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Which digital path to go down?

Online, mobile? Digital edition, ereader? The choices are growing by the day and technology is developing with incredible speed. It’s quite tempting to stick with print and website, but that is unlikely to be sufficient long term. Graham Duffill takes soundings from publishers and suppliers in search of answers.

By Graham Duffill

Earlier this year, I asked a senior executive at one of the big consumer magazine publishers if they would speak at a seminar on digital editions. I stuck the reply on my office wall: “Digital editions are not the holy grail - far from it. They take up too much of my time for their value and take my focus away from the real job in hand.”

It’s a beautifully clear statement with which many would doubtless agree. With some selective paraphrasing, I deduced a different message from this spring’s FIPP international magazine conference. “Our industry is undergoing a structural not a cyclical change,” one magazine group CEO warned. “When the recession is over, things will not return to where they were. So don’t waste a good recession - restructure your business now to make best use of the opportunities on the other side.”

A man from China told the conference that the vast majority of people in his country would never read magazines or websites - all their content would come over the mobile phone. Same with India and much of the developing world, he predicted. Magazine publishers had better reinvent themselves as phone brands if they want to tap into China’s enormous business.

Finally, another chief exec said that, for all his group’s investment into the internet it still only generated six per cent of its revenue – which came nowhere near filling in the loss in print advertising revenue. So the internet was not going to save them, but look at their costs – 60% went on ink, paper and distribution. The answer therefore lay in exploiting alternative, cheaper methods of distribution, especially electronic and mobile.

“I like recession. Recession makes people very good at implementing things quickly and battling them through the system,” says Haymarket’s digital editorial director Mark Payton. “We are reasonably experienced at being a multimedia company, but I’m too much of a geek not to want to keep an open mind on all new technological delivery possibilities.

“There is some internal disagreement over mobile – some say they would read magazines on an iPhone – I wouldn’t do it.” Although Haymarket has dabbled with digital editions – an early version of AutoSport magazine was, he admits, a flop – he does see some limited potential for them.

“For overseas distribution and people with disabilities – yes. Touch technology may invigorate the concept of a digital edition in the same way the iPhone redefined the mobile interface. Could we see digital editions on sale through our sites in the next year? Yes, but it’s a question of degree.”

Dennis have followed on from their pioneering digital magazines like Monkey with a number of mobile phone applications, including the Monkey Cam app which lets you mix girl pictures provided by Candy Content into your photos. “The ultimate goal is to distribute and provide content in which ever medium maximises the experience,” says Andrew Nicholls, partnerships and mobile manager.

Nicholls believes in creating ‘touch points’ for the brands – setting up strategic opportunities to let consumers access the brand in the way they prefer. “Control is nowadays much more in the hands of the user. Rather than publishers having control of content that is pushed at readers they will go and find the content they want,” he says.

“The current media landscape is much richer and more diversified. Our readers therefore have more options in the way they access our content. Where they are doing that in any number, there is a compelling argument to create a version of our content which is specific to that format.

“My personal belief is that digital magazines will continue and Dennis will look at whatever opportunities there are to distribute our content.”

Mobile options

Shaun Barriball’s company Mobile IQ has helped many media companies including Dennis, the Guardian and Channel 4 launch mobile services. “If you’re in the content business, mobile presents a massive opportunity – and threat,” Barriball says.

“Regardless of a company’s technical capabilities, deploying successful mobile services is always complex and challenging. You can’t approach the mobile channel as just the web on a small screen.” Technically the complexity can be solved, the key challenge is the strategy. “Our job is to identify what publishers want to achieve, come up with a strategy and implement it. Thought leadership is a never ending process,” he says.

Barriball says media companies approach mobile with many different goals. For Channel 4 it is innovation, for the Guardian it is to maximise unique users monetised with advertising. Sometimes there is no direct revenue associated with the mobile service, but it contributes indirectly to the underlying company strategy; for instance, eBay uses mobile to increase bidding during the summer months when online usage traditionally dips.

The BMJ Evidence Centre developed a mobile application based on the experience of Dr Charles Young, editor of Clinical Evidence. “I’m an emergency physician at St Thomas’s Hospital and although there’s a lot of information available to doctors online, finding a terminal and accessing it is not always easy.”

