Over the last few years, there has been a massive uptake of digital editions by magazine publishers. The primary reason is that megabytes are cheaper to produce and deliver than print magazines, and in this current environment, cost saving is certainly not a goal to be sneered at. Many publishers have success stories of digital editions that have replaced part of their print run, or allowed international subscribers to get their magazine sooner than the postal service allows, or even acted as samples to sell subscriptions to new customers.
However, almost everyone I meet in the industry, from execs through to editors, agree that digital editions (that is, facsimile copies of the print edition in a digital page-turn format) do not provide 1) an incremental revenue opportunity, nor 2) the best reading experience. I know many people will take issue with the latter point, as there is an entire (infant) industry that depends on proving they do ‘work’ as a publishing channel.
Plently of people have debated the benefits (high design quality) and the issues (the zoom-in, zoom-out, experience into which the reader is forced), but although there is certainly a move towards modifying digital editions with additional media and interactive elements, it still all seems pretty out-of-place on a computer monitor. Last week I was on a panel at the Publishing Expo at Olympia, called DIGITAL EDITIONS – STOPGAP OR SOLUTION? and an interesting line of discussion emerged with Robin Booth from Incisive. To my question about whether Incisive would continue to publish digital editions if they stopped their print run, he immediately said they wouldn’t, as it would be completely unnecessary – they would just use websites to deliver the information. I have since asked the same question to people at several other publishers, who have agreed with Robin (although I understand that Dennis, for example, seems to be making a go of the format with titles like iGizmo).
The bottom line is that when in print, content and presentation are inextricably linked – the presentation forms part of the content. When content is distributed online, content must be abstracted from presentation, because the link between the two is nowhere near as strong. Regardless of how well you design the layouts for your content, some readers are going to read it through an RSS reader, some are going to read on mobile devices, and some will probably even read it on Internet Explorer 3, all of which will significantly decrease, or eliminate altogether, the value of your design. I am a strong believer that interface design is fundamental to a good online experience – but not good print design, or any approach that does not consider the flexibility and usability involved with online content distribution.
So when thinking about delivering a print experience to online readers, publishers must understand the constraints AND the freedom of this newer medium. Magazines have a bright future online, but replicas of the print version distributed online are probably not the future of the industry.