Digital Magazines Emerge—But Glossy Paper Publishers Haven’t Turned the Page on the Past

With all the drama this year around newspapers, including the Boston Globe‘s near-death experience and the actual demise of several other papers such as the Seattle P-I and the Rocky Mountain News, there’s been slightly less hoopla over the fate of magazines. They’re dealing with many of the same problems as newspapers, including a falloff in advertising, competition from online-only media, and the ever-rising cost of paper, printing, and distribution. One difference is that it’s happening on a timeline that allows a bit more breathing room, given that most magazine publishers aren’t saddled with the same kind of debt that’s crushing the big newspaper chains.

That means magazines have more leeway to experiment with new publishing and business strategies that could help them through the digital transition. For most newspapers, it’s already too late. When you’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year, as the Globe still is, you’re fixated on cost-cutting to keep the doors open a couple more quarters, not creative ideas for the long-term future.

So, what use have magazines been making of this time? What delightful and innovative digital creations have they unleashed? It’s a question that matters to me personally, given my past experience at magazines like Science and Technology Review, and my natural concern for the future of journalism.

Sadly, the answer is not many so far. If I had to pick a word for most of the e-magazine experiments I’ve been seeing lately, it would be “unimaginative.” Magazine publishers seem to hope that they can get away with transplanting their existing print layouts onto the electronic screen—as if it were enough to take the finished publication files, export them to PDF, and be done with it. This way, publishers wouldn’t have to do the hard work of rethinking the kinds of work they commission, the ways different types of content fit together, or what makes magazines special in the first place.

Zmags screen shot from SmartCEO magazine

Take a look at Zmags, a Boston company that works with magazines such as SmartCEO. Zmags has a tool called Publicator that takes print magazine spreads and frames them inside a PC browser window. Of course, cramming a whole spread onto a computer screen means making the text pretty small, so Zmags provides a handy magnifying-glass icon that lets you zoom in on a particular article or advertisement. It’s a lot like another e-magazine interface made by San Francisco-based Zinio, the main difference being that Zinio magazines are displayed inside a standalone e-reader program rather than a Web browser. (Technology Review experimented with Zinio while I was an editor there.)

Both Zinio and Zmags generate a nifty little page-turn animation when you want to look at the next spread. And both companies seem to have concluded that what readers want from digital magazines is absolute fidelity to the print product, right down to the familiar experience of turning the page. (Well, that’s a little unfair. What they’ve actually concluded is that to sell their software to publishers, they have to make it fit with the existing print-magazine workflow, which revolves entirely around tools like QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign that were developed for laying out print pages.) [Update 12/18/09: Joakim Ditlev, director of global marketing operations for Zmags, sent me a note this morning to say that the Zmags platform is very flexible—he pointed to this Danish e-magazine—but that most publishers don’t take full advantage of the technology. “The point is—it is self-service and only a few publishers think of digital magazines as another media with different capabilities. For most of them, digital magazines are just replicas of print versions,” Ditlev wrote. Which is my point too.]

Things aren’t much better in the mobile world. Zinio is reportedly developing an iPhone version of its reader that will give mobile readers access to the same Zinio digital editions they’ve purchased for their PCs, and vice versa; users will be able to skim through magazines using the now-familiar flicking gesture. Gentlemen’s Quarterly is already trying something like that with the … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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