Friday, November 13, 2015

What does it mean to be a magazine on the web?

Disclosure: much of what follows is drawn from Kati Krause's presentation at Modern Magazine 2015. Justification: what Kati said resonated with lines of thought I have had over the past couple of years – you can probably find relevant posts in the archives of this blog.

Kati framed her talk with two questions:

What does it mean to be a magazine on the web?
What can digital media learn from magazines?

The questions are separate but closely connected as the answers feed into one another. To be a "digital magazine" at this point in history means being: 

• mobile
• multiplatform
• unbundled

The first two points were amplified in another presentation at #ModMag15, when Scott Dadich and Billy Sorrentino (respectively Editor in Chief and Creative Director of Wired [US]) explained that the redesigned website was given a mobile-first priority and that writers/designers had to develop multiplatform skills whatever their background.

The third element is the most interesting in terms of magazine publishing philosophy – it's yet another manifestation of the "if you love something let it go" mantra. Kati's point was that apps or services that unbundle content from their original sources and re-bundle them in a proprietorial or quasi-proprietorial wrapper are an increasingly important way of finding that content – or having it delivered to you. 

Furthermore, some of them can make that material better suited for reading online. Examples include Flipboard, which pushes "magazines" of curated material to subscribers, and Pocket, which "finds" articles for its subscribers to read immediately or squirrel away for later. I would add Medium to that list – it's not performing exactly the same aggregating/curatorial role as Flipboard or Pocket but given its open nature, it is doing exactly what a magazine does: collecting a variety of interesting content into a branded wrapper. If you are subscribed to that wrapper you can specify your particular interests and filter what you see and what is pushed out to you. Or you can jump into the deeps and explore whatever you like.

Kati Krause identified the four most important elements for magazines on the web to focus on:

On a mobile screen this is probably going to be quite limited – designs start to look offputtingly busy very quickly. However, this is where Kati sees a service like Pocket offering an alternative, or even an extra; her contention is that Pocket improves the reading experience by re-rendering the content within its own wrapper. The result is a cleaner look and a calmer experience that encourages more considered reading.

Can also be considered as the magazine's brand – the essential qualities associated with a magazine that allow an immediately recognisable identity. Vice is an example that comes readily to mind but Kati also cited New York, Slate and WiredHaving a strong and distinctive voice allows a magazine to broaden its product range and business model. 

A nice example of this that keeps cropping up when I listen to TalkSport is the Wired [UK] Out Of Office series of advertisements for Jaguar's new XF model. The radio ad presents the content of the web posting like a mini-feature, with a voiceover explaining what deputy editor Greg Williams has been up to.

In digital media "community" is often restricted to the comments section – but a growing number of media brands are ditching comments because of the negative associations, trolling, etc. But Kati cited Rookie magazine as a publication that regularly calls on its readers for contributions – such as this call for submissions

See also Everything Changes (part of The Awl) - editor invites responses from readers.

There is also a growing interest in the idea of co-creation, whereby the community of readers and the editorial staff become jointly responsible for making the magazine. There have been interesting scholarly articles on this by, amongst others, Aitamurto and Viliakainen & Toivonen

Digital media is immediate, instant, in your face. Kati believes magazines that find a way to slow down the reading experience and create thing that readers will want to keep will thrive. That "way" can take many forms, for example:

The Atavist – a magazine-like platform known for the very longform, multimedia stories it publishes. The very length ensures measured consumption of the content and the native multimedia allows pauses for different forms of consumption. In addition, material is available as free podcasts on iTunes or Soundcloud, which gives yet another leisurely mode of consumption. The underlying platform is also available for anyone to use to publish their own story – free for individuals or in tiered levels of subscription for commercial operations.

