Very little of what I write actually gets printed on paper anymore. Most people read my stories online. But most publishers – magazine publishers especially – haven’t adjusted well to digital. The visual presentation is boring, often awkward and sometimes downright ugly. The text is hard to read. A beautiful two-page spread from a major magazine feature gets stripped of its best design elements online. It just stands there, naked.
It’s not all the publishers’ fault. So far, no technology has been able to do justice to the beauty and class of glossy magazine articles. Three weeks ago, I was skeptical about the future of digital magazines . But in the course of reporting a story on e-readers, I’ve learned about recent developments in both publishing and technology that could bring magazines fully into the digital age.
First, e-readers are catching on fast. There are about 50 e-readers on the market today. Semiconductor companies, excited by the potential, are jumping into the market with chips that offer faster speeds and more functions at lower costs. These chips will enable new e-reader makers to enter the market. The drop in electronics cost combined with the increased competition could cut the price of an e-reader – the least expensive of which is about $250 today – to less than $100 by year end. To differentiate themselves, e-reader vendors are experimenting with designs, including a hinged reader that would open up like a magazine, according to Gregg Burke, manager of the e-book business line of chips recently introduced by Texas Instruments. He thinks such a product could be on the market by December 2010.
The displays are still limited to black and white, but some promising color technologies are on the horizon. Jennifer Colegrove, director of display technologies at consultant DisplaySearch, says that within five years, rich, full-color e-magazines could be common.
Second, publishers seem to be finally loosening their death grip on the old print model and rethinking how to sell their product in digital form, taking a cue from Amazon’s Kindle and its digital newsstand, which offers dozens of magazines, including Time, Forbes and Fortune. Hearst Corp. recently launched Skiff, a digital magazine and newspaper service for e-readers. And in December, a consortium of publishers, including Time Inc., Conde Nast, Meredith, Hearst and News Corp., announced a joint venture to create a digital storefront for their magazines.
Independent companies also are trying to make a business out of distributing digital magazines. Zinio claims to be the largest digital newsstand in the world, offering 1,900 consumer magazine titles.
The big question is whether publishers can and will design their content for multi-dimensional digital media rather than plain old analog paper. After all, why would I pay $3 a week for a digital subscription to Forbes when I can already read it on my PC for free? Several reasons:
• It’s hard work to read a long magazine article on a PC. All that scrolling and jumping through pages. Plus the text is hard to read, at least for middle-aged eyes. Take one look at the crisp display of an e-reader and you’ll immediately appreciate the difference.
• I want to read that magazine at the dinner table, in bed or on the subway – NOT at my desk when I’ve got more important stuff to do.
• I get articles with beautiful color and layouts, articles that are presented even more attractively online than on glossy paper.
• I get interactive features that are fun, useful and informative. Clicking on a photo of baseball star Manny Ramirez, for example, might reveal a list of his stats.
Technology is already delivering on the first two points, but that won’t be enough. As for the last two, the next year will be critical. I hope the technology to present rich color develops quickly. I hope magazine publishers invest the time, money and effort to get it right. (To get a sense of how magazines could develop, see this video from Swiss media company Bonnier AB.)
Magazines just might survive. I plan to buy an e-reader so I’ll have a front-row seat to watch.