Amazon goes back to the future

dbpix-company-borders-tmagArticleAmazon is opening brick and mortar stores! “What a world, what a world!” to quote the melting Wicked Witch of the West.

It seems that after spending its first 20 years putting local bookstores out of business, the company has realized: Hey, gosh, people really like local bookstores.

I should mention that Amazon.com put out of business not just thousands of local bookstores but also countless outposts of chain bookstores. Mall standbys like Borders, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, B. Dalton, and Waldenbooks are for the most part but a memory.

Perhaps Amazon can lease spaces formerly occupied by some of these businesses. After all, “Their goal is to open, as I understand, 300 to 400 bookstores,” said the CEO of a shopping mall who has apparently been in contact with Amazon.

Maybe Amazon can somehow make a go of brick-and-mortar stores. Maybe it knows something the defunct bookstores did not. Maybe it has enough time and money that it can afford to experiment. Maybe it has a long enough runway that it will figure it out. Maybe it has some secret algorithms that can help. Maybe Jeff Bezos himself will be stocking shelves in the back. Who knows?

But I think we can all agree that it’s spectacularly odd that the company that’s probably responsible for people even coining the term “bricks-and-mortar” is pursuing this strategy. What a world.

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Media gut check: Gods (BuzzFeed and Facebook) help us!

It’s too late to be timely on this, considering January is now over, but I finally read Mat Honan’s Wired piece about media start-ups. I’ve called out some key passages below, but the highlight of Honan’s piece happened off-page. The setup of the print-article-about-online-media-startups thing was awkwardly funny enough, but the punch line of the whole situation is that this was Honan’s last feature for Wired because after interviewing BuzzFeed for the article, he left to take a job at BuzzFeed. In this Wired piece, he wrote, “Everyone wants a piece of BuzzFeed.” The irony either stings or tickles, depending on your perspective.

The best encapsulation of the piece comes at the end, but I’m going to put it right up front so as not to bury Honan’s conclusion. It comes down to this:

Here is the big secret: Nobody has it figured out. Everyone’s just hoping not to be totally fucked six months from now! There’s no retreating from the unbundled story. We aren’t going to start going back to the front pages of websites any more than we’re going to go back in droves to print. Times will change, but they won’t change back. Which means that, ultimately, the best and only way for publishers to win your attention is with really good stories. A good story, well told and suited for its audience, has always been the thing and always will be. But never more than now, when the story has to live on its own.

Hey, that’s what I’m always saying! More from Honan:

The media has been so completely flattened and democratized that your little sister can use the same distribution methods as the world’s most powerful publishers. She has instant access to you—potentially to everyone—and she doesn’t need to invest in broadcast towers or a printing press, satellites or coaxial cable….Even Hearst never had to compete with corgi videos. But the thing is, the media isn’t just competing with your little sister—it’s co-opting her, using her as a vector to spread its content. She is the new delivery mechanism. The question for news publishers is no longer how to draw an audience to their sites, it’s how to implant themselves into their audience’s lives.

The must-see publication of the 21st century is the first vibration in your pocket. While news apps have to be fast, they also have to practice restraint. Vibrate a pocket too often and people will delete your app for being annoying. Gone from the homescreen! And good luck getting someone to try it again.

[BuzzFeed’s Dao] Nguyen sees BuzzFeed as a technology company as much as a media company, and that means investing in data and software. “When media companies think of growth, they tend to think of it as a marketing function,” Nguyen says. “We talk about growth as a technology function—building tools and products, and making changes in your platform.” …BuzzFeed has tools like a headline optimizer. It can take a few different headline and thumbnail image configurations and test them in real time as a story goes live, then spit back the one that is most effective. Once a story goes up, an algorithm looks at the early traffic and social activity and predicts whether it is going to be a hit.

“There’s a lot of precedent of distribution companies and content companies building businesses together,” [BuzzFeed’s Jonah] Peretti says. “[But] the algorithms are always changing. We have a very long-term view, and the only way to succeed in the long run is to make content people love to share with their friends, tell stories that are meaningful to people’s lives, and break news stories that have an impact on the world.”

