Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Congleton Chronicle

Yesterday The Congleton Chronicle became the first local newspaper in the Exact Editions store. An annual subscription to the digital edition of this weekly paper is available for £25. There is a free trial issue available here.

The almost immediate launch of the newspaper in the Exact Editions platform was also a record. The publisher/owner of the Chronicle decided to do his digital edition yesterday and uploaded the necessary issues forthwith, discussed the deal, decided the price and the schedule, signed the contract (put it in the post -- we trust him), liaised with our team, who promptly processed the files at our end: by 4.00pm everything was shipshape. Files databased, blurb drafted and logo in situ. The net result was that the 'paper' was up and in the store less than 6 hours after the decision to proceed had been taken. One wishes that some of the big publishers we talk to could move at similar speed. They need to get moving.

The digital edition gives the Congleton Chronicle a number of things that much larger publications also need:

  • A digital edition which can be bought by any loyal subscriber. So no need to put a paywall around the web site, which will continue to carry fast moving stories. But there is a lot that is not freely available from the web site; if you want the full monty, then the Congleton loyalist will buy a digital sub
  • The digital edition is good for Congleton loyalists because it reaches them on the very morning that the paper is first published in Cheshire. And the statistics from the Chronicle's web site tells us that there are plenty of curious visitors in far off places who can now subscribe instantly without fuss, and with no more bother than a PayPal transaction.
  • The readers also have the benefit of all the advertisements that appear in the paper. The ads are there in full glory. With clickable telephone numbers, url's and email addresses. There are hundreds of such navigable and actionable links in each issue of the Chronicle. The ads in a local paper are among the most useful resources of the paper for readers. So leaving them out is a non-sense (the Exact Editions content management solution transforms local numbers into the international format, so the American reader with Skype or mobile phone, can call the estate agent with a click from the page).
  • The additional interactivity in the paper, in particular in the ads, is also excellent news for the advertisers. The ads will get additional and direct response from readers who click on links. The publisher will have the statistics to prove it.
  • The digital edition is completely accessible on the iPhone and from other mobile phones with standard, fully capable web browsers. There is no need for the Chronicle to invest in the considerable expense and overhead of producing and maintaining an alternative 'mobile' version of their content platform. All of the newspaper content is accessible week, by week from the digital edition, which can be easily read on iPhones and other mobile devices.
  • The Exact Editions platform also takes care of the support, distribution and e-commerce aspects of the digital edition and this is a proven and reliable system. So it really is possible for a publisher to be up and running with a digital solution a few days after the decision is taken (allow 5 working days, because the Chronicle may be exceptionally nimble).
The Congleton Chronicle's publisher also figured out a way in which he could recoup the really modest costs of this service from the get-go. Smart move.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Google Book Settlement -- ReDux

I go away for two days in the mountains and come back to find the Google Books Settlement II, a 173 page renegotiated version of the original deal (red-lined). Catch up with Grimmelmann.

I am not sure that I will read the new contract; getting through the first version was quite a strain! Here is one view of why it matters and why it doesnt.

The Google Book Settlement matters because something pretty much like what is envisaged in the Settlement is going to happen. And that is a good thing. Google has 10 million books scanned and databased in their servers. They are revved up and no doubt waiting to go. A large part of the most valuable human knowledge of the twentieth century will be accessible and will be being digitally read in American universities from some time in 2010 (that is a very good thing; a very bad thing is that they will NOT be available in the rest of the world, and the legal technicians have not much clue about how that broader accessibility can happen). Even if the judge were to reject the Settlement, even if the DOJ were to file and insist upon some swingeing limitations to the scope of the agreement, most books will be Googled from now on. 10 million books have already been databased in the way pioneered by the Google Books system, many of them at the express request of their publishers. Some aspects of the Google project have been very controversial, which is why we have a court case and why the legal hostilities may meander on for years yet. The outcome is predictably messy but the change has occurred.

The publishing paradigm has shifted and most books will now be accessible and searchable in various ways via Google (and perhaps, let us hope, via alternative search engines). Five years ago it was by no means obvious that all books would be digitised en masse, in their entirety (even many of the bindings), full text searchable, that they would be page-rendered, that they would be straightforwardly citeable in something like the ways print scholars have cited books for centuries (volume, chapter, page), that they would be readable in much the same way as ordinary web pages, that illustrations and indexes should be in place (though for many of the 20th Century books this will not be the case -- as a direct result of the Settlement orphan illustrations are more orphan than the texts). None of this was settled in 2004.

