April 29th, 2006

Digital Editions of Print Pubs Are Publisher-Centric


There are only two plausible reasons to publish a “digital edition” of a print publication, as the New York Times is now doing in partnership with Microsoft:

1. To prop up print advertising revenue by artificially increasing the “print” circulation through “digital distribution”

2. To make a bucket of content, i.e. the print edition, available for “browsing” offline

Although publishers of digital editions will tout #2, the ONLY reason to invest in the cost of a digital edition is #1 because digital editions are fundamentally hostile to readers.

There are two ways to consume print content:

1. Paper-based, where the print layout is the organizing principle
2. Digitally, where search, links, tagging, most-viewed/emailed, etc. are the organizing principles

To use the print layout as an organizing principle for digital access actually destroys value for readers, i.e. the Times is taking a purely publisher-centric approach to publishing.

As Jeff Jarvis points out:

Why not design the next frontier for the sharing of news that takes advantage of all the new opportunities technology permits — linking, conversation, multimedia, search, selectivity, depth, currency? Oh, yeah, it was already invented. It’s the web.

And the fact is that offline access is no longer even a valid rationale, given new services like Webaroo that allow you to download buckets of web content to “surf” offline. Digital editions act as walled gardens of content that prevent users from following the dynamic connections between content that the web enables.

Jeff characterizes the Times’ announcement as “two steps backward.” I’d say it’s running full tilt in the wrong direction.

  • Marc Sheplin

    Digital editions are mainly a cost reduction on the part of the publisher. Paper and postal costs continue to rise while the print ad revenue flat lines. Publishers had no intention of using a digital edition to "inflate" circ numbers for increased ad revenue.....they want to save PPD costs. Did Popular Science decide to offer digital as the only option for international subs to boost circ or inflate editors ego??? Print layout formats are mainly used today because it's requires minimal additional resources on the part of the publisher. Digital edition layouts will evolve into a better reader experience while maintaining the brand. Print layouts will stay the same. A better experience will also come from not requiring proprietary reader downloads or plug ins. PDF's will go back to what they were meant to do....files for outputting documents. BPA and ABC have dramatically changed their standards from requiring an exact duplicate of the print version (layout/editorial/ads) to having at least the same content but can have more. Most interesting part is they now encourage advertisers swap out the print ads for ads that take advantage of the web (multimedia/deep linking).

  • On a purely theoretical level - advertising-centric = publishing centric = reader centric, longterm. Eliminate any one from the equation and the other two cease to exist.

    Let's not forget that how high the "walls" of content are from the Web are defined by the publishers, who have the ability to link to anything they want.

    I agree with Mark and think it is a step in the right direction. Whether the Times can turn that step into a leap remains to be seen, though.

    Some of us have succeeded, Mathew, but for different reasons. By and large, our most successful customers are the ones seeking to expand distribution while reducing costs, but at the same time lack the resources to augment their print publication with a full-blown content driven website. Still, your point is well taken: if the publication doesn't succeed with readers, inevitably it will fail.

  • Actually, I think it is a step in the right direction.

    The web-format is quite weak when it comes to advertising. A 'Digital edition" allows advertisers and publishers to reuse creative material and gain flexibility with ad sizes and placement.

    The vast majority of people who consume newspapers are readers and not participators, so user-driven features are not necessarily as important to them. Also, tablet computers lend themselves better to portrait-style documents. When a computer page is the same size and format as the print page then scanning and turning pages becomes quite natural. For example, the Sony ebook is this format, and I don't think people are complaining about interactivity when reading books on it. It think people would be quite happy to be able to download the paper as-is onto the reader. This is even more true of design or photography-led magazines, which don't look that good on the web.

    We would like to release a PDF or digital edition of our magazine, but PDFs don't fit well on peoples' screens. If the screens were tablet or portrait format as standard then it would be quite popular I think.

    So far, digital editions haven't worked well, but if this initiative allowed for more people to read more types of content online, and shook up stale ad formats, then it would be an interesting step.

  • Couldn't agree more, Scott. Digital editions have been around for years, and this really isn't any different. And it won't succeed for the same reason none of the others have succeeded -- because it's a bad format for readers and it's clearly designed to serve other purposes, i.e. advertising. I think readers can sense that, and so they turn away from it.

  • May I suggest that this is more "advertising centric" than publisher centric? Or is that the same thing these days? Notes on Gates' address included talk about a demo of the Times Reader, and the advertising display figured quite a bit in Tom Bodkin's comments.

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