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July 25 2011


Longshot magazine - real-time experiment in magazine publishing

Forbes :: How to make a magazine in two days? - Announce your theme at noon on a Friday using all of the powers of social media at your disposal. Give potential contributors 24 hours to create and submit their masterpieces. Spend the next 24 hours in a sleepless, coffee-powered editing haze. Have the finished product (complete with polished design) available for printing via MagCloud at the 48 hour mark.

Sound crazy?

Continue to read J. Maureen Henderson, blogs.forbes.com

November 04 2010


The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe the newspaper is like the old LP — you know, as in “Long Play.” It may be a 33 1/3, though it seems like it came out of the age of 78s sometimes, a relic of the post-Victorian Victrola age. It is what it is, a wonderful compendium of one day in the life (of a nation, a city, a village), a one-size-fits-all product, the same singular product delivered to mass volumes of readers.

In the short history of Internet disintermediation and disruption of the traditional news business, we’ve heard endless debate of the “the content and the container,” as people have tried to peel back the difference between the physical form of the newspaper — its container — and what it had in it. It’s a been a tough mindset change, and the many disruptors of the world — the Googles, the Newsers, and the Huffington Posts, for instance — have expertly picked apart the confusions and the potentials new technologies have made possible. The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

None of this is a revelation. What is new, and why I re-think that context is the advent of Kindle Singles. The Lab covered Amazon’s announcement of less-than-a-book, more-than-as-story Kindle Singles out of the chute a couple of weeks ago. Josh Benton described how the new form could well serve as a new package, a new container, for longer, high-quality investigative pieces, those now being well produced in quantity by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting (and its California Watch), and the Center for Public Integrity. That’s a great potential usage, I think.

In fact, Kindle Singles may open the door even further to wider news business application, for news companies — old and new, publicly funded and profit-seeking, text-based and video-oriented. It takes the old 78s and 33 1/3s, and opens a world of 45s, mixes, and infinite remixes. It says: You know what a book is, right? Think again. It can also say: You know what a newspaper is, right? Think again. While the Kindle Singles notion itself seems to have its limits — it’s text and fixed in time, not updatable on the fly — it springs loose the wider idea of publishing all kinds of new news and newsy content in new containers. Amazon is trying to define this strange new middle, with the Kindle Singles nomenclature, while some have used the term “chapbook” to describe it. We’ve got to wonder what Apple is thinking in response — what’s an app in Kindle Singles world? What’s a Kindle Single in an apps world? It’s not a book, an article, a newspaper, or a magazine, but something new. We now get to define that something new, both in name, but most importantly in content possibility.

What it may be for news organizations is a variety of news-on-demand. Today, we could be reading tailored and segmented sections on the election, from red and blue perspectives, from historical perspectives, from numerical perspectives. Today, we in the Bay Area could get not just a single triumphant San Francisco Giants celebratory section, but our choice of several, one providing San Francisco Giants history, one providing New York Giants history, one looking at the players themselves; the list goes on and on. More mundane, and more evergreen commercial topics? Job-hunting, job-finding, job-prep guides, tailored to skills, ages, and wants? Neighborhood profile sections for those seeking new housing (pick one or several neighborhoods, some with data, some with resident views, others tapping into neighborhood blogs). It’s endless special sections, on demand, some ad-supported, some not; a marketer’s dream. Some are priced high; some are priced low; some are free and become great lead generators for other digital reader products.

A few recent initiatives in the news business news lend themselves to Singles thinking. Take Politico’s newly announced topical e-newsletters. Take Rupert Murdoch’s notion of a paid-content portal, Alesia, which had within the idea of mixing and matching content differently, until its plug was recently pulled. Take AP’s new rights consortium, a venture that could build on this approach. Again, endless permutations are possible.

