Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Magic of Magazines

I stole this title from the September Editorial Design issue at  Have a look.

For the last couple of years I've spent a lot of time looking at screens, display technologies, platforms, templates and the workflow challenges associated with moving advertising and editorial content to all these zip codes.

Undoubtedly, amidst all this disruption, while some editors and designers have felt threatened, many more at Time Inc, Conde Nast, Bonnier and elsewhere have publicly acknowledged a sense of liberation. After all, they get to "re-imagine" their magazine for the tablet.

Nicolas Bourquin, one of the designers featured at the above link frames the issue nicely: "It's a hard time for magazines, but a fabulous period for editorial design."  The site showcases some truly glorious print magazines that continue to break the design molds. But what about the rest of the population that has to figure out how generate print and digital designs or templates that are economical, serve multiple platforms, are intuitive, and feature world-class designs. And they can't put the consumer to sleep or send an advertiser packing.   

This is not a new conversation but has intensified given the interest in the iPad and the realization that few publishers, from a workflow, design, and organizational perspective were ready for the tablet.  Looked at another way one might ask: Is is time to adopt the web technique of standard templates and layout rules for print and all platforms.

Before designers in the crowd cringe I should add that this suggestion is coming from noted designer Roger Black, President of Ready-Media and his team who say, in chorus: "Never before has world-class design been so available, so accessible, so affordable. A cabal of highly skilled designers have pooled their talents to give you outstanding media templates for both print and web-based formats. featuring a huge variety of pages."

Have a look at I think there is a design solution here for all magazine publishers. Perhaps the independents will find immediate usefulness.  They usually move first.


Re-Org & More Re-Org

I served as VP,  Business Development & Acquisitions at Hachette during the dot com period. Among other duties I stood guard at the executive gate fighting off the scores of pure play companies that promised to buy expensive furniture for their offices and spend no less than 90% of their funding on marketing--if we would only fund their dreams. These desperate pleas fade with time but not the memory of a publishing executive at the place asking me how to spell dot com. I saw this request as an opportunity to excel but that largesse has not kept me from using this incident in speeches in India, China, and Brazil, underscoring how unready we publishers were for this slight "disruption." I promise to tell the same story when I next speak in Russia so I will be able to brag about serenading the entire BRIC panoply with war stories less interesting than a groin injury.

Another recollection--though far less vital--I have of this period was how difficult it was for publishers to organize for digital. Most publishers had early-stage web sites. Some were selling content to AOL. Some saw the virgin Internet, prematurely, as a new, large source of print subscriptions, perhaps even replacing PCH. And in 1995 the first banner ad was born.

Not surprisingly, the first inclination for most publishers--and this is mirrored in other industries--was to set up digital shop as an incubator/skunk works, perhaps off campus from the main business or on a separate floor but definitely, more or less, off-limits.

This is perfectly understandable and predictable. You want the tech savvy to lead the charge. What few of us anticipated was how much disruption even a slightly-funded incubator might cause. By most accounts it has taken the publishing industry almost a decade to move beyond the digital incubator, to stand-alone print/digital entities, to various hybrid organizational models--Rodale has done this very well, to a more integrated, brand-centric approach.  That technology has continued to change and disrupt has not made anyone's job easier.  Whatever the fantasy, Web 2.0 seems a long time ago.

In this spirit the recent re-organization at Conde Nast, with digital responsibilities going to the publishers, among other things, makes considerable sense and acknowledges that "digital technology is front and center in our business, part of everything we do--not off to the side."

These changes are also a sign of a growing digital sophistication in the magazine space and a signal that doing away with silos, though much talked about, is coming to pass.

In hindsight, given the profound legacy and organizational issues to overcome, it was probably inevitable that this maturation would take the better part of a decade.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Look, No Hands

CNN has been running an interesting series on the social and psychological impact of smartphones. This is worth checking out.

The first installment showed an illustration of a man at a French restaurant, face buried in his smartphone while a waiter on a unicycle spins plates on sticks and balances a ball on his nose. This is indeed a case of a picture being worth a thousand words. The artist got it completely right; the waiter is acting out (and parodying) the antics of a smartphone user presumably skilled in multi-tasking. The irony is that the multi-tasker, according to recent research, can't juggle, balance and chew gum as well as he thinks he can.

