Semantic Capital and Magazine Archives

Luciano Floridi, an Italian Professor at Oxford, is one of the leading philosophers of information. He is also interested in libraries and archives and has recently proposed a valuable use for the concept of “semantic capital” in relation to archives. His explanation was given as a lecture to the National Archives at Kew, and is available from their site.

I propose to summarise and simplify his explanation of “semantic capital” and apply it to the topic of digital magazine archives (very close to our heart at Exact Editions). For our purposes semantic capital is:

  • a stock of content growing and extended through time (a sequence of magazine issues published on paper monthly and held in library stacks would be a perfect example)

Chicago stacks By Ndshankar  Wikimedia commons 

  • the stock of content is held in a stable form where it can be subjected to new readings and new interpretations (a contemporary digital database of a magazine issue by issue, with new issues appearing as they are published, for example)
  • the content should be held in a canonical form so that new readings or interpretations can be compared with previous readings (so it is rather important that the content should be complete and searchable. It would be inconvenient if the digital archive was different in different institutions. Leaving out the advertisements or the illustrations from a magazine archive will not do)

Advertisements in the magazine Dazed are semantic capital

  • finally the semantic capital, is truly “capital” to the extent that this stock of preserved stuff can be used for new and unexpected applications. The capital can appreciate in value or depreciate, through damage or obscurity. It can be hoped that the capital will grow and so creates more cultural value.
  • From our point of view it is this last point that is key. In a digital culture, usable semantic capital needs to be searchable, cite-able, re-uasable, and share-able. Our print culture survives but it is vulnerable and needs to be transformed into reliable digital resources. Magazine archives in fact exist in great profusion, they are usually to be found as bound volumes in the offices of the publisher, or sometimes in boxes ‘off site’. They are also found as print issues held in institutional libraries — but in this form they are almost useless to contemporary students or researchers who increasingly depend on digital access to library resources. The point is that in a digital culture, cultural resources and assets now need to be digital if they are to be truly useful. Cultural capital is simply much more valuable if it is digital. I am not sure that we have yet recognised — magazine publishers especially — how much long term value can be created by moving content to a digital archive. Magazines archived and digitised in an appropriate and intelligent way will become much more valuable than the print-only source, and this is where the third point is also vital. The digital version really should be canonical so that very little will have been lost in the transfer from paper to digital memory. This is a very important and urgent point because the magazines that are digitised and databased whilst they are still published in print form are much more likely to survive and to be used in our growing digital culture.

    Print archives from magazines that have ceased publication or which have morphed into websites or where the ownership and provenance of content is unknown will very likely be lost. Archiving magazines is a way of preserving their value — not only for the long term, but now for the present, for the readers and the libraries who will be able to use and enjoy semantic capital that we have to an extent been ignoring whilst it is held only in paper formats. In a digital culture, semantic capital is of great potential value, for this reason we should be optimistic about the potential for digital culture, but it is also much more fragile so we should be careful not to neglect it. As Floridi points out ‘if semantic capital is not used productively it depreciates’.

Billionaires and magazines

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Montagu Norman the cover of Time in 1929

Marc Benioff’s purchase of the magazine Time for $190 million seems to be part of a trend: billionaires buying prestigious magazines and newspapers. The trend includes Michael Bloomberg buying Businessweek, Laurene Powell Jobs investing in the Atlantic and Jeff Bezos buying and investing in the Washington Post. So why are these software billionaires buying such challenged assets at prices that are at least respectable in comparison to the valuations that might have been offered by traditional media investors? Billionaires are not buying prestigious book publishers or TV channels. What is so special about magazines?

It is suggested that one reason for acquiring these opinion-making publishers is that their owner thereby gains a degree of political and cultural influence. But this surely is not the whole story. $190 million spent on lobbying and pressure groups would buy the Benioffs a lot of direct influence in Washington and Brussels —  if that is what they really seek. Cultural influence is another matter, but cultural influence is only guaranteed to the owners of these publications if the publications continue to thrive (and have influence) in a digital environment. These publications have, and are surely seen by their new investors to have, a promising digital future. That is why they are buying.

