What can digital media learn from magazines?
Design immersively, build community, develop a voice and for god’s sake, slow down.
A slightly edited transcript of my talk at the MagCulture Modern Magazine conference in London on 29 October 2015. I recommend reading this only if you’re a bit of a media wonk.
I gave a similar talk to this one last February, at an editorial design conference in Munich. At the time I had just come back from New York where I’d been working with Matter, a magazine on Medium. They had hired me to help solve a conundrum: how to do short content that’s original, fast and, most importantly, magazine-y, but in a web magazine. It was a very hard nut to crack because of course, online media is full of short and fast content, but very little of it is original and most of that is made on Twitter.
It was an interesting challenge, and I’ll talk about the results later.
So that was in February. Since then, something else has happened: I suffered a pretty bad bout of depression. Statistics suggest that there are at least, I don’t know, 30 people in this room who’ve been through the same thing, so you may recognise what I’m about to say. One thing about depression is that you become extremely sensitive to stress. In fact, it’s like a superpower, like x-ray vision, only a maybe a little bit less cool: You see stress where nobody else does. And whoa, did digital media stress me out!
I had to both slow down and narrow down my media consumption. Get off social media. No more push notifications. Two or three news apps, one daily newsletter, a couple of weekly ones. However, I still wanted to follow the conversation. So I began using a very useful filter: Nuzzel, an app that shows me the most-shared links in my Twitter network.
And that already brings me right into the conversation about digital magazines, or magazine-inspired media. Because to me, Nuzzel is one expression of what a digital magazine can look like.
That’s weird, because I certainly wouldn’t have said so two or three years ago. In fact, at Making Magazines 2012, we talked a lot about digital magazines. But the digital magazines we spoke about then basically looked like this:
In 2012, the iPad had been around for two years, people still said things like “print is dead” and tablet magazines actually seemed like something that could save the industry.
Three years later, of course, we know how difficult it is to get people to open an app regularly, let alone pay for it. Today, if I speak about digital magazines, I mainly speak about the web in general. And the web is:
- mobile — and by mobile I mean my phone, not my iPad. Last year, Americans spent as much of their media time — 24 percent — on mobile as they did on desktop, and that percentage is ever increasing. And this graph by the Newspaper Association of America shows that 50 percent of US newspapers’ digital audience access news exclusively from mobile devices.
2. multi-platform — inhabiting several different channels which demand different formats. A website and Facebook page, a tumblr and Instagram account, a podcast and newsletter, a YouTube channel and a Snapchat Story.
3. unbundled — because that’s what the web is.
And that seems to go against everything a magazine is! A magazine needs space! It’s about immersion! A magazine is one thing, and usually you can fondle it! And most importantly: A magazine is a bundle!
And here I’m going to briefly undermine my own argument, because there are in fact still notable efforts to create bundles in digital media. One such effort is Snapchat Discover.
I think it’s super interesting because it feels different and very much like a magazine. This is a screenshot from Vice’s Snapchat Discover channel. There are moving images and full-screen intros that feel like magazine spreads. You actually page-flip through it, and there’s a mix of short and long content, of serious and entertaining stuff. And suddenly you’ve reached the final page and are done.
The funny thing is that Snapchat isn’t publishing, it’s broadcast media. A lot of the stories in Discover are told by video. So this just to add some more confusion. Maintaining a bundle on the web is very much magazine thinking but it also mostly doesn’t work unless you have direct and very exclusive access to Snapchat’s 100 million daily users.
Unless, of course, you are a newsletter—the second notable effort in bundles in digital media. If Lena Dunham’s Lenny isn’t a digital magazine, I don’t know what is.
So maybe the bundle is in fact making a comeback—an idea supported by the fact that German legacy publishers, possibly the slowest industry in the world to ever respond to any trend, have just signed up en masse for Blendle, the Dutch service that allows you to purchase individual articles instead of full issues of magazines or newspapers.
But let’s leave the bundle aside, because I believe that the best magazine thinking on the web has nothing to do with bundles.
So what is it?
Well, I think that magazines have other defining characteristics which are very relevant in digital media today, and those are
During her talk at this same conference, Sophie Lovell from Uncube magazine said that when she asks people why they go into magazines, they say: Because I want to make something beautiful.
I wrote this talk before I knew Sophie was going to speak, and I was going to take this bit out, but then I decided to keep it because Uncube perfectly illustrates the dilemma in digital media when it comes to magazine thinking in design. Because how do you make something beautiful on a phone screen?
Uncube looks amazing on desktop. It works by issues, it lets you browse, it’s full-screen, it has all these features whose name I don’t know where things open and close as you scroll over them, and it’s just beautiful. But on mobile you immediately run into readability issue. The intricate magazine layout doesn’t work with this screen size.
And what you can do on mobile is limited not only by screen size. You also depend on technology. Some magazines have started using gifs to animate photos or illustrations, but even as old a format as gifs can still break pages in mobile browsers.
So unless you operate within a space (or app) like Snapchat Discover or possibly Facebook Instant Articles, your options are fairly limited.
I’m an editor, not a designer. So maybe that’s the reason why my favourite design for digital media is something like this:
This is Pocket, one of my favourite apps, and it not only allows me to save the most interesting articles I find to read later, basically creating my own custom magazine. It also greatly improves the reading experience on about 90 percent of all articles I come across on the web.
There are some sites that offer a similar or even better experience. Aeon, for example, or the New Yorker, which I think offers an even nicer reading experience on mobile than Pocket. In fact, when I look at the New Yorker on mobile, I think: Damn, that’s beautiful.
Why do like it?