Stanford University researchers arranged a series of experiments that would test the processing of multiple incoming streams of information on human cognition by individuals pre-determined to be Light Media Multitaskers (LMM) and Heavy Media Multitaskers (HMM).  Earlier research had looked at the effect of multitasking on memory, learning and cognitive functions.  This current effort was to examine whether and how chronic heavy multitaskers process information differently than those who view multitasking as a trait and not a state. If heavy multitasking is associated with deficits in cognitive control, then a change in multitasking behavior might be warranted (or I could ask outside this research, a change in smartphone design?).

The research produced some interesting and perhaps disturbing findings.  HMM performed worse on a test of task-switching ability. These users are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. In short human cognition is ill-suited for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaeously performing multiple tasks.

Some concluding remarks from the researchers: "With the diffusion of larger computer screens supporting multiple windows and browsers, chat, and SMS, and portable media coupled with social and expectations of immediate responsiveness, media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous. These changes are placing new demands on cognitive processing, and especially on attention allocation."

"Many individuals will be increasingly unable to cope with the changing media environment."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rights Clearinghouse from AP

This is a wickedly interesting time for content in the media space. Everyone agrees that publishers must get more revenue from content. Within this call is the decade-old lament that depositing free content on the web resulted in exchanging analog dollars for digital dimes, a finacial metaphor made-to-order for the attentive CFO. And the recognition that, despite the fat-and-happy, ad-rich September fashion magazines, print advertising is unlikely to return to earlier highs.  But you never know.  I recall the palpable angst felt by magazine executives during the dot com period, then the collective sigh of relief when that fantasy imploded. Some execs even danced.

But I don't see much dancing these days. I've probably talked to a hundred publishers during the last year and sense they understand that we are in a period of disruption, not transformation, and they need to stay on their toes. If anything I get the sense that newspaper and magazine publishers are overwhelmed with the opportunities and offers.  At an OMMA conference a few weeks ago a panelist said that technology companies in the recent past had descended on content producers and taken advantage of their ignorance.  I'm not sure about that. But having met with a hundred or more tech companies in the last two years, from start-up to big footprint, I'll admit there's a lot of stuff publishers have been forced to embrace quickly.  And this is not always easy for a profession that seems to be dominated by Liberal Arts majors--me too. 

A friend of mine refers to digital magazines--PDF-style--as representing a bridge technology.  I like the expression because it embodies a number of essential truths; including the recognition that a bridge usually takes you somewhere, except in Alaska I guess. Now there seems a tech company for every "new" iteration of the PDF from basic PDF, to PDF with enhancement tools, to PDF on steroids, to the new world of APPS and rich media. What's a publisher to do?  Add to this brave new world the proliferation of APP stores--keep an eye on Best Buy, the various content consortiums publishers are forming, and the promise of HTML5 that will make the web and us whole again. Did I mention the tablet?

Within all this noise and tech bluster, there are a lot of interesting things going on. From a magazine perspective Next Issue Media seems in good hands and is presumably months away from developing a robust digital storefront for that sector. This morning I read remarks by Tom Curley, President & CEO, Associated Press, delivered to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. He announced the creation of an independent rights clearinghouse for news publishers "to manage the distribution and use of their content beyond their own Web properties."

AP launched a digital cooperative in 2007. Curley reports they now have 1,500 local newspapers and broadcasters sending content to be tagged and returned for use on their web sites. In April 2009 AP created a News Registry to track how content is being used in real time on the Web and get data on consumption patterns. The clearinghouse will be a separate entity that serves both AP and other content creators.

Curley cites three areas of opportunity: 1) the open Web environment that will soon extend to the mobile space via the Android platform. 2) the environment forming around the iPhone and tablet products. These devices connect to a closed marketplace of applications, supported by advertising and paid models. 3) the open and closed "hybrid" enviorment, especially the social networks where information flows between friends and advertising is focused on people rather than content. This space is more difficult to navigate but AP is engaged.

Citing the rapid adoption of Apple and Android Operating Systems Curley suggests that by 2012 "the consumption of news will almost certainly have shifted to screen-based viewing. In other words there will be more touch screens than front pages."

I don't know about the date but he is certainly right that we  are moving beyond websites, search results and RSS feeds.

I think this is a gutsy speech because Curley seems to leave the usual balanced legacy chatter (on the one hand and on the other) at the door and imagines a world where content will have to conform to consumer wants and a multi-platform universe.  He obviously sees the need to disaggregate, mashup and bundle content. That is a brave position for a Brand Manager to take.

"Given the way the mobile world is developing, news will need to flow to the screens in any number of ways. Of course, we'll continue to package our news into websites and apps, but news will also continue to be scraped, copied, pasted, aggregated and searched by others."

