Long Live Long Form

In a Mediabeat Interview (click image to view) with Michael Wolff, founder of Newser (“Read Less, Know More”), a news aggregator, Wolff explains: “We take lots of content and make it short, without ripping of someone’s headline or lead. We take a full story and very carefully reduce it to 65-200 words, using editorial skills. People have a need for shorter, faster information. We have to absorb more. The New York Times is a bore; they write for an older world.”

I agree that there is a need for places to get news fast and as a quick, easily digestible read. But reading long-form journalism is not “a bore” or meant for an “older world” (whatever that means) and far from obsolete. And I am sure, Mr. Wolff, that many of the articles that you reduce are written by these “old-world” journalists.

Want proof that long-form journalism is on the rise? Take as an example the news site ProPublica. Its readers like to read long stories, according to the results of ProPublica’s 2011 Reader Survey. Steve Meyers concludes in Poynter that “ProPublica’s not alone here. Long-form journalism is benefiting from new technologies (the iPad) and Web services (Instapaper, Read It Later), curating services (Longreads, Longform) and products (Kindle Singles, Byliner, The Atavist).”

So, Newser, your days might be numbered. Just skimming the surface is becoming the new bore.

We increasingly chose to read content, not just snippets, online. And tablets are exhilarating that pace. Not only do they entice online readers to read longer articles, but they also have an ever-growing impact on users’ willingness to pay for that content.

On that bright note, Happy New Year!

E-Publishing — A Revolution?

 

Got your Kindle/Nook/iPad? Happy?

I love gadgets. I am usually the first to try out a new electronic thingy. I bought a cell phone when they were still as large as a brick; my first PC was a DOS-based IBM XT computer with a floppy disk slot, a 10 MB hard disk drive and 56 KB of memory. Remember DIR [drive:][path][filename] [/P] [/W] [/A[[:]attributes]] [/O[[:]sortorder]] [/S] [/B] [/L] [/V]? I do. I built my first website when it wasn’t fashionable yet to promote one’s personal brand digitally (and not on a blogging-platform, mind you, where you copy and paste and that’s all there’s to it, but by painstakingly hand-coding.)

But using an e-reader? Hmpff.

I like the printed book too much. I like the smell of books. I like dedications in books, authors’ signatures and the memory where I bought the book or who gave it to me. I like to feel the weight of the book, see exactly how much more there is to go before I’m done, before I snap it shut to give it away; or before I write my name in it and put it on my shelf to re-read, where it awaits its turn next to the colorful spines of many other books. I like hardcover books that have their own sewn-in book mark. I like cheap paperbacks with stains, like the one from the memorable flight to Europe, when my daughter spilled Bloody Mary mix all over my bag. The book still smells like a cocktail shaker. Memories like that. And no e-reader can give me that.

But regardless of my nostalgic digging into old times, I am aware, and at awe, that the e-book revolution has arrived! This might be good news for print media in general. Fascinating.

U.S. e-book sales grew from $3 million in 2005 to $88.7 million in the second quarter of 2010. According to the International Digital Publishing Forum, by the end of the third quarter, it had reached $119.7 million. It’s a phenomenon that redefines the nature of reading itself. We are close to the tipping point of forever changing the publishing industry.

New York Women in Communications recently hosted a fascinating panel that gave a glimpse into what publishing will have in store for us. The panelists included Ray Pearce, vice-president, Circulation & Reader Applications at The New York Times; Lauren Indvik, assistant editor at Mashable.com; Matt DeVirgiliis, e-book manager, Digital Rights & Alliances at McGraw Hill Digital; and Sujata Gosalia, associate partner at Oliver Wyman. The moderator was Tim Carmody, a writer at Snarkmarket.com and the founder of Bookfuturism.com.

Now that the iPad and various simpler e-readers have become the must-have gadgets for the avid reader, Google launched its own cross-platform initiative “Google Editions” or simply Goggle eBooks — a hub for purchasing and accessing more than 3 million e-books on various platforms (computer, mobile, e-reader and tablet), giving consumers a choice where, on what platform they read and at what expense. Their initiative is shaping up to be, according to MediaBeat, “the world’s largest library of titles.”

