Online content sites face many hurdles if they are going to succeed in a world of aggregators and controversial advertising models. And there is still demand for "dead trees and ink."
Mobile is the future of publishing. That's what a debate among four industry experts concluded.
The debate was called "Digital Publishing: The End of Print?" and was hosted by Inforum at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. The panelists included Clara Jeffery, editor-in-chief at Mother Jones; Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite; Laney Whitcanack, chief community officer at Federated Media; and Chris Taylor, deputy editor at Mashable. The only print publication on the panel was Mother Jones, which publishes six issues a year.
The experts have good reason to believe in mobile, especially tablets. A recent Pew Research report found that tablets and smart phones are increasing news consumption. "Tablets will outsell PCs in two years," said panelist Whitcanack. But no one's quite sure what the new, mobile future is going to look like.
Since the panelists didn't talk much about print, I asked Todd Vogt, owner of the San Francisco Examiner, why he focused on the print edition. "I'm not anti-tablet," he said, "I've got a brand new tablet app in development right now. But at this point there's still a demand for trees and ink. For a hyper-local paper like the Examiner, we lose our ability to reach our target audience."
Back at the debate the discussion pivoted on what publishing companies can and should be doing with smart phones and tablets. Johnson of Zite, a mobile content discovery app, said one of the main reasons magazine apps fail is because they generally don't take advantage of mobile devices' capabilities in advertising or editorial. Reading a magazine on a tablet is a lot like reading a print magazine, or a static Web article. One reason some people read print magazines such as Vogue is for the beautiful ads, he said.
Johnson believes there are examples of success. "The Reader's Digest app is innovative and combines games and info graphics to hook readers," he said.
Evan Wexler is a journalist and interactive designer at News Corp's The Daily, a mobile-only media outlet. Wexler wasn't on the panel but is in the trenches developing new interactive storytelling techniques. Wexler said that editors these days are more interested in stories with quantitative elements. Some of the best new journalism stories are extended visual ruminations on those stats, Wexler said. "These new interactive mediums have a nascent grammar, but a grammar nonetheless."
Another example of innovation brought up by the experts is the San Francisco Public Press. It's a print broadsheet for sale on San Francisco's streets. The twist is that you don't need cash to buy one. Its sales force is outfitted with iPhones and tablets equipped with the Square, a mobile credit card reader.
Revenue was a hot panel topic. Currently most media outlets earn online revenue from selling ads based on page views. Although there wasn't consensus on a new way forward, everyone agreed that the page view "system is doomed," said Jeffery of Mother Jones.
Jeffery also said the immediate problem is worsened by content aggregators such as The Huffington Post and Mashable. Those companies, she said, republish content that Mother Jones and others spend millions to create. Chris Taylor of Mashable said that the Huffington Post recently hired a few highly acclaimed journalists but he didn't comment on Mashable.
Even print publishers such as Vogt are frustrated with aggregators. "They just steal our stuff," Vogt said. "I can't wait for the day when everyone just shuts off their feeds." Vogt refers to news feeds that media organizations make available as a convenience to their readers.
The experts agreed that an important component to publisher's survival--in any medium--is reader loyalty. Organizations such as NPR give away all of their content but have loyal users that they ask to donate to support the organization. "They operate a very effective pay wall of guilt," Jeffery said.
When the moderator brought up social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, Whitcanack from Federated Media said that these new platforms don't generate value for media outlets and publishers. Media companies--companies that already have billions in revenue--effectively fuel social platforms' growth, Whitcanack said. The other publishers on the panel agreed.
What's clear from all of this is that print isn't going to disappear overnight, but mobile is here and the market is changing. Fast.
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