"Within the new rights clearinghouse initiative, we are hoping to give news publishers more tools to pursue audience and capture value beyond the boundaries of their digital publications."

We can all learn from the AP view of the role of content in the emerging device eco-system.  Curley views the world as it is and not as he wants it to be. That is a very gusty position for any business or association to take. /pressreleases/

Down on the Farm

I'm very disappointed that Facebook is transmitting user IDs within certain apps, according to the WSJ.  This includes FarmVille, a virtual game with almost 60 million users.  In the past I only played at farming on my 10-acre spread in Hellertown, PA.  FarmVille provided a dose of the real thing; now I have to worry about the names of my dairy herd passed around the web like loose virtual change. I suppose I should be content to use IHeart, a tool for sending hearts to my friends. There is no danger here; they already know my Social Security number and know I spend an inordinate amount of time with Texas HoldEm, an online poker game.

Up to very recently New York teachers who were accused of something or other were put in a so-called "rubber room," for at least three years or any number divisible by three. In the same spirit I'm wondering if there should be a place for us brethren who spend too much time poking around the app stores? I have heard there are about 500,000 paid and free apps at our favorite stores. We know Apple and Google offer too many apps; and Palm and RIM too few. Thank goodness there is a growing number of companies that help us find great apps; such as CHOMP, an app discovery engine.

Almost overnight I decided to end the love affair with my fantasy dairy herd and spend less time at the online poker table. I decided I wanted meat and instruction in my apps. I wanted to become a better person and an improved cyclist. Years ago I had been editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine but it's only natural that sooner or later one forgets where exactly is that pesky bottom bracket.

I asked CHOMP a ton of very practical questions, in my search for killer applications, including: how do I determine the correct saddle height or the angle of the drops on my racing handlebars in relation to Mother Earth.  The tape on my handlebars always peels off into the wind and I wanted an app to attack that. With my eyesight getting poor I hit a lot of potholes and small animals and was looking for an app on wheel alignment or how to mend a broken spoke. I see countless parents trying in-vain to adjust their kid's bicycle helmet. Surely there is a line of code for that. 

I am a huge fan of discoverability and am ready to admit I need to sharpen my questions and protocol.

In the meantime I am confident that Zynga, the maker of social games, will figure out a way to marry their very popular Mafia Wars with something more useful and pedestrian, like Lancing Saddle Sores at
40 MPH.

No names, please.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Letters from China

 I've been visiting China for more than forty years, first in the Navy with obligatory stops in Hong Kong (and an occasional excursion into the mainland, usually on a dare.) More recently I have visited China as a businessman and an amateur observer of the scene, always remembering what an English friend told me when Britain returned HK to China: Hang around here a thousand years and you might learn something.

On each stop in Hong Kong our ship was asked to give blood to the local Red Cross. In exchange we would get more orange juice than our bladders could handle--and the day off.  As far as I could tell, it was mainly the enlisted men giving blood, which has a certain bloody irony to it. Every port we visited, we were asked to give blood. I could understand donating blood in Iwakuni, close to Hiroshima. And even Sasebo, Japan, not far from Nagasaki. We were young but knew from our training about Blast, Heat, and Radiation. And we saw the faces.

It probably struck no one aboard my ship as a little odd that we stopped on this symbolic mercy mission in Japan on our way to Vietnam where we would deliver 2,000-pound bombs to aircraft carriers to drop on North Vietnam. I have a feeling the U.S. Navy is donating blood there now.

I bought my first suit in Hong Kong and the tailor threw in all the ties I could carry.  That I lost these treasures in a typhoon in the South China Sea only makes them more precious. Who could have guessed this precious stuff would become commodities at Wal-Mart in a little more than a generation. This is delicately referred to as the balance of trade.

I'm not in the Navy now but in the media business. The pursuits are not all that different as on each watch we spend a fair bit of time at sea. I have worked in about twenty countries and none is as interesting as China.  Every Western publisher goes into China understanding the Hobson's choice; that is, don't worry about the censorship, press restrictions, inability to own editorial production.  Just having Western magazines and books in China--forget about newspapers for a moment, would help transform the country from within.

Last time I checked, of the top 10 lifestyle magazines in China, 9 are imports.  I've watched the quality, range, design, and editorial presentation of Chinese domestic magazines improve in the last decade.  However, the basic publishing formula has not changed. Censorship, which largely means self-censorship, is alive and well. That pesky Internet firewall, perhaps the most robust in the world (or at  least on par with Saudia Arabia and Iran), is as muscular as ever. Symbolically and actually, the Chinese government is the Editor and Publisher of last resort.

