June 9th, 2008

What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web

by

Since I already drilled a nerve with What Newspapers Still Don’t Understand About The Web, which is on its way to becoming one of my most linked posts ever — and since everyone loves a sequel — I thought I would do a follow up for magazines. The lessons, of course, apply to every print publisher, who constantly discovers new ways to frustrate web users by prioritizing print over web.

This time I’m going to pick on The Atlantic, which like the Washington Post is a publication I have a great deal of affection for (published by my former employer Atlantic Media), so this is not a general critique but rather a very specific example representative of a much larger industry-wide problem (i.e. I could find instances of the same problem on virtually any magazine website).

It started this past Saturday when a friend (also a former Atlantic employee) emailed me asking me why I hadn’t mentioned my quote in the Atlantic’s latest cover story by Nick Carr. I responded saying I had no idea I had been quoted.

I immediately when to TheAtlantic.com, where I discovered that the current issue was still the June issue, and that the July issue with Nick’s cover story still hadn’t been posted. This is a common practice among publishers who make early receipt of the new issue a benefit for print subscribers.

But by doing that the publisher basically thumbs their nose at web readers and violates a fundamental principle of the digital age — if a user knows your content exists, but can’t access it, the result will be frustration or worse.

The Atlantic already made a brave move by following NYTimes.com and removing their paid subscriber wall on the website.

But still in this instance the print subscriber had access to content that, despite the power of the web, I couldn’t access.

To make matter worse, I stopped by Borders on Sunday to see if they had the July issue — physically driving to a location to obtain content that already existed in digital form seemed ludicrous. But I was willing to pay for the print issue (and probably would have read more than Nick’s article once I had it in hand).

Sadly, on the rack I found the June issue, just like on the website.

I joked to my friend by email about the frustrations of being unable to access content in the digital age. He offered to fax over the article… or 8-track tape it.

So I resigned myself to waiting for it to go up online, which I knew it would shortly.

This afternoon, I saw on TechMeme a link to this CNET story about the Atlantic article. Great, I thought, it’s up online.

It’s not yet on the Web, but the July issue of The Atlantic has an exceptional and provocative article by Nick Carr, asking “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Being a web user on a mission, as most are, I didn’t bother to read the sentence — I just clicked on the link and found the same June issue.

This is ridiculous, I thought — here is a someone who has access to the article and wants to link to it, but can’t. And here I am, a consumer eager to read the article, and I can’t. Wall-to-wall frustration.

But guess who stepped in to save the day… can you guess?

This afternoon, I received a email from the Google alert ego feed for my name:

Google Alert Atlantic

Another print publisher trumped by Google.

But it gets even worse.

I clicked on the link in the email which took me to the article, which is in fact online. Actually, the whole July/August issue is online.

It’s not linked on TheAtlantic.com homepage yet, as of this writing — and it’s not on the current issue page.

Atlantic June 2008

But Google knows it’s there. Google knows everything. And most importantly, Google gives me what I want, even when print publishers, still trying to balance demands of two entirely different modes of publishing, choose to prioritize print over web.

The web is Google’s first and only priority. That’s why they are beating the pants off of every legacy media company on the web.

But wait, there’s more.

I found the section of the article where I was quoted, unbeknown to me, because Nick lifted it from one of my blog post. In fact, it’s in a section about bloggers who have commented on the issue at hand.

But there’s no links to those posts. So readers have no opportunity to see my quote in context, which was a post called The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought.

There are other links in the online version, so additional links may be added before it goes live. But most print publishers have no editorial process in place for converting print content to web content, e.g. putting in links, which leads invariably to a frustrating web user experience.

If publishers want to maximize value on the web, they have to put the web first every time — that means you can’t just take what you create for print and dump it on the web, regardless of the cost efficiencies, because you’re destroying value for web users.

If a user can’t find what they want going straight to your site, the next time they are going to go straight to Google — and Google will capture the value of that content distribution.

But this story has one last delicious drip of irony. Nick agues in the Atlantic article, with his usual brilliance, that Google and digital media is actually changing the way we think — to our detriment.

I agree with Nick that the way we think is likely changing, which is what my post was about. But I don’t know that I agree with Nick’s pessimism that the change is for the worse. Yet the way I’m quote in the article, it leaves open the possibility that I agree with Nick that the change is negative.

When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

But if you read my whole post, you’d find the following:

What I’d be most curious to know is whether online reading actually has a positive impact on cognition — through ways that we perhaps cannot measure or even understand yet, particularly if we look at it with a bias towards linear thought.

If anything is making us dumber, it’s that we’re betwixt and between old modes and new modes of both information and thought.

The irony of The Atlantic’s print article is that by bounding the reader into a box where they can’t seek more context, and worse, by being the antithesis of the digital media experience that Nick describes, it becomes irrelevant to its own thesis.

Fortunately, if you take my quote from the print article and put it into Google, you can find my post — and the missing context.

I’d say in this instance, Google actually made me smarter.

If publishers followed Google’s example, they’d be smarter, too.