Who is going to come up with the ideas for the content? Well, editors themselves should have their shot, though one-size-fits-all thinking has circumscribed the imagination of too many. Still, there are hundreds of editors (and reporters and designers and copy editors) still in traditional ranks and now employed outside of it capable of creating new audience-pleasing packages. Some will work; some won’t. Experiment, and fail quickly. The biggest potential, though? Letting readers take open-sourced news content and create packages themselves, giving them a small revenue share, on sales. (Both the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have opened themselves up for such potential usage.) Tapping audiences to serve audiences, to mix and match content, makes a lot of sense.

Why might this work when various little experiments have failed to produce much revenue for news companies, thinking of Scribd and HP’s MagCloud? Well, it’s the installed bases and paid-content channels established by the Amazons (and the Apples). They’ve got the customers and the credit cards, and they’ve tapped the willingness to pay. They need stuff to sell.

For newspaper companies, it’s another chance to rewrite the economics of the business. The newsonomics of Kindle Singles may mean that publishers can worry less about cost of content production, for a minute, and more about its supply. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the cost of professional content, but its old-school one-size-fits-all distribution package. That sports story or neighborhood profile could bring in lots more money per unit, if Singles notion takes off.

One big caution here: Singles thinking leads us into a more Darwinian world than ever. In my Newsonomics book, I chose as Law #1: “In the age of Darwinian content, we’re becoming our own and each other’s editors.” Great, useful content will sell; mediocre content will die faster. Repackaging content pushes the new content meritocracy to greater heights. As we approach 2011, news publishers are hoping to hit home runs with new paid content models. Maybe the future is as much small ball, hitting a lot of one-base hits, of striking out as often — and of Singles.

May 20 2010


'48 Hour' Births Crowdsourced, Print-on-Demand Mag in Public

The first issue of 48 Hour Magazine, though printed on old-fashioned paper, is one of the most technologically interesting magazine projects today.

The staff of 48 Hour Magazine sent off its finished "Issue Zero" to MagCloud, a print-on-demand service, at noon on May 9 after a harried two-day submission, editing and design process. Following weeks of building buzz about the project, primarily through Twitter, the editors announced the issue's theme, "Hustle," at noon on May 7. Contributors then had all of two days (hence the "48 Hour" title) to send in their writing, photos, art and infographics around that loosely defined concept.

Using not only social media, but also a custom-built content management system and a live video stream, the editors, all experienced writers and creative types, crafted a polished magazine through methods that re-imagined the standard magazine publication process from beginning to end. As they describe it, the magazine is "a raucous experiment in using new tools to erase media's old limits."

Making a magazine in two days clearly isn't for every publisher, but the 48 Hour Magazine project demonstrates that even this old medium can be reinvented with technical savvy and creativity.

A Social Media Strategy

The 48 Hour staff began by using their website to solicit the email addresses of people interested in contributing to the magazine. The result was over 5,000 responses. They chose to spread the word about the project primarily through Twitter, avoiding the use of Facebook for the project, partly due to the site's recent privacy changes.

"I love the connections Facebook enables, but it seems to have little to no respect for its users' privacy, or ownership of their own creations," said Mathew Honan, one of the magazine's editors. Honan said Facebook is increasingly developing a negative public image. "Because of that, the bottom line is that I don't want our brand associated with Facebook," he said. "I think Facebook diminishes our brand by association. There are better, less onerous ways to make social connections happen online."

The Twitter and word-of-mouth marketing strategy seems to have worked. Within that short 48-hour period, the editors received over 1,500 submissions. An intense editing process distilled these to just 70 pieces that fill 60 pages.

Technology on Deadline

Prior to the announcement of the theme, editor Sarah Rich said that managing the submission and editing process was her biggest concern about the project. "We have a workflow plan, but we have to be adaptable enough for it to break down and get rebuilt on the fly if the flood of submissions necessitates it," Rich said.

Sure enough, challenges arose. Some submissions didn't make it into the content management system due to technical difficulties. They required individual attention. "That sat like a time bomb until the end of the process, when our copyflow processes got very low-tech," said Alexis Madrigal, another editor on the project.

sarah-staff work.jpg

Anyone wanting to watch the live video stream of the magazine's editing processes probably found errors on the streaming site as well. One of the editors' tweets sent not long before the submission deadline read, "Sorry about the @ustream feed going down. We're just scraping by, bandwidth-wise." But having a transparent, publicly visible editing process turned out to be not just a technical challenge.

