This article was originally written in August 2008 as a submission for the Digital Design Research Project, with the hopes of exploring the various technologies in use by the magazine industry and what movements the trends were indicating. Note, as this was written in 2008, some of the points mentioned are either outdated or no longer valid.
Steve Jobs claims that people don’t read anymore. A bold claim definitely, but being the visionary he is, it seems that Jobs may be on to something. Numerous surveys and reports do support his statement (Perez, 2008; Klein, 2008), and all arrows point toward bookshelves and newsstands being left largely untouched, catching dust.
However, contrary to the claim, one study has found that although bookshelves, print newspapers and the like are in a state of neglect, reading numbers in the digital realm are on the rise, with blogs and online newspapers seeing surges in their readership numbers (Perez, 2008). This finding is unsurprising with the shift of focus toward the internet with the rise of Web 2.0 and unending opportunities it seems to present for producers and consumers alike. However, the more significant shift, as proven by the shocking Person of the Year announcement by Time magazine in 2007, is the rise of the consumer, turning the tables on industry, which thus far had been in the driver’s seat.
The mantra of the day for industries across the board seems to be “adapt or die.” A long-standing industry leader can now be easily crushed in a short period by a newcomer with the right approach that feeds into the demands of the new face of the consumer (think Google).
The book and magazine industries are no strangers to this fact. They need to adapt and use the latest and greatest technologies to reach this new generation. David Granger, editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine, is a long-standing supporter of innovation in the magazine industry and has often questioned how print magazines can be taken to the next level. According to Granger, “revolution starts with teeny, tiny things” (Folio:, 2007), and his work with Esquire is indicative of the small steps toward innovation. Similarly, evidence shows that the magazine industry is aware of the upcoming challenge and is responding.
This paper will attempt to highlight some of the key technologies being used, and up-and-coming technologies employed by the magazine industry, along with the opportunities that the digital revolution presents to magazine publishers and consumers.
Most magazines now have an online presence with a website offering basic, full, or extended content. The website may provide only a snapshot of content (e.g. www.alternativesjournal.ca) or provide all content exactly as available through the magazine (www.wired.com/wired). More commonly, magazines have adopted the latter with added content exclusive to online readers. Others have taken an additional step and created social networks around their websites (e.g. www.fastcompany.com) that enable readers to engage with each other and create and share their own content.
With this online presence however, most magazines have made a notably large sacrifice because of the limiting nature of HTML and have had to abandon layout design that is a key defining characteristic of any magazine. However, technologies such as FlashPaper are slowly removing this barrier.
FlashPaper is the technology that is currently leading the charge for magazines in the digital revolution. Despite its long, convoluted history overshadowed by multiple acquisitions, FlashPaper and its spinoffs have enabled more flexible, extensible viewing via a simple interface designed for easy interaction. FlashPaper converts well-known document formats into a Flash-based format that preserves style and formatting, and is optimized for the web. Unlike PDFs, FlashPaper is significantly faster as it can be used through any Flash-compatible web browser without the hassle of installing additional software. Currently owned by Adobe, the technology has not seen much traction lately and seems as if development of the platform has been abandoned by the company (Walters, 2008). However, independent vendors like Scribd have expanded on this technology and now provide these tools to publishers and consumers. These applications are currently at the forefront of promoting magazines in the digital realm.
Scribd, issuu, and other publishing PORTALS
Scribd (www.scribd.com) entered the online game in 2006 and described itself as the “YouTube for documents.” Initially based on FlashPaper technology, Scribd enabled users to upload a variety of document formats for conversion to FlashPaper to enable easy sharing across the web. More recently (2008), Scribd released their own Flash-based document viewing platform, similar to FlashPaper, called iPaper.¬† Although Scribd’s focus has been largely on documents in general, niche sites have cropped up that cater to specific needs, including magazines.
Chief among these is Issuu (www.issuu.com) which caters more to the arts, specifically magazines, portfolios, and the like. Others have followed suit and set up similar generic and niche services using FlashPaper-derived technologies. The fascinating aspect of these services is the ability to create exact replicas of uploaded documents preserving all aspects of design, layout, and style. This is especially useful in the case of magazines where the design is as essential as the content itself. Add on the interface that these services provide for viewing and interacting with documents and you have a great delivery platform. While FlashPaper only provides a simplistic interface with minimal affordances, Scribd, Issuu, and similar services have created richer interfaces with additional functionalities including multiple viewing modes and sharing tools. Issuu, more specifically provides an interface that is optimized for viewing magazines with the ability to view a two-page spread at a time with the ability to zoom in to the content with a simple click.
Digital subscription services
While Scribd and Issuu are more focused on providing services to the end-user, services utilizing FlashPaper-derived technologies that cater directly to publishers have cropped up and are gaining significant notice. Zinio (www.zinio.com) is a rapidly growing company that provides magazine publishers with a digital delivery platform based on FlashPaper-derived technologies. Magazine readers can view issues of some of the most popular magazines on-demand or via Zinio’s subscription service. Zinio currently lists its readership at 3.5 million and provides its services to over 300 publishers. France-based Relay.fr provides a similar service localized and targeted to French readers.
The fundamental flaw with Zinio and similar sites that focus on distributing digital magazines is the en masse attitude. Mass distribution limits the potential to extend content beyond what is presented on the (digital) page. Digital editions become simple replicas of paper magazines not use the medium to the extent that they should. Beyond the basic sharing tools, online magazines do not provide any additional affordances to the user, making it dead experience. Additionally, with no integration with the magazine’s actual website, the magazine’s brand message is significantly weakened.