So, the more interesting conclusion is that software billionaires understand that magazines in the digital age have a reach and a momentum that may not be accessible to other common forms of digital content. Consider the alternatives:

  • as a digital asset music is wonderful but short on cognitive content and it is really only owned by its composers, performers, and the audience
  • social media, has enormous leverage and currency (Marc Benioff was after all keen to buy Twitter ). But social media is anarchic, potentially polluting or reputation-wrecking, as Facebook is discovering. So if Salesforce owned Twitter it might have bought itself a lot more grief and no direct political leverage (which justifies the Salesforce investors who vetoed Benioff’s moves).
  •  blogging and podcasting are dynamic and cognitively rich forms of digital culture, but they share with social media the problem that they are somewhat anarchic and lack staying power, predictable cultural direction and cognitive position.

Why might the Benioffs, Powell Jobs, and Bloomberg value the cultural direction and cognitive position of the magazines that they have bought? The answer to this question (and a similar question about the Washington Post) is obvious. These media properties have a reasonably stable, desirable and persistent character — not just in their editorial, also in their style and audience. Time has a predictable, long running (recall the archive is 95 years deep), and persistent effect on the political climate of the USA and to a degree the Western alliance. Investing in Time is much more politically and culturally focussed than an investment in a social media or blogging platform.

But I think there is another issue here. Magazines and newspapers are reliably persistent (if no longer strictly periodical) in a way that reinforces and clarifies their cultural and intellectual position. Most digital media is not predictably positioned and influential in a specific cultural niche. When you buy a magazine — whether as subscriber or owner — you know what you are buying. So we should expect to see more premium titles being acquired by wealthy patrons who understand that a properly curated cultural icon (the New Yorker, the Economist, Vogue etc) is bound to increase its influence and its brand value in the super-fluid mix of digital content that we now inhabit. Precisely because the cognitive and cultural direction of these properties is well known and reliable, they have a centrality in the digital mix that is now quite hard to achieve and maintain. From this standpoint it perhaps makes sense that the Meredith corporation has found it hard to sell Sports Illustrated or Fortune but Time has found a savvy acquirer. There is nothing wrong with those two brands but they perhaps do not have the unusual position or depth that Time may promise to retain.

If this analysis is correct, it follows that brand values and reputations attaching to magazines are even more important in the digital age than they were in the print environment 30 years ago. Perhaps this explains another flurry of outrage from the last week. Ian Buruma was rather summarily and unexpectedly fired from his job as editor of the New York Review of Books for publishing (and perhaps offensively defending) a controversial and ill-advised essay by a #MeToo culprit. Firing the editor for his poor editorial judgement (a first offence) hardly fits the reputation of the NYRB, but this is an area in which the reputation of the publication might have been even more severely compromised by the essay concerned. In Reddit or Twitter the Jian Gomeshi/Buruma offence would have been an insignificant moment, for the magazine it was — the owners deemed — unpardonable. There is irony in the instant and viral outrage around the affair largely taking place on social media, and this is perhaps a warning for those elite reputations that make a stellar magazine brand. These billionaire owners should be hands off but they might advise their editors in the following terms: “try to avoid mixing your editorial approach with the climate and emotions in the hottest digital content maelstrom. That maelstrom churns every day and it might burn out brand”.

Are magazines still periodicals?

This question occurred to me when I saw a suggestion that the mooted, not yet launched, Apple magazine aggregating service will include newspaper content:

Earlier this year, Apple got into the magazine business by buying a digital magazine distributor. Now it wants to add daily news to the mix. Peter Kafka at Recode

Well, this is only a rumour and Apple’s new magazine-inspired service has not been launched, but it is surely unthinkable that the big newspapers (New York Times, WSJ, FAZ etc) will allow all their content to be bundled into an Apple service in which they have no direct stake. They have been seeing encouraging success with their own audience building for digital subscribers, and that is bound to be a longer term concern for them. But one can see them offering, via Apple, a premium access to news items and some of their content. So much has news content and news distribution been comodified that a deal for just-in-time stories or streamed articles is surely do-able, and if Apple want those stories I am sure they will be available.

