Taking stock – on digital publishing and the future of magazines


I came to the conclusion only recent that I am officially a “Magazine Junkie” – and, while we’re at it, I’m also a borderline hoarder. Two confessions for the price of one. I simply cannot buy enough magazines – trimmed to perfection, bursting with colour and looking resplendent in all their glossy, shiny goodness. I’ve always loved them, and always bought them, but I hadn’t quite fathomed the depth of my obsession until the gargantuan pile next to my bed started to look as it was about to topple over and kill a small child.

You might find some irony in the idea of someone who spends all day every day talking digital, going home and finding solace in a stack of printed paper. If that were true, it would make a good story – but that’s not the angle. I adore magazines both for their bravado and for so beautifully encapsulating a moment in time. Every spread is a new idea, a fresh playpen for design innovation, and it will forever tell us what was so special about ‘right now’. The length of the curatorial hand and the precision of the art direction have both been honed to perfection in the magazine format – every dot on each page has been checked and rechecked before it goes to press. The paper stock, the pantone, the weight, the bleach – everything last tiny detail has been considered. (Perhaps to my other confessions, I can add obsessive compulsive perfectionist?)

In the tsunami of chatter swelling around the idea that “print is dead”, you would be forgiven for thinking that the writing was on the wall for the precious magazine. It’s true that magazines, like most print formats, have suffered in the digital age, as we find new avenues to satiate our fix of specialist information, those finer details, the freshly snapped photos and the wild ideas. Quite simply, magazines (for all their finesse) cannot keep up with the temporal nature of the web – it is simply too fast, too spritely, too god damn nimble. Of course, most magazines have their own web sites, social media pages, blogs, Instagram channels and more besides – but this is not the same experience, not by a long shot. These channels are merely fragments, a tasting plate and not the full ‘eat all you want’ buffet. As newsprint titles have found time and time again, the more editorial you give away for free, the less likely people are to buy your title.

The other longstanding (i.e. centuries old) issue for print titles is that of distribution. How do you get your printed publication into the hands of your readers, and do it quickly? One downside of living in Australia, on the underside of the globe, is that publications from Europe and America sadly do not arrive here instantaneously, as if by magic. Rather, they take a long time – weeks, or months even. If you’re lucky, some of the more popular titles might come with a “Latest Issue By Air” sticker on the front, denoting that they’re merely three weeks old, not three months past their sell-by date. Wherever we are on the globe, however close we live to a forward thinking newsagent, we cannot ever have access to those print titles instantaneously. We can’t feel that sense of “newness”, the feeling that something important has arrived, brand new, in our hands, within mere moments of the publishers declaring it to be “ready”.

Or can we?

Well, hello ‘digital publishing’.

With the advent of this new medium, most major print titles are now actually available for you to read at the very same moment as they being loaded onto a palate in a factory somewhere in darkest regional back-of-beyond. They’re available to read on your iPad, your Android tablet, your Kindle Fire and more besides. They arrive immediately, via official magazine apps, and often cost much less than if you we’re picking them up off the shelf. Every week, more and more titles that you love are debuting on tablet devices, and most of them carry an easy subscription model that will deliver the new issue to your tablet while you sleep.

You will now be rightly asking the question “but surely the experience is not the same”? After all, I did make a passionate case for print only a few paragraphs ago – some rant to do with weight, and smell and colour and the like. I know, but stay with me.

One of the arguments against the e-book format is that they don’t feel like a “real book”. I couldn’t agree more. They don’t feel anything like books, no matter how much Apple invest in trying to fake the experience with wooden-panelled iBookshelves and ropey curled corners.

For me, the joy of books is that every book is different – forget about the words on the page for a moment (admittedly an odd request), consider rather that every book looks different. The cover image, the back cover type layout, the spine colour, the choice of font, the line spacing, the chapter layout – each book handles these very differently, whereas (with the exception of the cover image), e-book readers handle these all the same, all the time. All that is unique about the book design is stripped away in the e-book format, in many respects removing a disturbingly large slice of its unique essence. The book has become entirely homogenised and thus much less interesting.

Magazines, however, are a different beast. The digital edition of magazine titles not only allows the magazine to retain every pixel of its original design, it can also take that design somewhere else entirely. When digital publications first emerged, much was made of the fact that they were often ’pixel for pixel’ translations. This was a fundamental fail – magazines were often twice the size of the tablet, and thus became almost impossible to read when reduced. Pinching and zooming every page is no way to be enthralled.

Fortunately, the next (and current) wave of digital magazines is writing that wrong. The brave new world of the empty page can now be filled with all manner of wonders. Magazines are often now being radically redesigned for tablet, or in some cases, are even going ‘tablet first’. Legibility is often no longer an issue. What’s more, designers of these titles are increasingly aware of what works when it comes to augmenting the title with photographic slideshows, animated illustrations, interactive diagrams and embedded videos. All of these elements, far from being the emperor’s new clothes, are genuinely enhancing our reading experience – immersing us deeper into the content and context of the magazine format.

There is also the major consideration of the environmental impact of print – we could, forgive the pun, write a book on that subject alone. Consider the ridiculous environment footprint required to bring magazines to our door – particularly international titles, straddling oceans and continents for our moment of pleasure. That alone beggars belief, but also look around you in cafes, venues and stores and you’ll find piles of free papers, magazines and brochures, waiting to be monetarily consumed and then discarded. That’s literally truckloads of obsolete print waiting to be sent back to the recycling dump. But I digress…

As both a magazine junkie and a firm believer in the advance of digital culture, ‘digital publishing’ has become the sweet spot for me. It has everything I love about magazines (considered and curated content, married with excellence in design) with everything I love about digital (fast access, interactivity, engagement, currency).

That’s why we’ve started up a sister company to The Nest, an offshoot that could only be called ‘Branches‘. It specialises in the delivery of digital publishing, interactive magazines, books and brochures – and, with The Branches Imprint, we’re publishing our own titles too. Our quarterly anthology of new Australian writing “Cuttings” was released this week, and our interactive version of the classic Australian play “The Summer of The Seventeenth Doll” will land next month, in a collaboration with Currency Press.

As for my precarious tower of bedside magazines, it is now slowly dwindling as those same titles find themselves magically transported onto the iPad. And, you’ll be pleased to hear, small children are still alive to tell the tale.

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Born in Scotland and now resident in Sydney, my career-long passion has been in developing new audiences for arts and culture, as a director, producer and marketer of innovative creative work.

This blog looks at at the intersections of culture, technology and media, and the changing ways in which audiences interact with the arts and creative industries.







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