Honan’s summary of the media’s (co?)dependence on Facebook…

When Facebook is the distribution mechanism, its whims dictate what your audience sees. A single decision about what kinds of content should appear in the News Feed could take away hundreds of millions of readers from BuzzFeed.

…leads nicely into Will Oremus’s Slate article about the same. Oremus’s piece is a well-done brief but complete summary of the way website publishing has evolved dramatically over the past not-even-decade, from the user typing in a URL to searching on Google to social sharing. He discusses how the media ran toward the ball each time, first gaming Google’s algorithms and then Facebook’s.

In fact, Facebook has flipped the script on the publishers, who are now utterly reliant on Facebook’s social media juju for their paychecks. Basically, Facebook has told publishers that videos will auto-play on Facebook users’ news feeds—but only if those videos were uploaded via Facebook, not via an outbound link to the publisher. So if a publisher merely posts a video link to its (probably very expensively produced!) own content, it will get dinged by Facebook. Oremus summarizes the problem thusly:

Facebook is now cutting your website out of the equation entirely when it comes to videos, the fastest-growing and most lucrative online medium. If you post a video on your site, it is likely to be received poorly on Facebook, and very few people will see it, so you won’t make much money. If you post it on Facebook, it may be seen by millions. But the advertisements in Facebook’s news feed belong to Facebook, not you. The side effect of posting a video on Facebook is to make Facebook the publisher of that video and to demote [publishers] to the role of producer. The only question is whether Facebook will deign to share any of that money with you.

His prediction?

Facebook will set the terms for the sharing of revenue from videos posted in its news feed, and those terms will be very favorable to Facebook. Each website will have to decide for itself whether to accept those terms. Many will resist, recognizing that they can’t possibly make as much money from videos posted on Facebook as they did back when Facebook generously linked out to videos hosted on their own sites. But some will accept, eager to be on the leading edge of the latest trend in content distribution. Some may lose money on the deal, but that doesn’t actually matter. Because those that accept will be, by and large, startups backed by venture capitalists who are willing to lose money for years as long as they’re winning market share. The holdouts will hew as long as they can to their outmoded practice of posting links on Facebook instead of full videos, but eventually they’ll either give in or lose out.

He goes on to predict that video is just the beginning, and you just know he’s right.

If Facebook and its users find that video works better when it’s embedded in the news feed, they might soon find that the same principle applies to gifs, listicles, photo essays, and even full news articles. Facebook could start by displaying a short preview in users’ news feeds, as it does now. Then, when the user hovers over the preview, the rest of the post could drop down. Posting full articles on Facebook, rather than just linking to them, would of course be optional for publishers. But it isn’t hard to imagine a Facebook blog post in late 2016 innocently advising partners in the media that full stories posted directly to the news feed appear to be doing quite well on the social network.

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Time Inc. parties like it’s 2009, makes an app

Image: Fiscal Times

Warning: This post contains unsafe levels of sarcasm and eye rolling.

You may have begun your winter vacation last week, but while you were enduring awkward conversations with your extended family, the Time Inc. PR department was working overtime to convince the public that the magazine producer is thriving in this newfangled technological world of ours. All those olde timey magazines? Who cares? Time Inc. is making apps now. That’s right: apps. Everyone knows that apps are the future! Ever since 2008, which was six years ago, when the App Store launched, apps have been the future. But now Time Inc. is getting into the game, so watch out every other app, of which there were 25 billion on iOS as of May 2013! Clearly we have all—all of us in digital media, and, well, all of us everywhere around the world—been waiting to see just what kind of technology the minds at the magazine company Time Inc. will devise.

Time Inc. doesn’t just want to be known and just to operate as the publisher of popular magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated, InStyle and People any more. It wants to become a technology company too, launching its own products to rival the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce and even Tinder.

Does it now? I’ll bet those folks can do it! I mean, it wants to be a tech company. It wants to rival the biggest social networks on this planet. So it stands to reason that it can!

Ever since former owner Time Warner announced it was to spin off Time Inc. into a separately publicly traded company last year, Time Inc. has been making some loud noises that it’s not just a dusty old magazine publisher that doesn’t understand digital.

They’re making loud noises, people! About the assumption that they don’t understand digital just because their sites are still running on technology from the 1990s! Wha, wha, what was that? A loud noise, that’s what.