"There is a very real tension between transparency and efficiency in these situations," Madrigal said. "In the editing process, you have to say negative things sometimes, and people are not comfortable saying them in front of a camera. In the future, we're going to have defined spaces for video and then 'black boxes' that are camera-free. We know that the magazine itself is only part of what we're doing."

Next, Issue One...and More?

The magazine part of the project, though, has been quite successful so far for a print-on-demand magazine. Over 1,400 copies at $10 each had been sold as of May 14, all via MagCloud. (One recent hiccup is that CBS, which airs a show called "48 Hours," sent a cease and desist letter to the magazine regarding its name.)

The profit from the small markup the staff added to MagCloud's printing charges will be divided among contributors, put away as savings for the next issue and used as a grant the magazine will administer. (A full explanation of the magazine's effort toward financial transparency, plus an amusing and "handy" pie chart, is on their blog.) The editors are also working on getting the magazine into bookstores in the U.S. and abroad.

mat-stack of mags.jpg

Madrigal also points to the "positive externalities" of the staff's work, including providing inspiration to the thousands of people who participated in the project. "I think that participatory global experiences that bring people together around the act of creation are conceptually beautiful," he said.

Another advantage of the magazine's print-on-demand publication process is the ability to revise and update content as needed. The edition of the magazine being sold through MagCloud as of this writing is actually version 0.1, in which some contributors' names have been corrected and added, and a couple of typos were fixed.

In addition to the magazine's print product, its staff is also posting some of the work from the magazine online. Some people who sent in submissions not selected for publication have suggested on the magazine's blog that their work could be posted on the magazine's website instead.

Madrigal said that probably won't happen, but that the staff is exploring other kinds of online opportunities for the next edition.

"I think we'd like to make our project broader: We'd like to be a high-speed experimental media lab. And that will extend far beyond just doing magazines in two days," he said.

In the hands of the 48 Hour crew and others willing to experiment and take risks, perhaps not only magazines will be re-imagined by "using new tools to erase media's old limits."

Photo of staff by Sarah Rich. Photo of magazines by Mathew Honan.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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February 01 2010


On-Demand Publishing Opens Up Magazine Industry

Publishing a magazine independently used to mean spending a lot of money ordering hundreds or thousands of printed copies, and then hoarding the unsold inventory in dusty boxes in your garage for the next decade.

The new pioneers in on-demand magazine publishing hope to save aspiring publishers from this expensive and cluttered fate.

Online services that streamline the magazine publishing process are making it possible for anyone who can create digital content -- in the form of a PDF, an RSS feed, or even just text in a word processor -- to shape that content into a print magazine that readers can order online. This process, which is free for publishers to use, enables a wide variety of individuals to enter the magazine market, and might even be a new distribution method for existing publications facing financial difficulties.

Moving Beyond the Advertising Model

Bruno Bornsztein, founder of the website Curbly.com, is today a magazine publisher thanks to one of these on-demand services. Curbly focuses on interior design and home décor, and while it had become a relatively successful ad-supported site with an active user community, Bornsztein wanted to diversify its offerings.

"There's nothing wrong with the advertising model, and it's worked well for us in a lot of ways," Bornsztein said. "But it seems unreliable. You never know where advertisers will put their money, especially when you're not huge. We wanted to hedge against that, and to explore something where we create content, sell it directly to the readers, and cut out advertisers as the ones paying for the content."

Bornsztein and a group of the site's regular contributors developed a slickly designed PDF booklet of instructions for a selection of home projects, and posted the PDF to the site MagCloud, an on-demand magazine publishing service. The printable PDF can be downloaded from the Curbly site for $9.99, or a printed version can be ordered via MagCloud for $18 plus shipping.