Newspapers can no longer view themselves primarily as edition-based periodicals. Once Google news was possible, newspapers needed to make a decision. Either they were primarily news channels freely available through the web, in which case they would be in perpetual and instant competition with every other free digital news channel, or they had to consolidate their audience around a subscriber base, preferably a subscriber base that would be willing to pay for the content that the editors and journalists formed and curated. But to do this well, to build an audience for news in the digital era the news has to be instantly updated and in real time. Digital newspapers are no longer periodicals, especially if they are behind paywalls.

In their hay-day, periodicals, whether newspapers or magazines could reasonably aim to serve their audience with three distinct functions:

(1) opinion via editorial and articles

(2) news via stories or reports

(3) product or service awareness via advertisements

The publication was literally built from these distinct sources — and the staff also would be segregated into these different teams. This three-fold plait of content, carefully woven into each page and issue, was — as it happens- matched by three distinct and yet corresponding sources of recurring revenue:

(1) subscriptions (content delivered by post, paid for by quarterly or annual subs)

(2) newsstand sales (content delivered by the kiosk paid for episodically by $ £ or cash)

(3) advertisers (who paid for pages of content, in advance, so that they could ‘reach’ readers)

After about AD 2000 this three-pillared system of content packaging and revenue harvesting can no longer be relied on. Digital technology has separated the threads, and the idea of a package which weaves these separate commercial strands into periodical issues, editions that appear on a daily or weekly basis, makes less and less sense.

Advertising is the first pillar of content to be knocked away. Magazines or newspapers of the conventional kind simply do not have the precise targeting and broad audience that is needed to make digital advertising work for consumer content.

Very few magazines have been able to stem the digital tide aimed at ad revenue. There are one or two exceptional examples of magazines that have moved successfully to majority funding from digital ads, but the magazines had to be made into databases to take advantage both of product differentiation and audience differentiation: Auto Trader 25 years ago a rather boring magazine for the second-hand car market in the UK has turned itself into a spectacularly successful and effective transactional platform. It is no longer a periodical but a digital second hand car marriage bureau (sometimes orphange?).

Many newspapers, especially in global centres, decided to become news streaming enterprises with news and comment updated 24X7. Digital papers such as the Guardian or the Washington Post are no longer in any strict sense periodicals, their content is organised primarily for their webservices, their sections are sections of the website and their videos are videos for the digital reader. In consequence, much of their content will not be registered in the daily editions that they still print (for how much longer?).

When it comes to retail distribution: magazines and some newspapers are still uncomfortably dependent on physical newsstand sales. But newsstands, kiosks, are steadily disappearing and supermarkets are not a good alternative. Newspapers or magazines that expect to charge readers for news have recognised the need to find the equivalent of a digital newsstand, and an audience that is willing to pay for better and reliable instant information episodically, in dribs and drabs. Because the news feed has to be continuous (to keep pace with the evolving story) there is little justification for separating the content into artificial ‘issues’ or ‘editions’. So newspapers and newsy magazines have been eager to experiment with new distribution or audience building aggregators (Flipboard, Facebook or — no doubt — the new Apple magazine solution), but they do so by syndicating stories or parts of their internal workflow.

But where does this leave the magazines that concentrate on opinion forming and deep content, often for niche audiences? These are the sort of magazines that have always relied on their subscribers (preferably annual and renewed). There are many such magazines covering all areas of culture: politics, religion, hobbies, art, music, technology, professional engagement etc. In many cases the communities and the expert audiences rely on the deep content that they get from their specialist periodical. Increasingly these serious and committed publications, occupying a well-defined niche, are throwing their efforts into building the subscriber base.

Print subscribers continue to be important to securing this revenue pillar, but if the deep archive of the magazine can be turned into a searchable and continuously improved database they have taken advantage of the digital turn. Thoroughly digital magazines such as The WireSight & SoundArt Monthly or the fashion title Dazed are now databases just as much as they are ‘periodicals’. All their content is available to all their digital readers, all the time. Right from the first issue.

The only thing that is ‘periodical’ about them is that they periodically get bigger.

