May 312010
 

(Part 1 of a 3 part series – follow the links at the bottom of each article to the next part)

Wired Magazine released its first ever iPad edition of its monthly magazine on Wednesday.  But whereas you can readily subscribe to the print magazine for 83c an issue, each electronic issue costs $5.  What is it – and is it six times better (as well as six times more expensive)?

iPad – Friend or Foe of Print Publications?

One of the possible uses of an iPad is to read not only books but also newspapers and magazines.  In an interesting duality, the iPad may serve both to hasten the steady demise of ‘old fashioned’ print media and also some people hope it may become the salvation of currently print based publications.

The dream/hope of old media is that they can electronically distribute their publications via iPads and other similar tablet devices.  This – they hope – will cut down on their present distribution costs.  Currently the cost of a magazine or newspaper basically and barely covers its distribution costs – it is the advertising that makes money for the publisher, not the issue price.

Publishers also hope that a new format will enable them to reclaim subscribers who have left them, and allow them to get new subscribers too.

The economics are certainly appealing.  For example, in Wired’s case, if it currently nets very little or nothing from either its cover price or net subscription fee.  Being able to charge $5 per electronic issue and keep 70% of this (if sold through the iTunes store) or close to all of it (if sold directly to readers) would be a massive income boost, quite apart from protecting or growing its circulation and potentially its advertising revenue too.

So far, so good.  But the reality is more complex than the theory.  Let’s first look at the general issues surrounding e-publishing a formerly print based magazine or newsletter, and then in the second part of this article series see how well Wired balances the different aspects of e-publishing.  The third part has some sample screen shots.

The Need for a New Publishing Paradigm

There is nothing new in the basic concept of having electronic versions of print publications.  Many newspapers and magazines have some form of online presence, allowing some or all of their printed contents to be available online through the internet and a regular web browser, either for free or perhaps charged on some basis or another.

In some cases, publications offer a pdf version of their printed publication that looks exactly the same.  This is the least common way to present a print publication online, because typically most computer screens are too small and lack the high resolution needed to make the small print and large page size (particularly in a newspaper) easy to read online.

There are several ways of presenting publications online in more or less the identical format to their print layout, but these don’t work very well, for the reasons above – they all need magnifiers of some sort or another, and end up being too ‘linear’ – ie, needing to go through the publication page by page, and not being able to conveniently jump around from section to section, from hotlink to hotlink.

Most publications abandon any attempt at preserving the same look and feel as their print publication.  They use a type of automated content  management system that takes the same text that is used for their print publication, and use it a second time to create webpages of the articles in the print publication.  This sometimes results in slight inconsistencies, often in the form of references to photos and their relative position to the text — references which might make sense in the print publication, but online, make less sense due to a different layout.

Beyond this simple and reasonably direct ‘translation’ of a print article to a webpage, publishers have been slowly realizing that there are not only weaknesses and disadvantages associated with online publishing, but there are also new opportunities and possibilities.  We see that in the growing use of ‘related article’ links at the bottom of an article, and with the provision for reader comments.  Sometimes additional things like a survey are appended to an article too.

But none of this is revolutionary.  It is evolutionary, and doesn’t make full use of the new potential of the new electronic media.  In particular, the new interaction opportunities with a touch screen device are completely unconsidered.  Publishers have sensed, but not really explored, the new opportunities for content presentation, layout, and user interaction.

The Need for a New Advertising Approach Too

Another issue is advertising – the lifeblood of any publication.  The type of normal advertising found in a magazine or newspaper doesn’t translate well to the internet.  A high impact full page or double page ad in a magazine is sometimes even a positive experience for a reader, and if not, is easily passed just by turning the page, but to have a ‘roadblock’ double page of advertising on a website would lose a vast number of potential readers.

The need to completely redesign advertising and the associated costs has meant that typically most publications have two separate advertising departments – one sells advertising for their print publication and one for their online presence, with quite likely no linkage at all between the ads online and the ads in print.  There might be different advertisers, and certainly different types of advertisements, in the two formats.

This is also something that intuitively feels like it should be considered and addressed in a positive manner for the publisher and their advertisers.

Charging for Online Content

This is a massively complex and nuanced topic worthy of entire articles devoted exclusively to this difficult subject.  Suffice it to say that publishers have rather created problems for themselves – by giving away their information for free, online, they have created an expectation by readers/visitors that information should be free on the internet.

Various attempts have been made and are still being made to charge for online content.  It is difficult, and basically there are only two scenarios where a publisher has a chance of succeeding – by offering either distinctive content not conveniently available elsewhere, or by offering content in a new type of format/user experience that has an ‘added value’ in the method of its presentation.

With this all as background click here for part two of this article, a review of Wired Magazine’s new iPad format issue

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