Monday, April 25, 2011
Magazines for a New Generation
I would have titled this one, “A New Generation of Magazines.” After all, the topic was the evolution of the magazine, and its target audience still included those of us who grew up with magazines and who may have also had the privilege of participating in the magazine business back when it was a terrific place to be. It may still have a golden future, just not one that anyone expected late in the 20th Century, oh so long ago.
The event was “Magazines for a New Generation,” held by the Center for Communication and presented with The New School’s Department of Media Studies and Film. It took place during the evening of April 18 at the Theresa Lang Center at The New School, with an audience of perhaps two hundred, with about one-third being students.
Paul Hardart, Associate Professor in the Media Studies Department, introduced Catherine Williams, the executive director of the Center for Communication. Catherine, in turn, introduced the evening’s panel:
Leigh Belz, senior features director of Teen Vogue;
Ben Berentson, digital managing editor of Glamour;
Jared Cocken, creative director of The Wonderfactory;
Michael Hogan, executive digital editor of Vanity Fair; and
Ben Williams, editorial director of NYMag.com, who also served as the panel’s moderator.
Ben (BW) started off the evening’s discussion by asking each panel member to discuss the context of the topic as it applied to his or her magazine – how the websites interacted with the content of the print publication.
In the case of his own magazine, New York, all of the magazine’s contents are published on the web for free. In the last five years, there had been a significant ramp-up of the title’s online efforts, with the digital editorial staff growing from 5 to 40. The site also hosted 5 blogs and published approximately 120 stories per day, a combination of aggregations and original content. It also has a search database of restaurants and bars, and a fashion site. In general, he said, the approach was to publish content all day every day and then put up the magazine in its entirety every week.
Leigh Belz (LB) said that Teen Vogue’s online efforts reflected everything that was in the magazine, with an emphasis on style and fashion. The site has 10 blogs, with 5 regarded as active. It has a small staff – 1 web editor supplemented by freelancers – so the print editors help out considerably. Her role is to help coordinate between print and online content.
Ben Berentson (BB) described the online activities of Glamour – that since 2008, it had been publishing about 50 pieces per day, all original, mostly in a blog format. It has 7 staff members with about 50 contributors. It launched its iPad app in August 2010 and has recently changed its app platform to improve the user experience.
Michael Hogan (MH) described how Vanity Fair “doubled down” on its online efforts in 2008. It underwent a redesign last year and is currently in the midst of doing another. It publishes a “fair” portion of the magazine. “VF Daily” publishes 5-10 pieces each day. It is moving into the mobile space and had two native iPhone apps – one on the Oscars and one on movie trivia. It was moving onto the same platform as other magazines, including Wired, Glamour and the New Yorker.
Jared Cockren (JC) was the lone non-publisher on the panel, although his firm’s clients included many publishers. He said the role of the Wonderfactory was to improve the visual experience provided by the publishers, especially the link between advertising and the content, for the benefit of the users.
BW: Since so many of the panelists’ magazines seemed to have built their online content strategy around the blog format, what have print magazines learned from their experiences with blogs?
MH: Blogs place an emphasis on speed and the quality of the writing, which is not heavily edited as in print publishing. It is important that blogs have a unique point of view – that they help interpret what is happening, as opposed to simply reporting on events.
BB agreed that blogging is a different skill set than print journalism with at least two clear distinctions:
The relationship to the readers is different – both more personal and done in a way to solicit interactivity with the readers; and
Keeping in mind the need for a well-indexed post in order to attract the search engines. The emphasis is less on clever wordplay and more on “serving the Google master.”
LB noted the importance of the interactivity. She mentioned that her blog posts had been getting views but not many comments. When she, apparently in desperation to meet her deadline and lacking inspiration for any other topics, mentioned the 10 songs to which she was currently listening on iPod, the tone of her blog shifted to being more personal and conversational, which generated significantly more reader comments and engagement. As a result of this happy accident, she suggested less focus on posts and more on generating comments.