This American Life, which Kati characterises as being like an audio magazine. TAL's spinoff Serial has become legendarily successful, cited as the epitome of podcast revivalism – and with millions of people having downloaded each 50-odd minute episode it's certainly an example of how popular slow consumption can be.

correct! – a community- and crowd-funded investigative journalism platform. The organisations investigations, which often originate in the forensic interrogation of big data sets, have been published in many different forms, including ebooks, bookzines, Atavist-like longform multimedia and a graphic novel. ran an interview with founder David Schraven in September 2015; BBCnewslabs added their tuppence-worth in October 2015.

Lots of interesting ideas and development but in the end, as Kati concluded, the magazine on the web is still a fluid and chimerical concept.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Magazines as a force for social and political change

Many years ago the journalism department I work in was visited by two Norwegian media academics. They were looking for partners in a scheme to set up a “neutral” journalism school in the Balkans, believing fractures in that region’s social fabric could be mended with a trusted news provider.

Everything was going swimmingly until I made the mistake of telling them I taught magazine journalism. “Oh, magazines”, they said dismissively and then literally turned their backs on me to concentrate on what the newspaper guys, the real journalists, had to say.

Those two Norwegians came to mind during Ibrahim Nehme’s talk at Modern Magazine 2015. Nehme is a founder/editor of The Outpost, a Beirut-based magazine established in the fallout from the Arab Spring to capture the energy and hopes of young people in the Middle East. Its mission is "to ignite a socio-cultural renaissance in the Arab world through inspiring its readers to explore a world of possibilities". To achieve this it uses narratives to elevate the places in which its readers live; telling stories to make a difference and aiming to inspire others. Nehme finished his presentation by saying, "To move to a better future we need to start telling better stories ... when we make the magazine we are making a prototype for the future."

In the generously furnished goodie bag given to ModMag15’s delegates there was another magazine that reminded me of those Nordic scoffers – the second issue of Weapons Of Reason. This partwork (there will only be eight issues) states its mission very clearly – it's "A magazine to turn knowledge into action". Each issue discusses and analyses one of the planet’s most complex and challenging problems in an attempt to "understand and articulate the interconnected global issues shaping our world" using longform storytelling, illustration and striking data visualisations.

The first issue looked at the Arctic, the second examines the past, present and future of megacities.

It’s easy for media critics to dismiss magazines as a potential force for social good – and it’s easy to think of examples that confirm their prejudices. We know it's a ridiculous generalisation – and The Outpost and Weapons Of Reason refute those arguments in the best way possible.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Magazine Academy Awards shortlist

The waiting is over – the Magazine Academy Awards shortlist has been announced.

The competition for magazine journalism students on accredited courses was picked up by Yvonne Ilsley of Sheffield University, Cathy Darby of UcLan and myself after the PTC was forced to pull out because their sponsors withdrew.

The first round of judging is over and the results can be seen here:

Naturally I am very glad to see a good showing by students from Cardiff but one of the most pleasing aspects is the way that other accredited colleges and universities joined in.

Now we just have to wait until October 24, when the final results will be announced – an no-one, least of all we three organisershave the faintest clue as to who the winners will be!

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

How to write great magazine profiles

I have just come across this interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker and I wanted to share it.

If you're a teacher it's full of insights for your students.

If you're a journalist/writer it's full of insights for you.

Hope you like it as much as I did.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Teaching students how to launch a magazine

I am looking forward to reading How To Launch A Magazine In This Digital Age, the new book by Mary Hogarth and John Jenkins, and while waiting for it to arrive I have been thinking about how I teach our postgrad students about launches.

At the moment I follow the tried and tested ideas laid out by John Wharton in his 1992 classic Managing Magazine Publishing. With a bit of tinkering to accommodate websites and digital media, and extra input garnered from industry figures like Mel Nichols and Nicholas Brett, the principles laid out there still make perfect sense.

Even Future's approach to developing Mollie Makes – which essentially boils down to "follow the social interactions" – can be accommodated into Wharton's plan; it's basically just another kind of reader research, albeit far more of a two-way and managed conversation than more traditional forms.

