Reading Magazines: Down, Horizontal or Deep?

This has been a quiet summer in the magazine industry. Sprinkled with some encouraging news, for example, from the sale of 50% of The Economist for a price which values the whole group at well over $1 billion. The Economist Group incorporates a successful consultancy as well as a top tier magazine, but the magazine is the key element of the brand and a big part of the value in the group. So that is a very strong valuation in difficult times.

There is a marked uncertainty in the magazine industry about its future and a lack of confidence about the direction that digital magazines should be taking. Most of the mainstream consumer magazine publishers that I have spoken to, admit that print is steadily on the way out and the future is digital. Yet there is no established consensus about how digital magazines should work. Are apps the answer? Should we be investing in better web-sites? Shopping and e-commerce? Programatic advertising? Social networks? Subscriptions or micro-payments? All or none of the above? There is no consensus.

There is even a deep uncertainty about the nature of the digital product that is being produced, which amounts to a confusion or disagreement about the direction in which the magazine reader’s experience should flow.

The ‘traditional’ wisdom for digital magazines that we saw emerging with the first iPad apps and with Adobe Creative Suite, is that digital magazines should really scroll and slide. The story should go down and the issue should go across. With each article forming a nice web-like story. With these magazine apps there is both horizontal flow through the issue, but a strong vertical movement as the reader burrows down into the story. This ‘matrix’ model of how to read a digital magazine issue actually creates enormous problems for editorial and design work-flow and especially for the increasing variety of display devices that need to be accommodated. The across+down model of how to read an issue really is problematic.

So there has been increasing interest in a yet more horizontal view of how to read magazines. We can call this the Flipboard model. According to this ideology, the way we want to interact with digital magazines is much like our interaction with printed magazines in a dentist’s waiting room, of course with more choice and speed, and digital elegance. We pick up a stack of magazine-type sources and then rapidly flip through them, snacking on stories as we go.  We need a lot of magazines for this model of magazine reading, and with this heap of assets we can make a unique solution for each reader. The production of individual magazine issues can be hived off to a web-style production method (each publisher can look after her own workflow as long as they pump out an RSS feed) and through the Flipboard as many brands or issues as each individual user wishes to “read/subscribe-to” can be accommodated through RSS aggregation. This proposal might be great for the user in that it enables a high degree of customisability by interest. Further Flipboard produced a very impressive app and a technically elegant but rather agnostic design solution for magazine content; but, and it is a big ‘but’, there has been so far zero evidence that Flipboard consumption can generate significant revenues for publishers. It will be very interesting to see whether the Apple News app (coming very soon to an iOS device near you) will be able to prove that this horizontal aggregation can generate sustainable revenues for publishers.  My hunch: the Apple News app might turn out to work nicely for iOS users and for Apple. If it does, that will probably not be good news for Flipboard, and it will not necessarily be great news for magazine publishers.

So what is the other reading model that digital magazines should be exploring? The dimension that these rival reading models have tended to ignore is the dimension of time. Perhaps the most unique and characteristic feature of the print magazine industry is that it has been a wonderful way of getting consumers to jump on a publishing train. Think about this word:

PERIODICAL

it is almost a technical term and it is not a buzz word, but it strikes to the core of the magazine business (because the money flow is and should be periodical) and to heart of the reading experience (because the happy reader will return — to the next issue). At Exact Editions we believe that the periodical nature of the magazine business is fundamental and our digital solutions aim to unlock this potential. Exact Editions apps are unusual in supporting arbitrarily large archives and offering search across all back issues for each magazine subscription that a consumer takes on board. This we can call Reading Deep. Nobody says that you have to read the whole of a magazine, and when you get a complete magazine, including all its back issues, in your subscription, there may be more of it available than you can read. But it is all there and it can all be searched, and this brings the consumer a new kind of digital reading experience.

 

We do not claim that Reading Deep, through which subscribers have access to all available issues and Complete Archives, right back to issue 1,  are the ideal solution for all magazines. Nor do we think that there will, or should be, one dominant platform for reading all magazines, but we do think that magazine publishers are in many cases sitting on a treasure trove that they have yet to unlock. So we were pleased to see the new CEO of Time Inc UK has also got the archive bug:

(Marcus Rich) has been spending a lot of time buried in the company’s vast archives looking through comics. His rummaging isn’t driven by nostalgia, but by a belief that the key to Time Inc’s future could lie at least partly in the past.

“Downstairs we have this unbelievable archive of titles, some dating back to the 1800s. I’ve been down there on numerous occasions,”

“So Tiger and Jag, Valiant, characters like Sexton Blake and Billy Bunter. There is a lot of substance in that archive and I’ve been looking at opportunities with new technology to bring some of that content to market in different ways. I am fascinated about the value of content, new and old alike.”  Guardian: Interview with Time Inc UK’s Marcus Rich 

 

This summer we have announced the completion of several brilliant archives, including African Business and The World of Fine Wine. More are coming.