However, services are entering the market that offer rich media integration within digital editions of magazines. Pressmart (www.pressmart.net) and Yudu (www.yudu.com) offer media-rich delivery platforms that allow for sound clips, movies and other media to be embedded within digital editions. Similarly, idiomag (www.idiomag.com) is a service that creates a music magazine with content tailored to the user’s musical interests using data pulled from various web applications. This level of personalization offers deeper opportunities for the user to connect and interact with the content and provides additional benefits to the publisher as well through targeted advertising and data collection (Pakel, 2008).
With the explosive impact of the iPhone since its release and subsequent upgrade, and Google Inc.’s deep-dive into the mobile with its Android platform, mobile seems to the technology arena of the future. It seems only fitting that magazine publishers should explore this vast area of opportunity.
Canadian Business and Maclean’s were the pilot project of Polar Mobile’s (www.polarmobile.com) publishing platform developed exclusively for BlackBerry smartphones. The platform is designed to provide on-demand or push-based delivery of “bite-sized” content optimized for mobile consumption. More recently, Polar Mobile signed a deal with the University of Waterloo to provide a mobile version of its alumni magazine through their service.
Much in the same vein, Zinio, the digital magazine distribution service mentioned earlier, recently started a pilot project that optimizes magazines for the iPhone.
Esquire recently made waves in the news with the announcement of its plans to use electronic “paper” technology to create a dynamic cover for its 75th anniversary edition. Electronic ink, developed by E Ink (www.eink.com), is the same technology that powers the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. (Arango, 2008) The technology uses polarization to alter the positioning of the black and white pigments on screen, allowing for dynamic ally changing displays. With a battery life that lasts 90 days, the technology provides publishers with the opportunity to create magazines with live content that can be interacted with physically unlike the FlashPaper-based derivations mentioned earlier. However, electronic ink in its current state is too expensive for mass production. Despite this, Esquire‘s move to bring technology to the print edition (rather than the other way around) is likely to provide future direction for magazines.
In fact, Reader’s Digest ran a trial with the Sony Reader in 2007 to provide two collections of short stories through CONNECT, Sony’s eBook store (Pettas, 2007). With the reduced costs associated with the distribution platform set up by Sony and Amazon, publishers can now produce more content for consumer which is normally restricted through print due to space and production costs.
So, where are we headed?
Despite the many advances, technologies like FlashPaper and iPaper are still lacking. Although there is some integration of social media tools, it is fairly minimal and not up to the standards that is expected of websites today. Additionally, lack of integration with a magazine’s existing website (e.g. comments) poses an additional problem. Even Pressmart and Yudu’s media-rich digital editions are presented as standalone applications with no connection with content already existing on a magazine’s website.
However, well-established technologies such as Flash and emerging ones, such as Silverlight from Microsoft, are growing more powerful and enabling content producers to provide richer media experiences both online and on mobile devices. However, large limiting factors still do exist. Lack of standards and multiple proprietary protocols are resulting in a fragmentation of the technology, as is well-evident in the world of eBooks.
Although primitive, tools such as those provided by Pressmart and Yudu, provide an exciting opportunity to extend digital editions of magazines and to integrate rich media and additional interactive content. For example, a fashion magazine can provide readers with an embedded application within their digital application that lets users upload their own photos and try on multiple outfits. This idea can very easily be extended to advertising within these digital editions to provide more engaging and targeted ads that can be use to easily generate leads and sales directly from within the digital edition.
The largest opportunity that is yet to be explored is deep integration with a magazine’s website. To connect content existing on the website with content on the digital edition can provide opportunities to create additional affordances for the user such as tagging and commenting within digital editions. This can be further extending by creating opportunities for user-created content within the digital editions as well, where users can directly interact with the magazine and change it as they see it. The opportunities are there, and slowly, the industry seems to picking up on them. To close off, a quote by Granger that very accurately captures the state of the industry:
“The magazine experience is one of the last remaining opportunities to enter a hermetically-sealed world, an edited experience of our culture created by someone else. And, more importantly, it’s an experience that encourages you to stay in it rather than constantly bounce in and out of it.
“We have an amazing medium, print, and if we can enhance the experience of it by putting new technology to use, then all the better.” (Fell, 2008)
“Esquire’s David Granger: The Need To Innovate”. Folio:, 2007. http://www.foliomag.com/video/esquires-david-granger-need-innovate
Fell, Jason. “Esquire’s Granger: Magazine Medium ‘So Compelling We All Should Do More with It'”. Folio:. July 28, 2008. http://www.foliomag.com/2008/esquire-s-granger-magazine-medium-so-compelling-we-all-should-do-more-it
Arango, Tim. “News Flash From the Cover of Esquire: Paper Magazines Can Be High Tech, Too” New York Times. July, 21, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/21/business/media/21esquire.html
Pakel, Cagla. “Personalized Music Mag”. Springwise. January 31, 2008. http://www.springwise.com/media_publishing/personalised_music_mag/
Perez, Sarah. “Steve Jobs Was Only Half-Right: People Do Read – Even Kids – They Just Do It Online”. ReadWriteWeb. March 17, 2008. http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/people_do_read_they_just_do_it_online.php
Pettas, Joanna. “Reader’s Digest Stories Go Digital”. Folio:. October 2, 2007. http://www.foliomag.com/2007/reader-s-digest-stories-go-digital
Walters, Mark. “iPaper… the new FlashPaper?”. digitalflipbook. February 20, 2008. http://www.digitalflipbook.com/archives/2008/02/ipaper_the_new.php