UPDATE

Lot’s of people are now discussing Nick’s article — although mostly they are discussing the CNET post ABOUT the article, because the article itself is not online — I’m guess Matt Asay is a print subscriber, who couldn’t wait for the article to get up on the web to start talking about it.

Atlantic Techmeme

It’s great to give print subscribers an advance look at the magazine — except those subscribers have blogs, and they don’t really want to keep with the print-centric program. They want to talk about it NOW, not when it finally shows up on the web. Matt even scanned in the brilliant cover:
Atlantic July August 2008 Cover

UPDATE #2

You can find all of The Atlantic’s July/August 2008 issue content indexed by Google News here, which is how I got the Google alert.

You can embargo the newsstand, but you can’t embargo Google, which is the new newsstand.

  • AJI

    I'm not sure if this is totally on point but I do think one think that publishers - newspaper and magazine - don't get, or don't want to accept, is that unless their content is extremely unique and valuable they are no longer going to be able to command the premium for it that they used to.

    The music industry clung to its age-old business model and has ridden it down for years now. Distributing music is not going to offer the same margins anymore and survivors are going to have to adapt. This applies to all forms of content. Many magazines are going to have to rethink expense levels and do with less high end office space and smaller staffs. Writers are going to have to produce more content.

    I think the unwillingness to face this transition is one reason why publishers may sacrifice strong development of their online businesses to protect the declining but still most significant print side of the business. They don't realize that they can't stem this tide. Print will always be a major part of the business but the subscribers they are losing are not coming back, and if they don't convert them to Internet readers they will lose them completely.

  • Scott,

    Great post!! This is a hot topic for all these days. Many of my clients grapple with this topic. What I think these posts do though, is tell us time after time that there is a gap between what is expected today and what publishers are providing today. We are in a period of real change. There are no solutions provided just constant criticism. Many of them, as we know, are trying to achieve their online presence with the same staff that pumps out the print edition. Not enough workers to do the work.

    But, I will say this.... recently I have been working with a very forward thinking company that records and then sells live music from concerts - which they then make availbale by USB bracelette the NEXT MORNING for a very fair price. These bracelets are 2 way - so they can be SHARED with friends for no cost. The point here is that even though the musicians are agreeing to free shared content and are willing to forego a "sale" they know that the viral activity will inevitably make them money in the future. If they are a fan today they will buy more tomorrow. Interesting concept. Free shared content is here, like it or not - so we better figure out a way fast to make it profitable.

  • Great post, Scott! I just want to point out that there's a hero even better than Google for something like that, a group that could have saved you every ounce of frustration, and some money to boot. Who? Librarians!

    Since you were willing to drive somewhere to read the article, you could have driven to your local library, where it would have been sitting on the shelf, waiting for you. You wouldn't have had to pay anything to read it, although you could have made a photocopy to take with you if you were in a hurry.

    Or, you could have called the library, and they probably would have faxed it to you. I don't know of any library that would have been able to convert it to 8-track, although I won't rule that out.

    Even better, though, you could have used your library card to log into the library's databases and find the full text of the article within a matter of minutes without ever leaving your computer.

    So while Google may know all, but libraries give you access to it all - free, unrestricted, and with no ads. Google may have told you what you want, but your library could have actually provided all of it for you.

    Let your library save the day next time, and save yourself the frustration!

  • Having had a few days to digest Carr's article, I've written a response at Xconomy that readers of this blog might find interesting. See http://www.xconomy.com/2008/06....

    An excerpt:

    "I can accept Carr’s premise that the Internet discourages deep reading. After all, it’s a strain to read long documents on most types of screens, and time spent on the Net is undeniably time taken away from other pursuits (though I suspect that TV viewing has suffered more in this respect than book reading). But the idea that deep reading is the only way people form rich mental connections is much harder to swallow, and suggests to me that Carr may be too caught up in the romantic image of the poet or professor lost in his book. I think he misses the many other ways in which these connections arise—some of which, believe it or not, are happening right on the Internet."

  • Driving home Scott's points --- In the scant hours that it's been online at The Atlantic, Nick's piece has obviously generated quite a lot of conversation. That's the kind of traffic most Web publishers would kill for. But as far as I can tell, NONE of the conversation is taking place at The Atlantic's own website. Why not? The Atlantic's editors explain:

    "Dear Atlantic.com visitors,

    We regret that as of January 22, 2008, when we eliminated the subscriber-registration requirement from the Web site, we became temporarily unable to register new forum users. In the near future we plan to implement an upgraded forum, open to all. In the meantime...Anyone interested in expressing feedback about the magazine, the Web site, or a specific article, can contact us via our Feedback page. Also please note that several of our blogs—those hosted by Matthew Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Megan McArdle, Marc Ambinder, and Clive Crook—are comment-enabled.

    We appreciate your interest in Post & Riposte, and we apologize for the glitch.

    Sincerely,
    The Editors"

    As a Web journalist, I'm all too familiar with glitches like this. But a glitch that's lasted since January 22? It's all hilariously symptomatic of the syndrome Scott describes, of publishers either "thumbing their noses at Web readers" or not knowing enough to realize that they are doing so.

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