John

Transplanting The Magazine To The Web

In magazines, Online on December 3, 2008 at 8:50 am

sleepingcomputer.jpgLast week’s big news was the announcement that starting Feb 2009, PC Magazine will go 100% digital, according to its Editor-in-Chief, Lance Ulanoff. Usually, the announcement of going 100% digital usually spells the death knell of any publication, but the move has been seen as taking a step forward.

“While we are energized by the endless possibilities of the digital format,” Lance Ulanoff writes, “I assure you that the decision to stop producing a hard-bound copy was not an easy one. But the reality is that the ever-growing expense of print and delivery was turning the creation of a physical product into an untenable business proposition.”

By going 100% digital, PC Mag will be publishing a regular format of a “magazine” as we know it, except that it won’t be printed on paper, but distributed electronically via Zinio, a digital magazine subscription service. You can try out a free issue of December’s PC Mag issue on Zinio here.

This is where things get a little testy for me. I was never a fan of transplanting the magazine experience directly onto the web; it comes from the same thinking that led to several publishers just dumping their PDF files online and expecting to look “web-compliant”.

Those were in the early days, when print folks didn’t understand what the web was about because it hadn’t matured enough. Then, the differentiation between the two mediums hadn’t been apparent to late-adopters like newspapers and non-tech savvy mags with more traditional readers. Then too, the web was seen as a support mechanism for the print, rather than treated as a new medium with its own content.

Now the differences are much more apparent: we have the collaborative nature of the web, the instant publishing, the media-rich environments–all these don’t come on print. And to transplant a static medium onto the web makes it feel like an inferior product, leading to the perception that print pubs are dinosaurs compared to the zeepahdeedoodah web.

But print isn’t an inferior product. Guy Kawasaki said it best in the introduction of his book, Reality Check, writing that a book “doesn’t need to be booted up,” more easily accessible (just flip it open), and offers an ordered A-Z reading experience.

There are some tech pundits (especially some on the TWiT panel) who think that magazines will only survive because of airplane takeoffs, toilet breaks and beach holidays. But reading a mag or print product, as Kawasaki points out, is more than a trivial “touchy feely” experience while waiting in a doctor’s office. I would miss Wired magazine if it goes 100% digital–it’s got a great design and flow about it, and I’m not sure if that luscious luminescence can do so well on the computer screen.

Now that being said, the reasons why PC Mag is going digital does make some sense. Print is being increasingly expensive to produce (I don’t buy that whole “Being green” argument, it’s just a throwaway benefit)–paper prices surged high this year, and adding the downturn to that would spell out the “untenable business proposition” Ulanoff writes about.

And being a tech magazine that constantly harps about the web and how it’ll revolutionise the publishing industry, it’s inevitable that they eventually move fully onto the web. It won’t be a canary in the coalmine for the entire mag industry–tech mags are naturally early adopters, but I wouldn’t worry about Vanity Fair/GQ/Vogue going fully online. Plus, I suspect given the heavy web-consuming nature of the audience, their primary news source comes from the web, compared to the more traditional mags who have a more traditional readership.

So, on to Zinio. Now, having complained about transplanting the Mag to Web experience, I can see why PC Mag went in this direction. Unlike putting on a PDF online, Zinio does a relatively good job in mediating the two mediums. I tried it out last weekend, and was pleasantly surprised by it: It’s got great advantages in that ads and links are clickable, the reading experience made simplified through shortcuts (I tend to lean back more and read it like a magazine instead of hunching forwards) and the contents page links you directly to the page within.

This first impression, however, was eerily similar to what I’d experienced with Dennis Publishing’s Monkey Magazine. It felt very cool at first, but later became gimmicky to me. Though there’s a lot of positives to be taken from the likes of Zinio, no one should be fooled into thinking that this is the future of publishing.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not nostalgic about paper, but until the day e-readers become ubiquitous, Zinio magazines are something that would reach out to a very small audience. However, if there’s a compromise to be reached between readers wanting the print experience while publishers skip the print version to keep down production costs, Zinio offers a great solution.

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