MagCloud: Niche Content Direct to Readers


MagCloud, an offshoot of HP Labs, is a magazine self-publishing service that allows anyone to post a PDF to its website. People can then order a paper copy of the PDF that's only printed when an order is placed, meaning there's never excess inventory and no paper is wasted on unwanted copies.

The cost to a publisher for the MagCloud service is zero, and publishers receive whatever markup they choose to charge beyond the base cost of 20 cents per page that MagCloud charges the buyer.

As a magazine publisher himself, Derek Powazek -- a consultant who works with the MagCloud team and holds the title "Chief of Awesome" to cover his varying duties -- wanted to help other aspiring publishers accomplish their print projects with minimum effort and investment, while also streamlining the distribution process.

"There are a lot of people online who have audiences and content, but have never published anything in print because they thought it would be too hard," Powazek said.

Powazek calls MagCloud an "elegant solution" to the basic problems of magazine publishing, including the expense and waste of copies that are never purchased or read. Publishers can also locate advertisers for their MagCloud publications, and MagCloud is developing strategies for helping publishers connect with advertisers through the service.

Bornsztein said Curbly had a good response to its print endeavor, and he and his collaborators will continue creating on-demand magazines, with the next project slated for March 2010. He said the MagCloud service is good for "really niche content targeted at a certain group of people that wouldn't be financially viable to a larger organization; but for someone small, it's possible. People can get served with good quality content by the people producing the content."

Printcasting: Ease of Use for Diverse Publishers

printcasting1.jpgA similar service is offered by Printcasting, a project initially created through a Knight News Challenge grant. Printcasting has its roots in Bakersfield, Calif., but is now increasingly an international enterprise. Printcasting takes any RSS feed and uses web design frameworks to lay out a formatted document that a publisher can print and distribute. It's also possible to copy and paste text into the Printcasting interface and manipulate its layout. Because no PDF is required, the Printcasting production method is somewhat simpler for novice publishers, or those without design software.

Dan Pacheco, who blogs for Idea Lab, MediaShift's sister site, is the founder of Printcasting. Pacheco said over 500 publishers have used the site to create over 2,000 Printcasting editions. The Printcasting project was initially intended to attract "grassroots" publishers who would create local publications and work with local advertisers to make their publications profitable. However, although many local publications have been created with Printcasting, the concept also appeals to larger-scale publishers.

"Printcasting is built for anyone to be able to use it, but we keep getting calls from large companies and organizations," Pacheco said. "It's supposed to democratize the print publishing process, but [these larger groups] can also use it internally to lower their costs in terms of publishing."

As the technology attracts larger customers, it's also moving towards some of the least accessible audiences in the world. Pacheco described the interest Printcasting has attracted in Latin America, where newspapers could begin using the service to combine national news with small-town news from hard-to-reach rural locales. They would then print geographically targeted editions for each locale.

"They can't deliver newspapers to little towns up in the mountains, but people have broadband access, so newspapers could use them for distribution," Pacheco said. "They would use Printcasting to write about things that are super hyper-local, and combine them with content from the newspaper."

Integrating Advertisers

Printcasting is also considering new ways to integrate advertising into local publications. Pacheco said it's been difficult to recruit small businesses to advertise in Printcasting products in the current economy. One approach might be to have advertisers pay only when an ad accomplishes its goal of generating new business.

"For example, we could put an 800 number or a URL in the ad, [or] some kind of action that the reader performs, and then the advertiser pays because they have a new customer," Pacheco said.

Whatever the business model, these evolving online tools for magazine publishing mean new publishers of all sizes have a choice of strategies for their projects -- and established magazines might also find fresh life through on-demand publishing. These online services can enrich and diversify the world of print, rather than threaten it.

"I don't think that computers and the Internet make real people's need for real physical media go away," said Powazek of MagCloud. "There's content that deserves to be archived in print and some that doesn't. For moment to moment updates about news, the web does that really well, but longer-lasting community-based niche content will still have a home in print. I hope that some magazines that have fallen on hard times will find their way to MagCloud and publish their whole back catalog there."

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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