The result was Best Practice, a web-based tool that also has a mobile internet service which doctors can securely log in to and look up information to help with a diagnosis or decision. Best Practice is sold on an individual, institutional basis or even as a country-wide service with Sweden recently subscribing to it for all 90 hospitals and 25,000 doctors in the country. Young can see opportunities for other specialist publishers, especially where technicians have to reference material in the field.

Publishers may never know where Nicholls’ digital ‘touch points’ or niche by-products attract business other than be anecdotal reference. I reluctantly keep a subscription to the unread print edition of the Economist because my daughter, who is studying in Lisbon, uses her subscriber privileges to download and listen to the audio version on her iPod.

Replica & non-replica editions

In an economy where every little helps, some large publishers are grabbing every small advantage possible. For instance, the New York Times now has not one but two digital editions. “When we think about the digital edition we think about the replica and non replica versions,” Rob Larson, VP of digital platforms says. Replica means taking the PDF and reformatting it through Libre Digital so that it can be read on screen. “It’s a niche business,” he says, mainly used by people out of range of the print edition.

The second digital edition is a non-replica version of the paper which reflows that day’s stories and pictures from the website into an Adobe Air digital edition of that day’s paper. The result is effectively a mini-website made up of that day’s edition and available only to subscribers who can read it online or offline. The digital edition does contain a live news feed with updates, but to avoid confusing readers about what was in that day’s paper and what not, it is carefully separated.

“The website is an enormous site and very popular, but one of the problems was that it was difficult to just read that day’s Times. We wanted to create a digital experience that is different from a website,” Larson says.

The reflowed digital edition is still a niche business, Larson says, but it does answer the need of those people who wanted to read the paper online. “Some want to know what the Times was reporting today and some want to know what the Times is reporting at that particular time - so we offer both.


“We are spending an equal amount of effort with ereaders,” he adds. The company has considered providing subscribers with bespoke netbooks on which to read the paper and writing down the cost of the hardware against the subscription.

The NYT are not alone in exploring supplying ereaders to subscribers and offsetting the cost against the saving on print and distribution. Rupert Murdoch has made clear his intention to charge for content and it’s easier to charge for an electronic subscription than force web users to pay. A branded Times / Sunday Times or Sun / News of the World portable reading device provided free to annual subscribers is easy to imagine.

Both ereader manufacturers I spoke to – the Cambridge based / US venture capital funded Plastic Logic which is launching the bendable wireless Que reader early next year and Interead, manufacturers of the COOL-ER ereader, said they would be open to selling their devices to a publisher.

Which is fine if you are News International, but it’s still very unclear how small publishers will get their content on ereaders. Plastic Logic says it will launch in the US with an all-in-one service whereby a publisher contracts with it, their content is processed by Olive Software to break it down to article level and convert it into XML, bookstore Barnes and Noble provide the e-commerce platform including customer service and wireless connectivity is provided by AT&T.

“We have an open platform, so our device supports PDF and e-pub, so customers don’t have to go through the Plastic Logic store,” says VP of business development, Daren Benzi. “But we think it makes it easy on the publisher to publish via our platform.”

The only route open to publishers at the moment is to contact Plastic Logic and discuss getting onto their partner programme – a prospect that could easily swamp a company which is essentially a hardware manufacturer. “We have not turned anyone away yet,” says Benzi.

Interead’s founder, Neil Jones, who described Plastic Logic’s launch as ‘the longest drumroll in history’ is convinced that his self-funded entrepreneurial set-up will be more nimble. “In David v Goliath battles, 71.8% of the time Goliath wins – odds of 5:2,” says Jones. “But when the rules of the game change, David wins 66% of the time.”

With demand for his £189 ereaders “constantly outstripping supply”, Jones says: “Start experimenting now and then they won’t get caught out because the market is moving so quickly in the ereader space you blink and the whole world has moved.

“Colour is an interesting issue for us - there are clever things you can do with LCD screens for magazine publishers and children’s books. LCD could replace E-ink. If I was a magazine publisher I would start preparing now because E-ink colour is going to be out at the end of next year.”

All of which encourages me to email back my magazine executive with a nicely provocative subject line: something like, snooze and you lose.