With so much change affecting the publishing industry—first with the move to web, then search, social and mobile—Time is saying “we don’t want to be surprised any more, we want to find ways to get ahead of that curve. They are working to get ahead of that curve and become a tech company.”

Oh, wow. They are working on being ahead of the curve to become a tech company! Did you hear that, all the other tech companies and websites? They are working on it!

M. Scott Havens, Time Inc.’s SVP of digital, told Business Insider “We are building [standalone] apps and businesses.”

No! They are building apps? Apps?! My god, apps! What a brilliant idea! Has anyone ever built—is it pronounced apps? Am I saying that right?

[The first app is] Cooking Light Diet, a mobile app that delivers customized meal plans on a weekly basis.

What! You’re telling me this team of hundreds was able to develop an app that updates once a week? Do they have push alerts? Because if this weekly app has push alerts…

The process started a year ago, when Time Inc. came up with the idea for the product last spring. By May, Time Inc. had 500 paying customers using the service (which, at $18.99 a month, isn’t cheap), giving it the confidence to push ahead with a full launch.

Holy moley! This once-a-week app took only a year to make! And they have 500 users! Yes, five hundred! Let’s see, 500 users times $19 each? Why, that’s almost $10,000 a year in revenue after only one year of development! So really it’s all profit, minus the roughly $5 million to $10 million in costs!

A “young guy” working on the Sports Illustrated editorial team recently had a great idea for an “utilitarian app,” which Havens describes as a kind of Tinder meets Yelp. The guy told his editor, who allowed him to work on the project (at the expense of his time working on Sports Illustrated) with Havens. The company is now working on a prototype.

Wait, what? A young guy had an idea? And they let him work on it?! Holy crap, this is a game changer. And it’s probably going to be more popular than Tinder and Yelp, because it meets them both, according to this one young guy.

Time Inc. is borrowing the tools (and buzzwords) of Silicon Valley with a fast, lean approach to product development. This “minimum viable product” has four digital product experts who work with people at the individual lifestyle magazine brands to develop new products in two-week cycles.

Oh, wow, they’re using Agile, Lean and MVP? I mean, “MVP”? Wow. Well, sorry digital companies, it’s over for you. Time Inc. has figured it out. They’ve hired four different experts, so…it’s kinda game over for everyone else.

Such a change in mindset and business focus requires a huge cultural reorganization. Processes are different, priorities change, even desk layout ought to be different than a traditional newsroom.

Wait, you’re saying that you just need to rearrange the desks in order to make this a digital company, not a “dusty old media” company? So easy! I’m not sure if the union will go for that, but they might just be right about the seating chart being the key to disrupting this whole industry.

Havens hints that everything from consumer apps, b2b technologies and content for watches, cars and refrigerators are all being considered.

Oh, wow. Is there anything this old magazine company that knows nothing about any of those industries can’t do?! Watch your back, all of those above-mentioned multibillion-dollar corporations that are also doing all of these things but with a working knowledge of their industries and without a legacy media business to run!

It’s easier for Time Inc. to adopt this approach now than it would have been a decade ago, though, said Reed Phillips, managing partner of media investment bank DeSilva & Phillips.

Yeah, totally! If they’d been able to develop social media a decade ago, they’d definitely have been ahead of the curve. Time Inc., your PR department makes it pretty clear that you have many great ideas (and plans!) on how to be an tech-industry leader. All I can say is good luck with that.

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Diagnosis for magazine apps: Terminal lack of innovation

Yes, I’m quoting myself back to myself. Is there an echo in here? But almost a year ago to the day, I asked whether magazine apps would be the ruin of publishers, noting that they spend countless dollars producing a product that few readers know or care about. I said that the app field has been leveled, and as an industry the media needed to develop a strategy around apps instead of blindly groping in the dark. In fact, I called for the media to out-and-out rewrite the rules to benefit our business! Rah-rah!

None of that happened.

And here we are, a year later, and things are worse than ever for tablet magazine apps. Eddie Vassallo’s piece on Gigaom today points out that this summer’s iOS7 update made things even worse for publishers, deemphasizing the Newsstand app, hiding its contents and removing its update alerts.