With Google introducing the new purchasing model, there is no more device-restricted downloading; readers freely share content and read it on any device they own in the “cloud,” or pay for downloads in one centralized marketplace, thus taking control away from the e-reader manufacturers that are still vying to curb the distribution of free content.

“For newspapers, Google is ‘very interesting’,” admits Ray. Still, he says, “we, at the newspaper, decide what we want to keep control of, namely our customer care. We want you as a New York Times reader; we want to know who you are. We want to determine a consistent pricing model, no matter the device you read the newspaper on. We need to structure the payment that meets our needs.” And newspaper content online, after the reader exceeds a pre-set amount of downloads will soon disappear behind a pay wall.

Google’s arrival at the e-publishing forefront, “shows how important search is to finding content,” adds Sujata. “They’re a lot of players to influence what users see first and respond to. Now, the end consumer owns the content and thus takes the power away from the manufacturers of the devices.”

But in the new world of publishing and sharing, who has the rights to the content? “We need to find the happy middle,” says Matt. “Keep your customers and your clients in mind and strike a balance; be also careful to safeguard the content for the author.” Adds Ray: “Publishers start to bundle in packages to meet the customers’ needs, like “buy once — access anywhere” wherever it fits me at the time. Most publishers are on that track.”

The publishing industry is met with a growing consumer demand that content ought to be customized to a specific platform. Reading is not a one-size-fits-all experience any longer; depending on the device, readers expect the content, the level of interaction and the ease of accessibility to change across the various platforms.

The average consumer has now changed dramatically: “When the first e-readers hit the market, about 75% of the average readers were young and female,” says Lauren. “The e-publishing market has grown to a billion readers [worldwide, who access content electronically]. Now, the split is even, with shiny devices preferred by men.” But interestingly, readers who use their iPad to access newspapers use these devices almost as they would use their print newspapers: they tend to use their gadgets early in the morning, in the evening and on weekends. According to Ray, during the day, mobile devices and computers are used more frequently to access The New York Times. “E-readers are in between mobile and computers. And size matters: The e-reader wants to conquer your bag; the mobile wants to conquer your pocket and the iPad wants to sit on your coffee table.”

What’s next in e-publishing? “Screen sizes!” predicts Matt. “TVs will use the same apps that are on your mobile. Everything that’s electronic will soon be talking to each other.” “The line of what is publishing, media and technology will blur and interact,” believes Sujata. “For consumer technology and content creators, this is scary but exciting!”

Book authors will rethink their works to fit a certain digital platform. “The criteria for how to judge a ‘good’ novel will change to ‘is it interactive?’” adds Lauren. “Not only how the book is written but how engaging it is. Authors will rethink what they can do with content to reach more consumers.”

Traditional publishers will have to assess how they produce their content and what kind of interactivity and freedom they want to give the reader. “We still need to understand the brand process and how it is accessed, where and by whom,” says Sujata. “How do we rethink the workflow of content creation, layout and how it looks on the various screens and screen sizes?”

In the end, however, all agreed that there will always be a place for printed books, magazines and newspapers in the world. “Overnight, the idea that you cannot charge for digital content evaporated when it became clear that there is no ad revenue online,” concludes Ray. “Customers now expect to pay for content on their gadgets. No more free for all.”

 

Print to Pixel: Mobile E-Readers

Since the introduction of Apple’s iPad, the publishing industry has been on edge. Blamed for the demise of book publishing and at the same time hailed as a savior of print media, Apple’s shiny gadget and its alternatives — smaller, cheaper e-readers — are everywhere: e-book sales jumped 183 percent in the first half of 2010, and Amazon now sells more e-books than hardcovers. And Google just announced its initiative to launch an e-book store Google Editions with an open, in the cloud purchasing and reading model, where all you need is an internet browser to buy any e-book from any platform.