BB noted that it was important to find the right mix between reporting and personal posts when writing a blog.
As a follow-up to the discussion about the importance of blogs thus far to magazine online efforts, BW asked about new developments in blogs.
JC pointed out that there had formerly been a larger architectural difference between content pages and blog pages with regard to their interaction with content management systems. Blog formats were easier to change than magazine templates so they emerged as the tool of choice for magazines’ online efforts. Now, the differences between articles and blogs are more those of tone than structure, with the focus on user experience. He cited the example of Comcast, which found itself unable to properly respond to customer service issues, which were apparently quite numerous, via its website. It therefore launched ComcastVoice to do what it was unable to do on its own website.
BW: How do they maintain a balance between personal content and journalism on their blogs?
BB: for the blogs, it is critical that the publications hire and train their bloggers to view themselves as representatives of their brand.
MH felt that blogging has become much more professionalized. As he put it, they were no longer simply dragooning an editorial assistant into the role of blogger out of a pressing need for content creation. This shift, however, also made the content less intimate, especially with the requirement that the content maintain the standards of the magazine that readers expect from the title.
BB also felt that a key element of blogging was the opportunity to “touch” their readers multiple times daily instead of being limited to the strictures of the monthly publication schedule.
BW characterized print magazines as an editor’s medium and the web as a reporter’s medium, due in large part to the lack of editing on the web. The online environment therefore placed more responsibility on bloggers – they were being asked to connect more directly with the readers while maintaining professional standards.
BB pointed out that, as bloggers were viewed by readers as representatives of their titles, they needed to be trained accordingly, even being prepared to respond to customer service inquiries having to do with subscriptions and other items not normally the province of the content creators.
BW then asked about features that drove traffic to their websites.
BB indicated that health-related articles generated traffic. LB cited celebrity and personal style features. She said that a section for which girls submitted photos of themselves showcasing their personal style was particularly popular.
MH said much of their content was slide show-driven, e.g., Oscar parties. By the same token, however, long-form content by heavyweight authors such as Professor Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and writer Michael Lewis were also big draws online.
BW inquired about the significance of mobile apps to their online strategies.
JC pointed out that it has been a year since the launch of the iPad. One major question for publishers has been whether to pursue digital editions of the print publications or to launch applications that were native to the mobile format. He felt that publishers were doing a good job of trying both approaches while experimenting and listening to the customer.
In 2009, the Wonderfactory created a video of a simulated table app for Sports Illustrated. Consumer reaction to the video varied by age – the younger demographic, perhaps unsurprisingly, wanted a unique experience that took full advantage of the capabilities of the new device. The older audience preferred an experience that was closer to that of the magazine itself.
Their findings also included several key factors:
Esthetic – embedding signature branding items such as a publication’s readily identifiable fonts with the native applications enhanced the experience;
Rich media – providing an experience for the user which print cannot match;
Curation – a key factor that magazines do well and bring to the app world.
BW: given the many students in the audience, what are the key skill sets that should be acquired and honed by those interested in participating in the new media world?
JC: The key elements to understand in launching a career are:
Strategy – what is the publisher doing and why?
Experience – what is the user experience? what does the technology allow you to do?
Platform – what technology is being used? how and where is the material being viewed – on the web, via HTML, in an app?
Work flow – how is it different to create content for the web as opposed to print publications?
They also should gain experience with both editor-based articles and publishing in a more real-time environment.
Finally, they should recognize that material needs to adapt to screen sizes.
BW: will there be jobs out there for today’s students?
MH: There will always be a need for lots of quality writing – it will simply be of various types. For examples, Vanity Fair’s apps required someone to write 500 movie trivia questions and detailed descriptions of each Oscar nominee. He acknowledged, however, that most writers probably preferred to write long-form, most expository pieces.
He also said that they look for people who have multiple skills – Vanity Fair has a small online staff with lots of work to be done. For example, their photographers are often shooting video as well as still photos.
