Digital publishing is changing magazines, just don't call it 'content'

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Conde¸ Nast Publications, GQ, iPad, Louise Chunn, Tablet computer, Tatler, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, United Kingdom, Consumer Media, Digital Media, Mobile

One of the first things that crops up in conversation these days is the language of digital. The word content is over-used by marketers and publishers. The term does a disservice to the creative process behind it. I find it quite hard to think of stories as content – it’s so far removed from what it takes to do. In the digital age, journalism is still – just – clinging on by its fingernails and using the catch-all moniker of content is not helping its standing.

Content covers all players, from finely honed pieces by professional journalists and commentators, to rants by amateurs. However, just because everyone now has access to a publishing platform online, doesn’t meant quality editorial is a dying art, nor does it mean that those producing quality editorial should ignore the changes happening in the publishing world.

On a site like xoJane – to which I contributed to for a short stint – you’re trying to connect with people. You’re no longer handing down stone tablets for them to read. I think that’s a very important – and good – part of what’s happened to communication.

Sites like these are about the people who use them. It’s about the communication that comes after the post. The post lights the fuse. Twenty years ago you would have done more research, spoken to more people and got their views on a subject before publishing an article, but now everyone has a way of saying what they think instantly.

Online magazines operate in a bizarre grey area that is still being defined. At the moment there are several evolutionary offshoots available: the traditional model of a print magazine, augmented by a website; then there’s the print magazine that closed and became a website; followed by the PDF; and lastly the more dynamic and interactive tablet edition. The rise in tablet ownership should, in theory, encourage publishers to invest more in tablet editions of the magazines – hopefully killing off those inelegant PDF readers.

Tablet publishing is still in its infancy, but there are some leading lights in the space. Condé Nast is widely regarded as a case study in tablet publishing excellence, but the company ethic still seems to be paper first. I went to a panel discussion called Reinventing Magazines, and one of the panelists developed the iPad versions of Vogue and GQ.

Condé Nast’s view is that magazine editions have a lasting shelf-life – it gives you something finite and curated. I found that interesting as I would say that a magazine was finite six weeks ago when you put that issue to bed. Online, I've just put something up 10 minutes ago and it’s out there, with people responding already.

An element of snobbery still exists in the magazine world, where traditional titles regard the upstart freemium titles with disdain. Stylist and Shortlist deserve the awards they win: they are excellent magazines with strong journalistic standards. It is important to acknowledge if things are good – even if they are free. Readers are more discerning. I think they used to regard free as inferior, but the nature of online has changed that.

In the 1980s, in the United Kingdom, magazines were radical – a testament to the creativity of the people working on them, as well as a cultural response to the times. Everything had tremendous freshness. There was also a lot of humour. Similarly, it’s obvious that xoJane editor Rebecca Holman is having a laugh.

The homogeny of the women’s magazine landscape is something that worries. They have become safe, unadventurous and unexciting. They all look the same. They all follow each other and therefore the most original responses you get are going to be online. One magazine that I think is doing quite well because of its irreverence is Tatler, which has been edited in an individual way. It’s not been crawled over by the marketing department.

Once, we were part of the pantheon of editors on Mount Olympus who could express views and opinions in immovable type. The internet was something that happened elsewhere in the building. A technology issue that simply had to be fed with editorial content as part of the process once an issue had been sent to print. Now editors need to become savvy enough to address the gap in her own knowledge about the structure of a modern publisher.

Louise Chunn is a journalist and former editor of Psychologies magazine.

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