TechCrunch has this to say about Google’s entrance into the e-book market:

“The advantages of not having to go through, for instance, Amazon, when selling your book, are hard to quantify. But the notion that an author will be able to place a widget on their own page, and have the book-buying transaction be self-contained rather than being transferred to Amazon, is significant.”

Hitching a ride on the iPad’s appeal, print media are scrambling to churn out iPad apps with the goal of erecting pay walls for electronic content across all mobile platforms. We will actually have to pay for what we read online.

In addition, people who own or plan to buy an e-reader  are a ready-made audience for newspapers, according to a study released by Scarborough Research. “E-reader devices are becoming an important technology for millions of Americans and our data confirms their emergence as a natural companion to newspapers,” said Gary Meo, senior vice president of digital media and newspaper services for Scarborough Research. “At this point, many newspaper publishers are determining strategies for making their content available on e-reader devices, and this is creating a new opportunity to monetize content and increase readership.”

And that’s not all: According to a study released by the Harrison Group and digital newsstand provider Zinio, digital tablet and e-reader owners read more newspaper articles and books, and they are more likely than non-owners to pay for digital content.

The iPad has raised the bar, but to be fair, it is a full-fledged tablet and not an e-reader. It has a huge, and therefore heavy, full-color, backlit LCD screen, and it only supports Apple formats. It has no free 3G and is the most expensive mobile reader on the market. But it does look gorgeous, and it is especially suited to reading texts with graphics.

For simply consuming e-books, however, e-readers are just fine. Most devices use crisp, monochrome e-ink screen technology that resembles old-fashioned ink; they can be read even in direct light without eyestrain (but not in the dark). New color e-ink screens will enter the U.S. market very soon.

Before buying one of these devices, you need to consider several things: the weight, screen size and price of the reader; your reading habits and your need for free Wi-Fi or access to AT&T’s 3G cellular network, Bluetooth or an USB port; and whether you plan to download various e-book formats, borrow library books in EPUB format (books stored in online library catalogues) or read PDF files.

The following e-readers are currently considered front-runners:

Kindle (Amazon): Often referred to as “the iPod of books,” the Kindle gets glowing reviews; it uses e-ink, is roughly the size of a paperback, and is lightweight and thin. It holds 1,500 books and has a battery life of two weeks. However, it only supports Amazon’s e-books and is the only reader that doesn’t support Goggle Editions or EPUB. It comes with optional free Wi-Fi/3G and a full keypad and offers magazine and newspaper subscriptions (take that, iPad!). The newest edition, the KindleDX, can store more than 3,500 books and has a 9.7-inch screen that can be read both horizontally and vertically.

Nook (Barnes & Noble): Supporting almost all platforms, including e-books in the public domain and EPUB, Nook has an e-ink screen and free Wi-Fi/3G. The recently released Nook Color has a 7-inch color screen. You can “loan” downloads to a friend for up to two weeks and read e-books for free in B&N stores. Nook shows page numbers that differ from the print editions, but many e-readers don’t display pagination at all or only show the portion of the book already read. One drawback is Nook’s baffling navigation system.

Daily Edition (Sony): The first to introduce an e-reader in 2006, Sony uses e-ink with infrared touch-screen technology that allows you to turn pages with a swipe of the finger instead of pushing buttons. The device’s large 7-inch screen makes it bulkier, heavier and more expensive than most e-readers, but it does come with free Wi-Fi/3G.

The Huffington Post has 13 suggestions for iPad alternative tablet PCs.

Are Apple Products “Rotting Our Brains”?

“President Obama has said that devices like Apple’s iPad are rotting our brains. He’s right,” argues Daniel Lyons in Newsweek (…which, by the way, and maybe not coincidentally, was just put up for sale. Maybe out brains really can’t process authoritative weeklies any longer?).

