Once upon a time, print was a vibrant medium, a platform where entrepreneurial voices created new forms of value, over and over again. I’ll admit it was my native platform, at least for a while – Wired and The Industry Standard were print-driven companies, though they both innovated online, and the same could be said for Make, which I helped early in its life. By the time I started Federated, a decidedly online company, the time of print as a potent cultural force was over. New voices – the same voices that might have created magazines 20 years ago, now find new platforms, be they websites (a waning form in itself), or more likely, corporate-owned platforms like iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine.
Now, I’m acutely aware of how impolitic it is to defend print these days. But my goal here is not to defend print, nor to bury it. Rather, it’s to point out some key aspects of print that our industry still has yet to recapture in digital form. As we abandoned print, we also abandoned a few critical characteristics of the medium, elements I think we need to identify and re-integrate into whatever future publications we create. So forthwith, some Thinking Out Loud…
Let’s start with form. If nothing else, print forced form onto our ideas of what a media product might be. Print took a certain form – a magazine was bound words on paper, a newspaper, folded newsprint. This form gave readers a consistent and understandable product - it began with the cover or front page, it ended, well, at the last page. It started, it had a middle, it had an end. A well-executed print product was complete – a formed object – something that most online publications and apps, with some notable exceptions, seem never to be.
Now before you scream that the whole point of online is the stream – the ceaseless cascade of always updated stories – I want to question whether “the stream” is really a satisfying form for providing what great media should deliver – namely voice and point of view. I would argue it is not, and our obsession with producing as many stories as possible (directly correlated to two decades of pageview-driven business models) has denatured the media landscape, rewarding an approach that turns us all into hummingbirds, frantically dipping our information-seeking beaks into endless waving fields of sugary snacks.
I, for one, want a return to form in media. I want to sit down for a meal every so often, and deeply engage with a thoughtful product that stops time, and makes sense of a subject that matters to me. A product that, by its form, pre-supposes editorial choices having been made – this story is important, it matters to you so we’ve included it, and we’ve interpreted it with our own voice and point of view. Those editorial choices are crucial – they turn a publication into a truly iconic brand.*
Closely tied to the concept of form (and antithetical to the stream) is another element of print we’ve mostly discarded – the edition. Printed magazines and newspapers are published on a predictable episodic timeline – that’s why we call them periodicals. They cut time and space into chunked experiences, indeed, they stop time and declare “Over the past (day, week, month), this is what matters in the context of our brand.”
I’ve noticed a few interesting experiments in edition-driven media lately – Yahoo News Digest, Circa, and email newsletters (hello ReDEF!) most notably. But I think we could do a lot better. When the iPad came out, powerful media outlets like NewsCorp failed spectacularly with edition-driven media like The Daily. And the online world gloated – “old” media had failed, because it had simply ported old approaches to a new medium. I think that’s wrong. The Daily likely failed for many reasons, but perhaps the most important was its reliance on being an paid app in a limited (early iOS) ecosystem. As I’ve said to many folks, I think we’re very close to breaking free of the limits imposed by a closed, app-driven world. It’s never been easier to create an excellent app-based “wrapper” for your media product. What matters now is what that product stands for, and whether you can earn the repeated engagement of a core community.
Which takes me to two critical and quite related features of “print” – engagement and brand. I like to say that reading a great magazine or watching a great show is like taking a bath, you soak it in, you commit to it, you steep yourself in it. When good media takes a bounded form, and comes once in a period of time, it begs to be consumed as a whole – it creates an engaging experience. We don’t dip in and out of an episode of Game of Thrones, after all - we take it in as a whole. Why have we abandoned this concept when it comes to publications, simply because they exist online?
The experience that a publication creates for its audience is the very essence of that publication’s brand – and without deep engagement, that publication’s brand will be weak. A good publication is a convener and an arbiter – it expresses a core narrative that becomes a badge of sorts for its readership. I’m not saying you can’t create a great branded publication online – certainly there are plenty of examples. At FM, we helped hundreds through launch and maturity – but those were websites, which as I said before, are declining as forms due to social, mobile and search. But every brand needs a promise – and that promise is lost if there’s no narrative to the media one experiences.
Our current landscape, driven as it is by sharing platforms and mobile use cases, rewards the story far more than the publication. Back and forth, back and forth we go, dipping from The Awl to Techcrunch, Mashable to Buzzfeed. Playing that game might garner pageviews, but pageviews alone do not a great media brand make. Only a consistent, ongoing, deep experience can make a lasting media brand, one that has a commitment from a core community, and the respect of a larger reading public. If the only way that public can show respect is a Facebook Like or a Twitter retweet, we’re well and truly screwed.
Reflecting on all of this, it strikes me that there’s an opportunity to create a new kind of media, one that prospers as much for what it leaves out as for what it decides to keep in. Because to even consider the concepts of “in” and “out” you need a episodic container – a form. Early in the Internet’s evolution (and I think it’s safe to say, two decades in, that we’re past the “early” stage), it made sense to explore the boundless possibilities of formless media. And while most media companies have been disappointed with “apps,” remember, it’s early, and that ecosystem is still nascent. We’re 20+ years into the Internet, but barely half a decade into apps. The next stage will be a mixture of the link economy of the original web with the format of the app. And with that mixture comes opportunity.
But as we consider the future of media, and before we abandon print to the pages of history, we should recall that it has much to teach us. As we move into an era where media can exist on any given piece of glass, we should keep in mind print’s lessons of form, editions, and brand. They’ll serve us well.
NB: Writing this made me realize there are many topics I had to leave out – longer ramblings on the link economy, on how the stream and “formed” media can and should co-exist, on the role of platforms (and whether they should be “owned” at all), on the role of data and personalization, on why I believe we’re close to a place where apps no longer rule the metaphorical roost in mobile, and more. As summer settles in, I hope to have time to do more thinking out loud on these topics…..
*I’ve noticed a few publications starting to do this, whether it’s the experiments over at Medium (with Matter, for example, or the hiring of Levy to focus tech coverage), or The Atlantic’s excellent Quartz.