So there has been a revolutionary shift in the publishing paradigm. But now for the other shoe: I am not confident that the Google 'victory' in the case of the Settlement, will be seen that way in the future. Thomas Kuhn who coined the usage of 'paradigm shift' to explain the way in which with a scientific revolution a period of upheaval with its paradigm shift, then led to a period of 'normal science' when investigations proceeded under the shelter of the new paradigm. I am not sure that Google will now find itself in a period of normal science or calmer waters. Google has made a tremendous step forward, with its vision of the comprehensive digital database of published books, but the suspicion is growing that this is not a terminus. The Googled library/bookshop of all published literature is not a finished product and it is highly probable that it will fairly soon be overtaken by other models and by other paradigm shifting changes in the technology. I have the very strong intuition (it is merely that and I can not prove it) that digital books will soon be used in ways that surprise us greatly and have very little in common with the current operation of the Google Books service. We have barely started on the path of understanding how digital books can be used; and as an early entrant to the field, Google has every chance of finding itself out-innovated. Some Twitter-type of disruptive service will doubtless come along soon to show us how computation really should work with digital editions.

Google will surely be making the incumbent's mistake if they suppose that the Settlement really settles, solves or finalizes the direction that digital book technology should now take. To quote the Scottish sage "I hae me doots".

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chasing the Format

The New York Times has been stealth developing a new format for its daily news. TechCrunch has a summary. The horizontal, grid-like layout is reminiscent of the Google Fast Flip, but I buy the suggestion in the TechCrunch comments that this format is being readied for the putative Apple iTablet computer, aka slate device.

That could well be; and it would make sense for Apple to launch the Tablet with something like the NYT as a core offering in its media-player. However, if the NYT is prepping a special format for the tablet, that is almost certainly a poor long-term move for the New York Times (not much different from its earlier play with Microsoft and the ill-fated Microsoft Reader). When the initial Apple enthusiasm is spent and the tablet has been ingested, the New York Times is left with another variant format to support; or as in the case of 'Microsoft Reader' Times readers, another batch of audience to disappoint. The Tablet needs to work with the New York Times as it is and the Times needs to work with every web capable device that there is. Every gadget capable of running a standard browser.

Newspaper publishers feel inexorably drawn towards customising their offering for each new ultra-fashionable device that comes along, and this is an issue at the core of their current dilemma (or their owners acutely sharpening current financial dilemma). The last time I counted: the Guardian (my favourite newspaper) was trying to optimize its content offering across half a dozen different platforms (from print to audio via web, mobile, video, RSS, PDF and blogosphere); and I am sure there are more coming. Even the web site is now being tweaked for optimum delivery in different web environments. There may soon be Apple iPhone, Kindle, Blackberry, Google Android, and Nokia-tweaked editions of different newspapers in web and digital formats (Pre anyone?) for all the different flavours of device out there. And if you think there will be only one dominant Android form factor you may have another think coming.

Newspaper publishers may think that the costs of these proliferating platforms are not falling to them (the adaptations are being paid for by technology partners, or by advertisers, or by new revenue streams from putative subscribers). Wrong. The cost is falling on the publisher who needs to maintain a very complex editorial and content management infrastructure and the cost is also falling on the brand which is inevitably being fragmented as the familiar format and style of the newspaper is poorly distributed and lost in these variant editions. Big damage to brand through content fragmentation and sub-optimal design. One of the principal advantages of a digital edition as the primary offering for a newspaper to its web subscribers is that it is offering the very same newspaper as to print buyers. That correspondence has to re-inforce the brand and develops a climate of continuity, predictability and reliability between print and web editions.

Why are newspaper publishers chasing these sub-optimal, format-based, solutions so frantically? I suggest that there are two reasons. The first is that the horizontal, hierarchical, RSS-friendly formats such as Google Fast Flip are well suited to the sequential, evolving, 24 hour real time operation of the news room. Better adapted than the page-based format of the traditional broadsheet or tabloid newspapers. My bet is that these horizontal formats, with the accent on left/right movement, will be adopted by news organisations that are not primarily newspapers (Fast Flip is working with article feeds from the BBC and Salon) and that a few newspapers will migrate in this direction.