The president believes, “information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of  emancipation.” Lyons continues:

Oh, but we’re very, very busy zombies. We’re reading e-mail. We’re tweeting and retweeting. We’re downloading apps, and uploading photos. We’re updating our Facebook status and reading our news feeds and telling the whole world what we like and don’t like, because for some reason we imagine that the whole world actually cares. You know what we’re not doing? We’re not thinking. We’re processing. There’s a difference. […] No way. What’s happening is this: we are being so overwhelmed by the noise and junk zooming past us that we’re becoming immune to it. We’ve become a nation of Internet-powered imbeciles, with an ever-lower threshold for inanity. Beck and Palin are the inevitable outcome of that devolution. They are what we deserve. They are, in fact, what we’ve created.”

What do you think? See this blog post for my take on what technology does — or doesn’t do— to our brains.

The iPad, A Media Savior?

The iPad has finally arrived! This sleek device with a bright, colorful and vivid display (but an unfortunate name that reminds me of adult diapers), has Apple enthusiasts saluting yet another shiny gadget and the blogosphere and social media buzzing with excitement.

Judging by the reactions of the media, the iPad will save the newspaper and magazine industries from sure demise with one stylish swoop, and with it book publishing and e-book distribution (Hachette, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan already made deals with Apple.)

The British blog FirstPost nicely sums up this mood and warns: “No one is more excited about [the iPad] than publishing and print media companies. To them, the tablet represents a vision of the future that does not involve their extinction. […] The Devil’s bargain is that you have let Steve Jobs be the gatekeeper to your customer and price-fixer of your product.”

Oops.

Newser reports that “unlike Google, Steve Jobs [who, according to the Wall Street Journal, envisions “new money in old media“] sees his mission as helping content providers repackage and sell their wares, rather than giving it away for free.”

Indeed, according to a post on Reflections of a Newsosaur, the new tablets (which the blog refers to as the “Swiss Army knife of media platforms”) have definitely “raised the bar for interactive content delivery. Unfortunately, most media companies already are late in developing editorial and advertising strategies to meet this new challenge.”

The new challenge is to entice users to actually pay for the content they consume. Yet a commenter to Newsosaur’s blog post dismisses this notion and surely represents a majority of readers: “A new uberhyperbolitron [sic] like the iPad won’t make one whit difference for old media. Embedding visual aids with text isn’t going to get somebody to pay for an online ‘newspaper’ when there’s a blogger who’ll gladly do the honor of analyzing news content.” For free, may I add.

That, precisely, is the point. Unless tablets provide a platform to charge consumers for all content, no shiny new device will make old/new media profitable. At least, until readers, who eagerly dished out good money for their gadgets, consider rewarding those who produce the content they so eagerly click through (or copy/paste into their own blogs).

Joshua Benton, writing for NiemanJournalismLab, shares this skepticism. “The iPad, as we know it today, doesn’t change any of the fundamental economics of news commerce. I didn’t see anything today that made me change my opinion that device-based dreams of a news deus ex machina are wishful thinking, and that the difficult revenue decisions will have to be made pan-platform.”

Nevertheless, at least three magazine publishers, Hearst, Conde Nast and Time, have already created mock ups of their magazines for the Apple tablet. The New York Times Company is working on a tablet version of its newspaper; others will follow.

But old media turned new via tablets still play an important function: helping consumers wade through, organize and prioritize the vast amount of information available online. We need to come up with a formula that addresses media-flow overload and information fatigue, caused by relentless, feverish “multitasking,” like reading a magazine on the iPad, writing a blog entry or comment on an iMac, texting or watching a YouTube video on the iPhone and listening to iTunes downloads on an iPod. (By the way, “multitasking” in my view is not reading and listening to music simultaneously, but reading and playing an instrument. But that is a separate post.)

Yes, tablets are the future of interactive media consumption. I want one, too. But I hope that the iPad will eventually do for written content what iTunes did for music: ensure that writers and editors will be rewarded for their work. Without us — the “content providers and developers” — even the nicest tablet will one day go dark.

This post also appeared in Aloud, a blog for New York Women in Communications.