SightSound

Sight & Sound archive with stacked issues from 2000s

This last weekend the Benioffs, founders of Salesforce, have personally bought Time magazine “….a treasure trove of our history and culture” for $190 million. Since the new owners view themselves as “caretakers of one of the world’s most important media companies and iconic brands”, my guess is that Time will soon find a more compelling way of presenting and growing its rich archive.

Digital Memory is Shaping our Future

Chauvet

Painting from the Chauvet cave shaping the Paleolithic memory (and now ours). via Wikimedia commons

I have borrowed the title for this blog from the sub-title of a great book When We Are No More by Abby Smith Rumsey. And the subtitle is the critical part of her book’s message. Because we are entering an age of digital culture and digital society, the digital archives and memories that we are now creating will be crucial sign-posts and tent-pegs for our digital future. We often think about archives as guides to the past, but Rumsey’s claim is that they are even more pointers to our future. This is especially the case for digital culture because it is the digital objects, the digital resources and memories that survive from one year to the next, from one generation to the next, that will shape the next generation’s view of itself and its place.

Abby Smith Rumsey writes very clearly but she is also a great presenter, so I recommend her Google talk on the subject of her book. She emphasises how digital archiving is still a neglected field, and that we are quite beholden to the work of public bodies, private enthusiasts or charitable undertakings some of them making crucial investments: for example, Carl Haber saving music and ethnographic voices, the Internet Archive, or Europeana.

HaberVoice

The camera used with IRENE software by Carl Haber to reconstitute Alexander Graham Bell’s voice from physical traces too fragile for contact recovery

There are many private efforts and individuals working to save stuff and it was good to see, a few days ago, a mention of the Hyman magazine archive in the New York Times. This is very much a solo effort and a collection that now exceeds any reasonable attic — since it now occupies a south London warehouse with its 120,000 issues from 5,000 titles. Hyman’s open-armed effort is admirable, but as a private venture it is not easy to see how it will evolve towards a model for widespread access. The team are gradually digitising their collection, but with copyrights largely in place it is unlikely that the archive will be able to provide full scale access to scholars and enthusiasts. Of course, Exact Editions welcomes such a private initiative, but our interest in preserving and making digital archives accessible has a different model. We are showing that digital archives can make money for the publishers who are sitting on them. We believe that the archive should grow and move into the future along with the magazine, issue by issue. New issues become back issues, and the future is shaped by issues that came before.

We take seriously Abby Smith Rumsey’s claim that digital memory is shaping our future. The future for magazines is certainly going to be digital — and the back issues and the coming front issues are also digital. Very few of today’s magazine editors, publishers and designers can tell us what the shape of this digital future is. But it is coming. Putting a magazine’s print archive into a digital format is one obvious step towards defining and shaping what that future will be. This was something that almost all magazine publishers missed 10 and then 8 years ago when the iPhone and then the iPad was launched. Even now we sometimes have to persuade publishers that their archive is of great value (though many editors know that, but find it hard to express).

Exact Editions is helping publishers to make this step into the future by capturing the past and the evolving present, and odd as it may seem one of the strongest cases for making a magazine archive right now, is that archives sell. At his point the previously sceptical publisher shifts her gaze and clears her throat. Complete archives are especially important in an educational or research context. Not every magazine is of use to scholars, students and researchers (yet, and here our publisher reaches for a glass of water) but for those that are, the institutional library market is a promising source of additional revenue and brand visibility. Digital magazines can be easily searched and they are more accessible and so more valuable, and much more useful, than the print copies that are still important and carefully stored on library shelves and stacked in off-site repositories. Magazines are obviously full of data, not just stories, pictures and advertisements, but data about subjects and arts that we find perpetually interesting. Digital data has value. Making magazines digital and complete is a way of enriching the past and the future. As Rumsey says “Today we see magazines as natural facts. We do not see them as memory machines with lives of their own, though that is exactly what they are. As soon as we began to print our thoughts in those hard-copy memory machines they began circulating and pursuing their own destinies. Over time we learned how to manage them and share them, and ensure that they carried humanity’s conversations to future generations. We can develop the same skills to manage and take responsibility for digital memory machines” (Rumsey When We Are No More p. 177, marginally edited — where she says ‘books’ I have put ‘magazines’). Magazine archives are digital memory machines stuffed full of data and art that we can project into the future and that can become more widely available and useful.

