Plug-in sport sedan publishing

IN a new year it’s always tempting to think about new beginnings, only later to realize that the calendar is arbitrary, and change is non-linear. This year in publishing there is great hope for new beginnings, and the fear if we don’t find the restart button, we many not have the established magazines and newspapers much longer.

Tesla Model S

Late in 2012, the death of the print Newsweek and the all-digital The Daily caused much harrumphing from the I-told-you-so crowd. “Print is dead, and the old guys just don’t get it.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. But these casualties were more the result of bad business models, bad management and bad content, than the general decline of the media.

Newsweek failed to preserve any of its equity under the Daily Beast regime, discarding the “news” part of its name. It lacked a multi-platform strategy (the Newsweek.com site was actually shut down when Tina Brown took over), and the rethought magazine seemed too little, too late. The Daily came on as a megaton app, with some interesting breadth, but with none of the depth of the great news sites. Distribution was limited to iPad, which even now misses 80 percent of the market. Strange that Rupert didn’t repackage the WSJ and the London Times instead of starting from scratch. It was more of a case of too much (in the sense of download time), too soon.

We should avoid generalizations about these deaths, but there are important object lessons, as we push along toward new models. While funeral notices flooded in, we started to hear background murmurs of a counter-trend. This was the arrival of some new stripped-down digital publications, led by Marco Arment’s The Magazine .

The idea is to put together a simple collection of articles, each with a bit of artwork, and wrap them into a small iPad app. Fast to download, and easy on the credit card. (The Magazine is $1.99/month, with a seven-day free trial.)

The estimable Craig Mod calls this form, “subcompact publishing,” named after the first subcompact, the Honda N360, a welcome rethink of the automobile after Detroit bloated their cars with so many features it is surprising they could even move.

Mod defined subcompact publishing in a November post with these characteristics:

  • Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)
  • Small file sizes
  • Digital-aware subscription prices
  • Fluid publishing schedule
  • Scroll (don’t paginate)
  • Clear navigation
  • HTML(ish) based
  • Touching the open web

Hamish McKenzie, the alert reporter at Pando Daily, jumped on this idea, and pointed to a new example, The Awl’s Weekend Companion, an app spinoff from the content-rich website, The Awl.

“Premium micropublishing” is the term offered by McKenzie.  “Premium” means “not free.” A low-priced subscription model may allow bloggers to move up a step in the media food chain and get a little compensation. “Thanks to our increasingly mobile-centric reading habits,” he says, “subscriptions may be making a comeback.”

McKenzie cited the announcement of The Periodical Company, which started in a hack-a-thon and was inspired in part by Mod’s subcompact idea, and perhaps by Arment’s 60s-style generic brand name. Periodical is planning to offer “digital magazines as a service,” with a CMS and design themes, distributed to the web and to the iOS Newsstand.

Cool. It will be interesting to see the design. Mod’s model makes sense (except of course for the “scroll, don’t paginate” part). Mod likes readable publications in the way that Readability is readable. Nice, almost pretty Typekit fonts. Good margins. Lots of leading. One column.

The Magazine, iPhone version
iPad version of The Magazine
The iPhone version and the iPad version of The Magazine.

The Magazine is designed in this style. It depends on the writing for excitement; it looks more like a journal or a diary than a magazine. In fact it is a reader, with the UI derived from smartphones. Simple one-column layout, and so stripped-down, to get to the nav on an iPhone, you have to scroll back to the top. On the iPad, the TOC scrubber is a drawer that rolls out when you hit a little icon in the upper left corner. Nevertheless, I like this experience better on the phone, which it is clearly designed for. The iPad version seems a little, uh, bland.

Mod got a great reaction to the subcompact idea, and he replied to some of the feedback, around the time The Daily perished. That thing was a boat, a 70s Mercury Marquis, fully loaded, and it deserved to be towed to the junk yard. But is the subcompact the answer, or just an answer?

1976 Mercury Marquis
The 1976 Mercury Marquis. I was going to show a 1967 model, but I kind of liked it!

Dan Neil’s review of the Ford Focus ST notwithstanding, what I want is an Audi 6 in metallic gray, or maybe a Cayenne Turbo with 500 horses and tough off-road tires. Particularly for a long trip, on and off the blue highways.

The subcompact is like a shower. It’s efficient and economical. But sometimes what you want is a Jacuzzi. Magazines are like that, too. While a brisk five-minute glance of sThe Economist in print, with its classic newsmagazine layout, can be refreshing and helpful, sometimes you want to dive into a more beautiful body of water, like Esquire, or Vogue., or the FT’s How To Spend It.

Mod is a fine designer (look at that web site!), but he may have been conditioned by growing up with a web that is a rushing stream of items. We’re used to this river of stuff from everywhere, served up raw by Google News, or nicely repackaged by Flipboard (where he worked for a while). You could get drowned in this flood of content, and never get clean.

Web sites have not provided that gourmet bathing experience (remember Wet magazine?!). Nor do the digital replicas of rusty old Mercuries that you see in the Next Issue app. The water comes out too slowly, and by the time you get in, the bath is cold.

This subcompact model won’t provide that either, useful though it may be very useful, for emerging digital-only publishers . . . and readers. In order to attract and keep an audience, publications, even niche publications, have found that they need more stuff: a variety of approaches and story lengths, and some strong visual content.

Mod doesn’t want to bulk up his little vehicle with a bunch of crap, but, as Mario Garcia pointed out in iPad Design Lab, people have come to expect a little digital fun in an app, every so often. (And advertisers do, too.)

Savory, our Treesaver-publication-as-service startup, has the ambition to be more than just transportation from Point A to Point B. Once we get a lot more themes and iOS and Android wrappers—planned for 2013—a Savory pub can be immersive, fun, and it will run on all platforms. The idea is to have a rich, immersive experience, which you don’t get on a Kindle, or The Magazine—except if you get swept away by the writing.

Okay, so maybe the Cayenne metaphor is a bit heavy, and eco-unfriendly. How about a plug-in Tesla Model S? Three-hundred mile range, and 0-60 in 6.5 seconds. That’s the digital publishing model I’m looking for.

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