Today The Wall Street Jornal reported that two dozen Communist Party elders called for abolishing the system of censorship in favor of a system of social responsibility. They were equally emphatic about the Internet: "The Internet is an important platform of exchanging information and opinions. Internet regulators shouldn't arbitrarily delete online posts and comments, except when it really involves national secrets or infringes on personal privacy."

The letter writers complain that they enjoy less freedom of speech than Hong Kong had before its return to Chinese sovereignty. The authors demanded the abolition of the "invisible black hand" of censorship which controls China's media.

On the one hand, China is blasting Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Noble Peace Prize as a traitor. On the other hand, senior Communist Party officials have openly challenged some basic assumptions of a state-controlled media.

By all means keep a close eye on the Liu drama. But pay even closer attention to this Chinese manifesto.

So far, so good: no blood.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Technology of Psychological Disruption

In his October 4, 2010 NYT column "Change or Perish" Roger Cohen wrote a brilliant acccount, tinged with both a humanist's glee and regret, about the technologies of the last decade that have transformed our lives, from search, to apps, to Google maps, and the second coming of the Tablet.

"Before homogenization, when there was mystery, before aggregation when the original had value, before digital, when there was vinyl, before Made In China, when there was Mao, before stress management, when there was romance, we had the impression we were doing all right."

Cohen cites Marx when the philosopher was right: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production ...and with them the whole relations of society."

Cohen asks, rhetorically: "How strange to think we had to change everything or we would not be managing at at."

That is probably as far as he can go as a journalist, listing the before and after and in-between worlds that technology has defined and disrupted. As a student of Jungian psychology I wonder what impact these technologies will have on our Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes that have contributed to our humanness (or lack of it) over the millennia. As my friends lament: what's going to happen to Psyche?  More simply put: what effect does a 24/7 world have on our interior life, our dreams and quiet spaces that Cohen is talking about.

During the lasr two years I have met with and listened to at least 100 tech startups of one kind or another. Most were interesting and had something to contribute to the media space. At the recent OMMA Gobal conference in New York one of the speakers spoke about all the tech companies surrounding the media space, feeding off the ignorance of publishers. He had a point, of course. I also wonder how much of this is really about revolutionizing the instruments of production? I vaguely remember some of that going on during the Dot Com period. During that time I met with dozens of companies who were going to transform the media space. Right now I have trouble remembering one of them, though I do have fond menories of the Sock Puppet.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Man & His Bicycles

Nicholas D. Kristof had a very interesting column in the September 15, 2010 New York Times. It was about a Chicago business executive from the SRAM Corporation who formed World Bicycle Relief in 2005. This was also a human-interest piece about students in Zimbabwe who received 200 bicycles from WBR for their commute to school. These are not high-end racing bikes; rather 55-pound one-speed bikes "that need little pampering." The organization has given out 70,000 bicycles to date.

The article reminded me of Bob Rodale, deceased chairman of Rodale, who would have loved the piece. Mr. Rodale had a great interest in cycling of all kinds but especially cycling as utility. He was a champion skeet shooter and at one of his competitions he saw a bicycle racing track, a velodrome. He decided to build an Olympic class facility in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. When watching the heavily-muscled track racers, Mr. Rodale thought this considerable leg power could be used for such activities as cutting wood, generating electricity, and even pumping water. To that end he established a small engineering team at his company, with imput from bicycle racers, to find practical uses of pedal power. At his request I edited a book titled Pedal Power in Work, Leisure, and Transportation largely written by engineering professors from MIT and Oxford University.  I believe it was translated into a dozen languages.

Mr. Rodale later purchased Bicycling Magazine and relaunched it with an emphasis on using the bike for health, fitness and well-being. He was an avid cyclist and a bicycle commuter.  He loved all the shiny new toys that the bike racers brought to the Trexlertown velodrome, but he never lost the sense that the bicycle was first and foremost for transportation and utility.

Twenty-five years later Mr. Rodale would applaud Kristof for the article, and executives at SRAM for organizing such a useful effort, and  the Trek Bicycle Corp for their support. Kristof is no romantic; he knows all about donor fatigue and weariness with African corruption and repeated aid failures. But he also knows this is very practical and useful form of aid.

Mr. Rodale, a fan of Small Is Beautiful, was a firm believer in appropriate technology or technology appropriate to the task. That orphans in Zimbabwe are some of the recipients of these bicycles would only warm his heart more.

Chuck McCullagh