Because what I look for especially in a space as small as my smartphone screen is focus. And I believe that that’s what websites can learn from magazine design — provide a quiet space, a clean experience, immersion. Put the reader and the reading experience first. What that means on paper vs. what it means on a phone screen are different things, but that shouldn’t prevent designers from applying the principle.
Voice could also be called brand, and it’s knowing who you are and who your audience is, what kind of stories or content you do, and how you do it. Magazines traditionally have had a stronger sense of voice than other media. In a sense, magazines are brands.
With voice, the most important thing is that you do it consistently and on purpose. Because that way you can exist in an unbundled and multi-platform universe and still maintain a recognisable identity, and reader loyalty and trust.
Probably the most masterful execution of this is done by Vice. Whether it’s a a national security story or a recipe, a feature-length documentary or an Instagram post, they maintain their voice across all channels and verticals. But there are many other examples—New York magazine has, like Vice, created a number of different verticals that all very much sound like New York, Slate has managed to translate its opinionated voice into a whole bunch of successful podcasts, and Wired has branched out into motion pictures and conferences.
These examples illustrate the important business dimension to this point: Because by having a distinct voice, by knowing your brand and your audience, you are in a much better position to create additional formats, verticals or products—including branded content—that will support you economically beyond display advertising. And it looks like that’s only going to become more important over the next few years.
Magazines are very good at creating community mainly because it’s so easy to express your identity through a magazine you care about. Magazines tend to cover certain interests or cultivate a very specific voice or design, so people rally around them. You immediately feel you have something in common, which makes you want to know who other readers are and maybe meet them at events.
In digital media, on the other hand, community has been expressed through comments sections—separate from the content, costly and ungrateful to govern, rarely constructive and sometimes outright harmful to any sense of community its participants may have. In the face of this reality, big media outlets have started abolishing comments (see Bloomberg, The Verge, Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Upvoted, among others). The Coral Project is a courageous and much needed attempt at fixing the problem, but in general, reducing community to comments hasn’t been a good approach for digital media.
So who is doing it right?
There is, of course, Rookie—a magazine for (and by) teenage girls. Rookie has right from the start included its community not just as readers, but as content creators and story protagonists across all the platforms it inhabits. There’s a monthly theme with a very detailed call for submissions, and while Rookie also features celebrities and high-profile writers, there’s no “us vs. them” dynamic, no divide between editors and readers. Rookie magazine is its community.
My new second favourite example after Rookie is the newsletter Everything Changes by Laura Olin, who was part of Barack Obama’s social media team in 2012. (Maybe that explains just how seriously she takes community.) As the name suggest, it’s very different each, but regularly Laura will ask subscribers something—what they think a certain number’s personality is, or if they have become a better person and how, or to leave their phone at home for a day. Once she organised a “monster advice exchange,” all through Google docs. It is clear she cares for all these strangers, and as a result, I do, too.
So that job at Matter I talked about at the beginning. To cut a long story short: I failed at the assignment. We created formats that were shorter, that were regular and therefore required less creative work than features, that were original, that felt magazine-y. Some of them readers liked, others they didn’t. But we failed in one crucial aspect: they weren’t fast. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible, just that it’s very, very hard.
Slowness is relative. In digital media, waiting just a day or two after an event to publish something can be slow and, if you depend on social traffic, too late. Being fast is usually easier than being original.
However, as I said at the beginning of this talk, this speed is extremely stressful for ever more people. We live in constant fear of missing out on something. It is also, unfortunately, mostly pointless. In the race to be first, journalists get things wrong. Bits of news create no contextual knowledge. So in the end, very little value is created for the reader.
So why not emulate magazines, one of the slowest of mediums, and take our time?
Slowness is of course a means to an end. What it enables is this: Reflection. Responsibility. Depth. Enduring quality. Value.
It’s the features approach, if you will, but in the unbundled world of digital media, it is ok to be a publication only of features—just look at The Atavist Magazine. This American Life has always felt more like an “audio magazine” than a “podcast”, and its features are of such enduring quality that they regularly replay five-year-old episodes and no one minds (except the staunch fans who’ve already listened to that particular episode three times). And the internet curators who assemble the best of the web in newsletters regularly dig out features from Esquire, Rolling Stone or GQ that are several years old—aeons by internet time!—yet are no less valuable today.
The community approach to slowness is transparency, and it reached world fame thanks to the podcast Serial last year. Matter is currently doing something similar with an investigation called Ghost Boat. But my favourite example is probably the German non-profit investigative journalism outfit Correctiv.
Correctiv is community-funded, through membership and crowdfunding campaigns for individual investigations. And the community is always included—through a specific site that allows for crowd-sourced investigations, by publishing the findings of each investigation every step of the way and discussing them with readers on social media, through events all over Germany that connect journalists with community members, and by making the results of the biggest investigations available in a variety of formats, from digital dossiers to bookzines to exhibitions (have a look at Weisse Wölfe, Correctiv’s investigation-turned-graphic novel into right-wing terror organisations in Germany). They take a lot of time and create a lot of value.
So, to conclude.
We’re all magazine-makers here, or aspiring magazine-makers, and magazine lovers. And many of us have maintained our love to print magazines because they can feel like the exact opposite of what digital media feels like — fast, shallow, cluttered, noisy.
But the thing I love about digital media is that nobody really knows what it is yet. It’s like the Wild West, it’s changing all the time. So I think that as magazine makers, we can really influence the development of digital media. We can take the things we love about magazines and apply them to the web, on whatever platforms we choose.
That means: Take readers seriously and build communities. Design for an immersive and calm experience. Develop voice and identity. And most importantly, take our time to create something of value.