticised approach, and Mod points out that that the trend isn’t restricted to the look and feel of the magazine apps.
“Business skeuomorphism happens when we take business decisions explicitly tied to one medium, and bring them to another medium – no questions asked. Business skeuomorphism is rampant in the publishing industry,” he writes. The Daily was a perfect example of that folly, with a staff of 170 at its height.
The new breed of publishers can operate unburdened by legacy costs – top-heavy management structures, huge staffing levels and colossal printing and distribution costs – and also unburdened by the expectations that came with the old model – a monthly schedule, say, or a certain number of articles per issue.
Instead, subcompact publishers can focus on providing quality content in a readable and convenient format, delivered automatically to a customer’s device. And what the iPad in particular has created is not just a delivery mechanism, but also a payment mechanism.
Among the first to take advantage of these new possibilities was Marco Arment, the US developer who created the “read-later” service Instapaper. Seeing the possibilities created by iPad’s AppStore and Newsstand, he created The Magazine – a fortnightly magazine that costs $1.99 per month, downloads automatically to your iPad or iPhone and features writing on a variety of topics.
In his introductory essay, Arment wrote: “I don’t consider The Magazine to be a member of ‘the magazine industry’ any more than blogs are members of ‘the publishing industry’. Those terms evoke the old and established, while this is the new and experimental.”
Here, we see that the very vocabulary of the publishing industry is now prone to disruption, a sign that major change is upon us. Arment has quickly been joined by publications such as The Awl and Matter, each experimenting with new business models to fund their publishing.
While the subcompact model is evidently not a replacement for newspapers or even big publishing houses such as Conde Nast, it does suggest a way that writing and journalism might evolve, and indeed thrive, in the next few years and decades.