But most newspapers really need to work with their historic format, a package in which news, editorial, features and photographs are integrated and distributed and which does not absolutely require paper since digital pages also work. Digital newspapers, when they have learnt the strength of the digital package that they can easily become, will adhere to their page-format style, their section-based daily organisation; the inescapable penalty of the daily edition cycle, which imposes deadlines and a rectangular organisation on the news, opinions, stories and illustrations that they contain. The new Apple Tablet/Slate will be good for this whether it is held in portrait or horizontal mode, and the New York Times will be making a mistake it it postrates itself in horizontal mode to make the most of the 11" aluminum casing of the early models.

Bring on the tablet which should be an ideal format for digital editions in all shapes and sizes. If it is any good (and it will be) it will be a wonderful showcase for the New York Times just as it is. Oh yes, for a certainty each edition will need to be 'carefully put to bed' as they used to say on Fleet Street. No more than that. Newspapers will thrive on the web when they know what it is to be a digital newspaper. Remarkably similar in many ways to a print newspaper, but better.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Reasons for not going Digital

We sometimes think that we have heard them all. The reasons for not having a digital edition of a magazine....

But we are still finding some surprising responses in the market. And I do not mean:

  • We will want to do a digital edition when we have sorted out our web site (I mean web sites are never, ever, in that sense 'sorted out').
  • We will want to look at this when our publisher is back from her maternity leave
  • .... when I have finished next year's budget (a budget which should really have a digital revenues component in it, but will not)
  • ........ in three months when our mobile strategy team has reported on our options (as though it were not relevant to the mobile strategy team to take a look at a digital platform that runs smoothly on mobile devices)
Those are some of the none too convincing explanations for inaction that one hears when talking to publishers. But there are some more powerful reasons that occur to our publishing partners. Sometimes my sales patter gets stopped in its tracks.
  • A few years ago, I was trying to persuade the gardening magazine Hortus that they should have a digital edition and that we could easily show them what it would be like if they supplied us with a PDF file. "A what file?" came the response, and it soon dawned on me that Hortus is one of the few magazines that is still entirely printed by hot metal and it would not be a trivially easy matter to spin out a PDF file from their production process. This is the only time that in talking to literally hundreds of magazine publishers that I have encountered a production system which completely eschews the digital. Mind you Hortus is a wonderful quarterly magazine even if somewhat exclusive and I STILL think that a digital edition of it would do rather well. In fact I would really die for an iPhone App for it, but that is another matter, and I am prepared to accept that Hortus does not need to be digital.
  • A couple of months ago, the publisher at another up-market, high-style, magazine which shall be nameless (but not for gardeners) told me that his magazine had such wonderful production values in print that they really did not want to tarnish the brand with a digital offering. I am not sure that he used the word 'sully', but he got pretty close. Like the Hortus guy, this chap had me non-plussed on the other end of the phone. Spluttering. How could one persuade him, if he was not willing to undertake a free trial, that this beautiful magazine would for absolutely sure look even more stunning in a digital format? For if you have looked at high-fashion and high-design magazines on really good monitors (even on humble MacBooks) it is hard to deny that they look even better digitally than in print. Added to which, to put the matter at its bluntest: frankly there is a market out there and if you do not sell subscriptions to the 20 year olds and 30 year olds who want to read everything on their laptop and their mobile phone, the market for such magazines will surely shrink.
  • I was also spluttering yesterday when the circulation director at one of our biggest magazine publishers told me that he would not want to, would not be allowed to sell digital subscriptions to the magazine through the iPhone App store, because such subscriptions would not count towards the ABC circulation and subscription measures which are the bedrock of the advertising business on which the magazines depend. Since I know that the American parents of this publisher are desperate to build up subscription revenues and since I know that the advertising revenues of almost all the magazines in this stable have been collapsing, I found this reasoning less than stellar. This was a conversation about selling subscriptions to the iTunes audience, not about giving away RSS-style App feeds to the magazine content (which in fact the American parent does do for some of these big name magazines).
Mind you, I expect he is right and the last time I looked ABC does not allow Apple certified distribution figures to count in any way towards advertising-related circulation bases. But that really shows us what terrible shape the advertising business is in, and how sublimely irrelevant the ABC methodologies (and the same for BPA statistics) are to the businesses that they purport to serve. I would not put special blame on ABC or BPA for this, but we should be chucking bricks at the movers and shakers in the advertising business. Google and soon Apple will be eating their lunch precisely because the mainstream advertising agencies and publisher networks have not seen how fabulous digital distribution can be for advertisers provided that the technology for measurement and for targeted distribution can be transformed with digital tools. ABC should be 'penalising' magazines for not having measurable digital offerings, not discounting those that do....