Have we reached a tipping point in the print to digital continuum? Most publishers who started with print have considered digital as just being a capacious electronic archive for storing articles formerly published in print – or even entire replica editions.
But now more publishers are aiming for “digital first” or even “mobile first” publishing, causing some hard rethinking of what print is really for, and how a print edition of a publication (or media brand, if you prefer) adds value to readers. Digital descendants might just be in the process of forcing their print ancestors to evolve.
For readers are still a bit schizophrenic: they love the convenience of digital, and moan readily if websites don’t adapt beautifully to smartphone screens, but many also like the respite value, and offline immersion of printed magazines. So the print and digital offer, especially for paying subscribers, needs to be truly complementary but at the same time each incarnation has to provide value as a stand-alone product.
So what does this mean for publishers, and how must their editorial and production teams adapt processes and acquire new skills to deliver content in this new way? Based on my work with publishers going through this type of digital transformation, here are some ideas and tips to help the journey.
Print as a visual guide to a digital library
In trade and professional markets, where audiences are fragmented and have very specific questions they want answering, digital is highly valuable as it can cater for super-small niches and aggregate historic content on specialist topics for the focussed reader. Print has to be all things to all segments, and thus has to provide a broad overview, and signpost the deeper content available online.
A good print publication has the virtue of being “finishable” – and a reader feels that if they read it all – or just flick through each page – they are fully briefed on their topic, and haven’t missed any crucial stories or issues.
So it is perhaps helpful to consider the print magazine as a summary guide to the amazing depth of the digital library or archive. And rather like a guide to a museum or attraction, print works best when it is highly visual, and shows where greater depth and extra resources can be found.
Readers are now used to more visual navigation especially on mobile devices, and expect print publications to adopt more structured design, with multiple access points, rather than burying nuggets of information in long copy.
Explosion of new digital-only content types
While good copy and arresting images still capture attention, readers are more likely to engage with audio, video, smart graphics or quizzes. And actionable content such as checklists, templates or flowcharts can be easily used at work.
So commissioning editors planning content on a new topic need to assess how valuable each of these digital content types might be – and how much time and resource to invest in creating them. As subs rates are usually fixed, it’s hard to recover the additional cost from readers, so the best approach may be to go for topics with longevity, and approach suitable series sponsors.
And there is a whole complex minefield of copyright and permissions around audio and visual content that needs to be carefully negotiated.
Shift to topic-based rather than edition-based publishing
As the digital incarnation is published continuously, and the archive of content aggregates over time, editors need to think more about commissioning to build up resources on a long-running issue or topic, rather than filling the March edition. This does require much longer-range planning, and collaboration between related publications in the same market.
Changing guidelines for writers
Writers, researchers and freelances will need to create content simultaneously for both print and digital. So they will need clear guidelines on the ratio of copy to boxes, checklists, graphics and charts, the type of audio visual content that is expected, and any style differences between headlines for print and web. Maybe a stylistic mid-point will evolve, between the short, broken-up, punchy, informal copy of the digital media and the more formal long read of print – so that the same material can do duty for both platforms.
Reader interaction and reverse publishing
Good digital content encourages readers to contribute, through comments on articles, posts on forums, or through social media. And this provides excellent feedback for editorial teams on what issues readers truly care about. Reader contributions gathered through digital media can also make valuable additions to print publications – from top tweets to in depth first person stories.
Creating a free layer of digital content
Even professional and trade publications that are 100% subscription need to consider adding a layer of freely accessible digital content – from short news stories to summaries of more detailed features, or simply arresting sound-bites from interviews or intriguing visuals. As well as being available online, these can be promoted to a wider audience via social media and email alerts, getting even subscription content talked about.
And meatier content – such as surveys, downloads or longer articles – could be accessible only by registering and providing an email address. The Economist has proven the value of disseminating choice editorial titbits via social channels to build an email database of millions of subscriber prospects.
Bridging the skills gap
All editorial staff will need to learn about making web copy search and social friendly – crafting careful headlines and being smart about tagging. And they will have to develop their understanding of creating audio and visual content and building charts and infographics.
But there is still a requirement for specialists – in graphic design, audio and visual production. Plus engaging an audience and boosting interaction may need a dedicated community manager. So publishers need to find a good balance between training and development for existing teams and hiring in specialist skills.
Web production and publishing works on a shorter lead-time than print, so editorial and production workflows will have to be streamlined and simplified. Print and digital teams may need to be merged.
Going through the digital transformation process will be lengthy and painful, as people adjust to new workflows and changed responsibilities.
But once a publisher emerges with a truly digital first commissioning, editorial and production process, that provides both print and digital readers with valuable content, plus additional value when the two are brought together, then the effort will feel worthwhile.
If you have recently gone through a digital publishing evolution and have some experiences to share, please comment below or get in touch. And if you are about to embark on this journey, and would value some advice and support, please contact me for an informal introductory chat.
About the author
Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on the topic of digital publishing strategy for media sector publishers and events.