BB pointed out that bloggers are also photo editors – they review, select and place the photos for their posts. In addition, their editors had to re-lay every print page in the transition to the online format, which has added complexity to the composition of the print magazine.
LB said that behind-the-scenes photos and videos were enormously popular online, running the gamut from professionally shot photos and outtakes all the way to amateur-quality material.
BB indicated that it was important to be careful in choosing which content went where – that different levels of professionalism in photos and video were expected in different sections of their website.
MH spoke about the new platform on which VF was launching its May issue. He was also enthusiastic about how the magazine could deliver much deeper content online than in the magazine – he urged the audience to check out the shirtless pictures of Rob Lowe on the side that accompanied the cover story.
JC felt that photos are the most popular tool that publishers have.
BW asked about the difference between apps and online content.
BB felt that there was much greater potential for each piece of content in an app vs. online, whether audio, video, interactive, or slide show.
LB said that Teen Vogue was just dipping its toes into the app world. While they had tried an ad-driven app, they had not yet created an editorial-based app. This may have been due to the unique characteristics of their audience – while many of them had smartphones and there were probably iPads in their homes, teen readers apparently did not have much direct access to those iPads.
MH felt that iPads enabled magazines to take advantage of the lean forward/lean back experience. By holding the iPad more comfortably and in a more engaging way than is possible with a desktop computer, he felt that readers were able to spend more time with the magazine. He conceded, however, that these are still the super-early days of consumer experience with the device. As they move forward, he felt it was an advantage that the online experience was developed by the magazine’s own art department, and not by outside consultants, Jared Cocken and the Wonderfactory notwithstanding. Finally, he said that the magazine was still grappling to find the best solution for social sharing from inside the app – they want to provide their readers that capability, which also creates a viral element for their content, without giving away all of their material.
BW then asked about social media.
BB said that they are still trying to decide how to staff their social media efforts. In particular, they are aware that those engaging in social media are representing the brand, just like their bloggers.
LB felt that social media is very important to Teen Vogue, which has over 1 millions Likes and followers. They are trying to create a 360-degree experience for their users encompassing online, print and social media. They are also using social media such as their Facebook page to test editorial ideas.
MH said that social media is currently a group effort for Vanity Fair, with numerous participants and that it is not yet assigned specifically to any individuals.
JC expressed concern about Apple’s role as a gatekeeper for publishers and one that restricted sharing.
MH said that the absence of a paywall for Vanity Fair allowed them to embed a link so that at least a synopsis of the story could be shared with an exhortation for the recipient to purchase the magazine if the entire article itself was not freely available.
JC pointed out potential pitfalls, citing a blogger who had scraped all of the Daily’s story URLs and posted them to his own website, thereby making all of the content freely available, at least until caught and stopped.
BW asked the question that many students in the audience have probably asked of themselves – should students seek to go into journalism?
LB felt that there will always be a need for quality journalists, but that students needed to develop multiple skill sets and be very aware of the digital world.
BB agreed, pointing out that they needed to understand all of the tools for story-telling – being interactive and creating conversations. At the same time, there are things that only print can do, so the trick is bridging print and online.
MH echoed the point that print journalism is not going away.
BW opened the session up to questions. One was about the role of video and how publications obtained their video.
MH felt that publications who commissioned video were at a disadvantage to the army of amateur videographers. While the chances of any one of the amateurs capturing a great story were small, the sheer number of them made it likely that the most compelling video would be the product of those efforts rather than the result of deliberate efforts by the publications.
Yours truly asked about the impact of the mobile device as a gatekeeper – how do brands compete with all of the options available to users on mobile devices: games, videos, m-commerce and other content.
JC felt that the publications had be ubiquitous – be on all devices – as well as provide compelling information that was integral to their users’ lifestyle.
BB pointed to brand extensions, such as jewelry. LB pointed out that Teen Vogue has licensed bedding for their enthusiasts.
JC also felt that the smartphone market was wide open with several different competing operating systems. He felt that the tablet market was more constricted, and that the failure of the Xoom may have discouraged other hardware manufacturers.