Editors and executives from several leading magazine publishers took the stage at the Magazine Publishers of America’s Magazine Media Conference in New York City this week.
Discussion centered around early lessons from tablet publishing and the challenges of extending their content to a proliferating number of tablet sizes and platforms as they move forward.
The panelists — Pamela Maffei McCarthy, deputy editor of The New Yorker, Jim Meigs, editor in chief of Popular Mechanics, Dana Points, editor in chief of Parents and American Baby, Jason Revzon, SVP of interactive at The Tauton Press and Sam Syed, creative director of Bonnier’s technology group — have been meeting periodically at 45 Rockefeller Center to discuss the problems and successes of developing content for digital and mobile devices. The talk highlighted some of the key topics of debate over the past year.
Breaking down barriers between print and digital
Although they differed on many points, the panelists agreed on the necessity of integrating digital into the rest of their operations, echoing similar sentiments previously expressed by editors at Sports Illustrated.
“You have to tear down the wall between editors and coders,” says Meigs, whose magazine, Popular Mechanics, was among the first to arrive and offer subscriptions on the iPad. “Our programmers, editors and designers are working together on the same floor, challenging each other. It’s important to have that dialogue between print people and coders. Don’t underestimate how the skill set of traditional print people is actually very well suited to this environment.”
Meigs noted the addition of mobile and tablet devices to their publishing lineup is changing the way stories are, and should be, developed. “You have to blow up the print model. We don’t think, ‘This is what makes a perfect print story’ [anymore], we have to think like multi-platform publishes. When we assign a package [now], we assign elements for iPad, for the web, perhaps even for an ebook that could come at the end of a project.”
Storytelling vs. Interactivity
The moderator did touch on one point of contention: control. How much should publishers shape the reading experience on tablet devices, and how much should they leave up to readers to explore on their own?
Syed of Bonnier believes publishers should exert a good amount of control in the storytelling process, shaping the reader experience through video and other additions that are activated automatically, rather than optionally.
“It’s our job to think of things readers can’t, won’t or won’t think of to do,” he says. “Video, or motion, is the photography of the digital era, an automatic part of the storytelling process. I remember a time when people were making films where you could choose your own ending, and I don’t think they went anywhere.”
Meigs contends such an approach detracts from the reading experience. “We’ve found that video is not the heart of [the tablet reading experience]. Despite all of the interactivity, readers were still saying, ‘We love the articles, we love to read.’ Good pictures and text, great storytelling — those are at the heart of the magazine.”
McCarthy of The New Yorker seconded this sentiment. “[When developing The New Yorker iPad app] we wanted to create something for reading. Our readers had demonstrated that they were willing to put up with much less than perfect design and functionality to access the stories we produced. So we strove to replicate the look and the feel of the magazine, using the same typefaces and developing a design that was comfortable to read. That being said, we did want to make use of the technology. We decided we would use these iPad extras sparingly and quietly. Word is still king, but we have about ten [interactive add-ons] per issue — source documents, writers reading their poems. It’s certainly not auto-rolling, they’re not intrusive. But we do spend a lot of time [in the design process] making sure they won’t be missed.”
What lies ahead
At the end of the session, the moderator asked the panelists to identify their concerns going forward.
Meigs, of Popular Mechanics, named the purchasing experience, “which has not been working well,” as well as issues of findability on the web and in the App Store. “But the thing I’m worried about is disruption from Google. Their entire business model is disrupting businesses. Now that they’ve gotten the old ones they’re going to disrupt new ones,” he says, only half-jokingly.
Points, of Parents magazine, said that she’s excited to “see how reader involvement in the product will escalate. We’ve invited readers to contribute to the tablet edition; soon we’ll invite them to contribute in real-time,” she says. “What keeps me up at night? Staff and resources. We’ve been [relying heavily] on freelance. I’m really trying to train my staff and keep those marketable people from going elsewhere.”
Revzon of The Tauton Press said he’s most excited about developments with HTML5. “We’re just seeing the beginning of the war between proprietary systems and the open web, and things that look and act like an app. The biggest application on any device is the browser. That’s an opportunity.”
McCarthy of The New Yorker is most concerned with spreading resources across an ever-expanding range of devices. “The sheer number of devices is absolutely dizzying as an editor trying to prepare [one's] material to really shine on each of these devices,” she said. “Back in the dark ages a year ago I thought I had to settle on a really reasonable position. We would only do three editions for smartphones and tablets: small, medium and large. Now we’re on four devices, all of which require tweaking to make our material work at all, much less shine. Thinking down the road to the next four… it’s not realistic to think we can be on all of them, [although] I think the Kindle Fire is going to be something of a gamechanger.”
McCarthy admitted she had never held one, but she said the price point and early reports suggested it would be good. “Although perhaps [we as publishers] want to imagine there will be something that will present a real alternative to the iPad.”