The art of reinvention

A recurring theme of this week’s Digital Media Strategies 2013 conference in London was reinvention.

Here’s the drill: the transition from traditional media to digital media is disruptive and while it doesn’t necessarily destroy it does fragment and when those fragments are pieced together they are often done so in ways completely different from before.

That’s the theory. What about the practice? Here are three examples:

The Economist is now a radio broadcaster. Well not quite but it does deliver 1.5 million audio streams a month, according to Nick Blunden. That presents an interesting opportunity, he argued, because it allows The Economist not just to compete for scarce “reading time” but — given people can listen while doing something else — also to compete for their “free time”.

Auto Trader: the people behind this new-and-used car magazine have turned themselves from publisher to search provider; an obvious move in retrospect for a listings paper but, most likely, brave at the time. That initial move last decade has, said Trader Media Group’s Nick Gee, made the “transition to mobile relatively easy”. Now a third of their traffic comes from mobile phones. And, given the rate of growth, Gee predicted that like Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, he’ll be able to call Trader Media a mobile company by the end of the year.

Computer Weekly, launched in 1966, was the world’s first weekly technology newspaper  and became the UK’s last weekly technology newspaper when it stopped printing in 2011. The transition from print to print-plus-digital to digital-only brought with it new lessons and insights, said editor-in-chief Bryan Glick. For example, “We moved from knowing exactly who was subscribing but no idea what they were reading to knowing exactly what they were reading but no idea who they were.” Online registration has since underpinned Computer Weekly’s business model.

Another insight: the assumption that news was what the reader craved did not quite hold up to scrutiny. “News attracts [readers] but long form is what keeps them there,” he said. Where once the ratio of stories was 70:30 in favour of news the editorial team now produce as many long form pieces as they do news stories.

I’ve written more about The Economist and Auto Trader talks over on the Press Gazette — and plan to flesh out some thoughts about Glick’s very interesting Computer Weekly presentation in due course.


Earlier this month MacFormat editor Christopher Phin set out to try to answer the following, deceptively simple question: What is a magazine? Phin’s contribution wasn’t designed to be the last word on the subject. Rather it was a collection of thoughts, an opening gambit to a conversation that is particularly live as we contemplate digital alternatives/replacements/companions.

Other have since chipped in (naturally there’s a Twitter hashtag — #whatisamagazine — pulling it all together) but it’s Phin’s original and Alan Rutter’s immediate response that strike a chord. Both are well worth reading in full but I’ve picked out what, for my money, are the most compelling points from each, arguments that throw down a challenge to those thinking digital.

First Phin:

A magazine is a curated thing; knowledge, refined … The amount of information available on the internet is one of its great weaknesses as well as a great strength; never mind finding stuff, never mind the cognitive overload required to track down all the good stuff and organise it; part of what you buy a magazine for is trusting that someone’s curated or created the best stuff about the things you care about. Can smarter algorithms obviate this? I suspect not, not without a change in AI that is impossible, practically, for us to envisage in all but the most abstract terms. But might they dramatically shift the balance? And what about filtering information that your social circle unearths? Does that circle jerk actually expose you to new, fresh, challenging information? Does it have to? And so on.

Rutter continues this thought when he writes that a magazine is Finite:

Sometimes when you’re thirsty, you’d like a glass of water – rather than having a firehose opened up directly into your face (that last bit represents the internet, by the way). As we curate, we create a cohesive and satisfying package. This can and is replicated in digital as well as print. Try giving a user a long piece of writing on a digital device without any progress bar, page counter or other indication of how far through it they are – they will hate it. It’s disconcerting. We like to complete things.

He adds that a magazine is:

An experience, not a commodity … Magazines that were primarily functional (classifieds, listings, basic news) have been the hardest hit by the rise of digital. But buying most magazines is an emotive act rather than a rational one. Vogue is not ‘task-oriented’.

This last point is difficult to overstate. Unlike Vogue, the Financial Times is ‘task-oriented’ (and a newspaper not a magazine) but the purchasing decision, like that of Vogue, is at least in part driven by emotion.

This is something that the FT editor Lionel Barber acknowledged in an interview with the Guardian a week ago. Having spent much of the interview reflecting on the importance of digital for the 125-year-old newspaper, he then sets out why print remains important (the emphasis is mine):

“It is still a vital source of advertising revenue,” he says, “and I want to make sure the newspaper survives for quite a while. It’s also a fashion accessory, a marketing device. And some people, admittedly our older buyers, still want to read newsprint.


Update: I’ve fleshed out these thoughts in this Press Gazette blog post.

How Big Data led Netflix to House of Cards

Interesting piece by Andrew Leonard over on Salon about Netflix. The standfirst reads “‘House of Cards’ gives viewers exactly what Big Data says we want. This won’t end well”, and here are a couple of pertinent passages:

In 2012, for the first time ever, Americans watched more movies legally delivered via the Internet than on physical formats like Blu-Ray discs or DVDs. The shift signified more than a simple switch in formats; it also marked a major difference in how much information the providers of online programming can gather about our viewing habits.

For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well regarded 1990 BBC miniseries. Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher.

It’s worth taking the time to read it in full.

(hat tip: Chris Applegate)

Tyranny of the expert summariser

I wrote something grumpy for last week’s New Statesman about football, the BBC and pun-soaked platitudes. Here’s how it began:

In the early Noughties when broadcasters still bothered to find new uses for the interactive red button, the Beeb began offering viewers of live football three audio options – the TV commentary, the Radio 5 Live commentary or the sound of the crowd. Public service broadcasting at its best and, naturally, I chose the crowd.

Now that there’s no such choice, I press mute instead. Anything to escape the reverse alchemy that invariably results when middle- aged men with lip mics share commentating duties. Tell me I’m not alone.

It’s certainly not this column’s role to do anyone out of a job – especially in these recessionary times – but surely football-watching would remain undiminished if we did away with the odd commentator or co-commentator, sometimes laughably referred to as the “expert summariser”.

Where we crave insight and analysis, we get platitudes and pre-prepared, pun-soaked soliloquies to fill the dead air. (Really, what’s wrong with dead air?)

You can read the full thing here.