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.

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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.

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