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Applying Webstamp the software Exact Editions uses to ‘proof’ and manage digital editions

Preservation of magazine content and its accessibility

Reading_Room_of_the_Boston_Public_Library

Reading-Room of the Boston Public Library, 1871 Wikimedia Commons

Clifford Lynch has just published a thoughtful and carefully researched article on Stewardship in the “Age of Algorithms”. Lynch’s central claim is that the web, algorithm-based institutions and our contemporary social media are in practical terms impossible to archive and preserve via traditional approaches. The traditional approaches that he has in mind are ‘format migration’ and ‘emulation’, but he appears to suggest that these are alternative approaches when they are essentially complementary. In fact one cannot have format migration without emulation, and any software emulation requires appropriate file format inputs. Lynch gives us a handy explanation of the format migration strategy:

The traditional models of digital archiving are twofold: format migration and emulation. Both, of course, assume a substrate, which is now relatively well understood and implemented with a fairly high degree of confidence, assuming reasonably consistent and continuous funding, of bit-level preservation by migration from one storage technology to the next as necessary [19]. The first approach, format migration, is best suited to “document-like” objects: PDFs, Microsoft Word files, audio, video, XML, JPEG, TIFF, etc. Here the idea is that, as standards, or de facto standards, gradually evolve and the ecosystem to deal with those types of files shift, curators will migrate the file formats, but this strategy is not necessarily as simple as it seems. New file formats are often not isomorphic to older ones. Formats may be proprietary and/or undocumented, and even objects claiming to conform to well-known standards may not implement these standards correctly or may add proprietary extensions. Lynch:Stewardship in the “Age of Algorithms”

While this may be a small correction to Lynch’s overall argument, it points to an important consequence. In digital culture, preservation — even of traditional cultural objects — is not a closed process. Once we aim to preserve analog or primarily physical cultural objects (for example photographs or books or magazines) in digital repositories and databases we are implicitly committed to an ongoing task of enabling and facilitating new forms of access. Precisely because our digital culture and our innovative technological mix will be inventing new ways of interacting with and enjoying these traditional cultural objects. Nor is it a settled or obvious question how these improvements and developments should be pursued.

This need for an ongoing commitment to preservation struck at Exact Editions very early in our development. We firmly believe that magazines, books and newspapers are all becoming more digital, but we also took it as an article of faith that back issues and archives have important and valuable content that should be available to digital subscribers, so our solutions whether through web browsers or via apps on smartphones and tablets have always ensured that archives and back issues are accessible to the subscribers of current issues. Just as the software of a digital magazine has to welcome and display each new issue, so its database should reach back and awaken back issues that in a print culture are usually filed inertly and inaccessibly on shelves or forgotten heaps.

The digital transition is nevertheless very real. Although the magazines that users read on their branded apps, are in one way strictly equivalent to the printed versions that they might have read in the Boston Library public reading room or Viennese cafes in the 19th century (with those bamboo frames that we still sometimes see) yet the reading experience and the arrangement of the digital editions is very different. It is only with a digital app or a web browser that one could expect to see all the decades or years of a magazine’s issues tidily piled up on a virtual desk. This stacking of issues emulates in a virtual form the tidy arrangement which would be quite hard to achieve with printed issues: and from most points of view it is a much handier solution than the collection of previous issues in carton sorters.

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Slightly Foxed — incomplete archive on a physical desktop

Digital archiving even of historic and contemporary print formats is not easy; but it is both obviously possible and culturally necessary. The 12 complete magazine archives which are showcased in celebration of International Digital Preservation Day #IDPD17 are all growing and their preservation needs in 5 or 10 years time may be unanticipated by their current formats and their existing software. By then we hope to have found out what it is that mixed reality, block chains and machine learning are surely going to teach us. And the archives may in one way look the same, but they may behave a little differently.