Hold onto your seats

Digital disruption. We’ve been talking about it and living through its consequences for two decades or more, but for those who are hoping that calmer waters lie ahead, Dickon Ross has a clear message. In terms of disruption, what’s gone before will soon seem like a drop in the ocean. Far greater upheaval awaits us. Exciting times…

By Dickon Ross

It seems hard to believe today, but in the mid 1990s, many commentators were talking down the potential of the world wide web. One of them was Janet Street-Porter, then the ‘voice of youth’ in the media, who made a polemic programme for Channel 4 in which she argued the internet thing was really just for sad nerds and it would never really live up to its hype. I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.

I was working for a technology B2B newspaper at the time and I wrote a leader numbering the ways in which she was wrong – although we of course only managed to predict a small fraction of them.

On the other hand, one web developer confidently explained to me that everything would be online in a few years and editors would all be out of work. Ironically, when the dotcom bubble burst a few years later, it was web developers that found themselves out of work. Today we can see that the youthful web developer got it more right than the older voice of youth. But neither extreme proved to be entirely right.

Dial-up days

As a science and technology journalist, I have been covering the internet since its early days way back in the nineties, when going online meant the scraping sound of a modem and the world wide wait while it loaded the URL you typed because there were no search engines back then. As communications got faster, as silicon chips doubled in density every year or two and as each new technology was adopted faster than the previous one, digital disruption quickly came to one industry after another.

Scroll down two decades and technology has totally and utterly changed the editor’s job. The ‘Changing role of the editor’ sessions organised by the British Society of Magazine Editors proved to be some of our most popular and liveliest discussions. Today, we have so much more to worry about than twenty years ago: websites, maybe mobile websites, podcasts, video, interactives, communities, digital newsletters, web apps, native apps, social media… the list seems never-ending not least because there’s always some new social media channel to worry about. The revenues have moved too. My own magazine, Engineering & Technology, now makes more revenue online than in print.

Yet in other respects, it’s surprising how slow the digital revolution is in magazines – compared to say the music industry or photography.

Our own reader research shows they want E&T in all channels, but nine out of ten would choose print above all others. The readers are all professional engineers who may have designed anything from the silicon chip at the heart of your mobile phone to the wind turbine that recharges it. They are certainly not luddites or technophobes. Indeed, these are the early adopters we hear so much about from technology companies’ marketing departments.

The E&T readership is skewed towards the over 40s but even digital natives are also fascinated by print – perhaps in a similar way they are to vinyl records. I live near Shoreditch and Silicon Roundabout, where the newsagents’ shelves are full of trendy, high cover-priced independent magazines sometimes stuffed full of cool brand advertising. Print is becoming the premium fans’ product, like those music packages of the double vinyl, cd, download, tee shirt and limited edition silkscreen print. The BSME is introducing a new category in its awards this year for such independent magazines.

Print and digital are learning to live together because they have different strengths.

Horses for courses

For each of its channels, E&T emphasises the right material presented in the right way for that media. Our reader research shows they access web and print very differently. The distinction is not always clear-cut but online tends to be their ‘lean forward’ medium that they use for research. Print is more of a ‘lean back’ experience for a good read, browsing and discovery. As I’ve also heard the Economist and The Times say, readers sometimes want that curated and finite issue-based experience rather than the never-ending web. Finishing an issue is satisfying.

IET members tell me they read the magazine on the train, on holiday and even in bed. This is where we give them the stories they perhaps didn’t know they wanted to read until they find it - the wider interest, visual, off-beat, thoughtful and even humorous article. This is the approach we take with the tablet app too, adding elements such as interactive graphics and HTML5 effects to liven up the mix.

To the ‘lean-forward’ and ‘research-mode’ website, E&T adds immediate news, multimedia and searchable specialist technical material where the ‘long-tail’ adds so much traffic. We use social media for reaching new potential readers as well as engaging with the loyal ones.

We have seen the effects of these reader habits on the fortunes of various B2B magazines. If speed is of the essence, to get your specific, specialist news to your select audience, then why build in the delay of printing? Product magazines were some of the first to go digital - or disappear entirely - because interested readers can go straight to the web and get everything they need: specifications, case studies, availability and so on in just a few clicks. They won’t get an objective review of the product that way but, let’s face it, in many areas, the magazines were never providing that anyway because it’s not practical – you can’t easily test and review a multi-million pound piece of production plant or indeed a complex component that only works as part of a bigger system. Why on earth would you look for a job by buying and scanning a newspaper when you can just sign up to a jobs board that can do the tedious filtering for you? Recruitment advertising must surely all go online eventually, with the occasional exception of company careers advertising.

Look what’s ahead

For other magazine brands, the remarkable thing is how slow the change is coming. Print will always hang on for some magazines but the digital revolution has barely begun. The Internet of Things, fast communications, haptics and other new user interfaces will usher in a new media revolution. These technologies often begin in the games industry first but they will spread and will in turn become new ways of telling stories as well as doing business, enjoying entertainment or even saving lives.

Look at the phenomenal success Pokémon Go has brought with augmented reality, which we both followed and used in E&T for a long time. Virtual Reality is even more exciting for our industry. Most people’s first experience is with a game or some other imagined world but it’s the reality part of VR that’s exciting for the media. VR is extraordinarily immersive and researchers have been struck by how involved users get, staggering out of the VR world back into normality. VR can put people right into news situations, with 360 degree video that means users get different takes on events depending on where they look – every time they press play.

Each year, the market research agency Gartner updates its ‘Hype cycle’, which is more of a curve than a cycle. It says each new technology goes through five key phases. It starts with a technology breakthrough that kicks things off – even though there’s no real products at this stage. Growing publicity and promise then pushes the technology to the ‘Peak of inflated expectations’. It inevitably can’t live up to these expectations in time, so the technology rapidly sinks into the ‘Trough of disillusionment’. However, the technology slowly but surely continues to develop and improve, with new generations of products building on the first and understanding and appreciation grows. This is the ‘Slope of enlightenment’. Finally, the ‘Plateau of productivity’ describes mainstream adoption taking off and the technology actually begins to pay off.

Those exciting new media technologies are all on Gartner’s hype curve right now, some at the top of it, others just about to embark on the long, slow crawl out of the valley of disillusionment. That’s just where the relatively humble internet was back in the mid-1990s.

We tend to overestimate the impact of new technologies in the short term and underestimate the impact in the long term. So the future never arrives on time. But when it does arrive, it makes a grand entrance and upsets everything we know. The combination of new technologies like the Internet of Things, VR and haptics will make the arrival of the internet look like the digital watch or pocket calculator – an important landmark but just one small stepping stone.

Editors will be discussing the blurred lines between magazine channels and formats in a BSME conference at Central Saint Martins on 19th October.