But the thinking behind the Wharton-style launch plan is highly commercialised – it works to the PTC/PPA agenda that accredited courses must be aware of. Yes, everything can be applied to smaller, independent titles and, if they are to succeed, their publishers must have answers to all the traditional questions. Passion for a subject can take you so far but to be able to continue publishing about that subject, and not to lose the shirt off your back, some of the assumptions and some of the details need a different emphasis.

For example, I have read a couple of things by small publishers, almost micro-publishers, that lay the stress not on making a profit but on breaking even – in essence, making enough so they can re-use the money to make another issue or a completely different magazine.

In this context teaching students about distribution takes on a completely new aspect. Trying to get 6,000 copies of a title in front of committed enthusiasts is a different job to contracting Frontline to get 60,000 into W H Smith and the supermarkets.

We do add this into supervision of MA students who undertake an Enterprise project but given the increasing emphasis on entrepreneurialism and small start-ups I really need to rebuild a couple of lectures.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Should magazine publishers follow the record companies?

Anyone old enough to have been buying music in the 1980s will remember that, almost overnight, vinyl LPs and singles disappeared from record shops, to be replaced by jewel-boxed CDs.

This did not just happen. It was, I seem to remember having read somewhere, a concerted and collaborative effort by the industry to rid the world of old-fashioned, expensive, delicate and somewhat craft-based records in favour of digital, cheaper, robust and industrially more efficient Compact Discs.

An article on the uptake of tablet magazines posted by Bo Sacks in his daily newsletter has made me wonder whether the magazine industry should follow suit.

Here's the paragraph that caught my attention:

Three years after Apple unveiled the iPad and revolutionized the way consumers interact with content, tablets still account for a tiny share of magazine readership-just 3.3 percent of total circulation. Not taking into account the top-selling digital title, Game Informer, which boasts nearly 3 million digital copies, the number slips to 2.3 percent.
Perhaps magazine publishers should follow the example of the record industry all those years ago. If there are no print magazines (vinyl LPs) to buy, people will be forced to buy tablet subscriptions (CDs) instead.

Of course, there would probably be a lot of unhappy newsagents and supermarkets, not to mention distributors, printers and paper companies, but it solves the problem at a stroke, does it not?

And it would allow us to really test all those ideas about how much people love their magazines and form social bonds with them, wouldn't it?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Rolling Stone and the alleged bomber

Rolling Stone has been making a lot of waves in the past couple of days – or at least its cover has. In case you are not aware, the venerable magazine used a (self-)portrait of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its August issue.

Criticism has come from many quarters, most of it seeming to claim that using this image, in this way, on this magazine infuses the image of an alleged bomber (a qualification the main coverline overlooks) with too much glamour. Some newsagents and chains have refused to sell this issue.

Rolling Stone has used many contentious, and possibly glamourising, cover images in the past, perhaps most memorably Charles Manson:

For what it is worth, I think Rolling Stone was as right to use the Tsarnaev image in this way as it was to run the story about General Stanley McChrystal:

There is an easy response to those who think the image glamourises Tsarnaev – what are potential terrorists supposed to look like? Not all of them are wild-eyed, or balding, or scarred; some are just like you and me. They could be the kids in your class, teacher.

There may, however, be an argument about how the cover was art directed, and former RS art director Andy Cowles has considered that on his Coverthink blog.

Magazine heavyweight David Hepworth has also contributed to the debate (cunningly citing one of his own apothegms as "magazine lore") for the Independent.

There are a couple of really interesting magazine-cultural points in Hepworth's piece:

1) 'people have come to regard an appearance on a magazine cover as an automatic endorsement.'2) 'heroism is something the magazine format itself lends to any subject it places in its frame, which is why musicians, actors, sports stars and even politicians hire PRs to “get them the cover” (and nothing less), and at the same time to exert as much control over the tone of the picture as they can.'

In the end, however, Rolling Stone's apologia seems entirely convincing:

The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. 
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