Jon Lund reported in October that “there’s not much room for magazine apps” on people’s phones and tablets, considering that the average mobile user has 41 apps on his or her smartphone but opens only eight of them daily.

Not to be all “I told you so” about it, but that’s what happens when you rely on others’ rules and don’t spend capital inventing or investing in ways to put your product into the public consciousness, be it via technology or user experience or content quality.

In summary, the situation is even worse than it was a year ago, when it was eminently obvious to me — a workaday journalist and decidely amateur observer of the media industry — that tablet magazine apps were sounding the death knell. So how is it not now utterly apparent to those who have the ability to actually instigate change?

Vassallo says that “it’s absolutely understandable that choosing the apparent ‘quick win’ of InDesign-generated apps…or even PDF-wrapper solutions provide a cheap and rapid route to the App store. But it’s been a false economy, and there simply is no time to waste waiting for things to improve,” adding that “It’s time for magazine publishers to abandon the easy options and make the hard decisions that will save their digital titles.”

If I could go back in time and metaphorically shake Vassallo, his clients and anyone else who would listen by the shoulders, I’d do it. With tablet sales skyrocketing yet spending on new media models nonexistent, I am gobsmacked at the lack of leadership across the magazine and newspaper industries. I’m concerned about what the future of media can possibly be if we are collective deer in the headlights as the big rig of technology bears down on us.

I said it a year ago and I’ll repeat it today: We must harness our strengths and lead ourselves forward.

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The costs of being a freelance journalist

The Awl published a Noah Davis piece that last week in which the writer uses actual numbers, down to the dollar and number of invoices, to account for how much money he’s been able to make as a freelance journalist. It begins as less a takedown of how hard it is to survive in the new gig economy than a freelance economics lesson, or maybe a complex math equation.

Freelancing for websites is nearly unsustainable, especially in the one-off pitch, write and edit sense. But here’s the thing: It rarely makes financial sense for the website, either…. Revenue streams on the Internet are too nascent and too in-flux to provide anything concrete. A growing number of publications are able to pay something, which is an improvement, but the value of the written word cratered simply because most of the Internet’s publications, unlike their printed forebears, has no subscriber base.

Davis acknowledges that though he is doing OK for now, he doesn’t know how, or even whether, journalism will survive long-term. But at least he doesn’t claim that he has the answers, unlike so many other so-called new-media experts. He doesn’t recommend “monetizing” better or going “platform native” or making more engaging ads (as though that were even possible). He just lays out the real costs of making words, saying, “There’s a vital distinction to be made between artistic value and monetary value.”

Saying that “print isn’t the rule; it’s the exception,” he quotes the great Ann Friedman, the writer, editor and GIF enthusiast who used to work at Good: “My plan that I’m going to supplement my weekly web income with a few big print stories might not be feasible even two years down the road. I’m aware of that. But for me, it’s a race against time. How can I build a personal brand as a journalist, not to Andrew Sullivan levels or anything, but the recognition that I have job security before the parachute of print assignments goes away? That’s how I see my personal calculus.”

A race against time. The parachute of print assignments that will go away. Personal brand as a journalist. Bracing stuff. (The woman is known for her #realtalk, after all.)

Stating the obvious, namely that “the Internet democratized writing,” Davis cites some troubling numbers:

The number of “writers” exploded, even while one estimate for the number of official jobs for full-time journalists decreased from 61,000 in 1997 to 45,500 in 2012.

He goes into a bit of a tangent about how the real problem might be that up-and-comers don’t have mentors now, and that’s definitely true, especially because journalism, more than most careers, is an almost entirely on-the-job learning experience. But if you asked a clerk, mail carrier or stock broker, I’m certain they’d make the same claim — without calling their jobs a (cue eye roll) craft. Without getting too deeply into the mire, I can state unequivocally that I learned everything I know about making words and making them better through my various jobs and the people who were kind enough to teach me.

But back to Davis, who concludes that he likes life as a freelance writer for the most part:

The lack of long-term stability can be troubling, especially on those frustrating days when editors aren’t returning my emails, but that’s a conscious trade-off I made for being able to go running in the middle of the day…. In a world that’s less about traditional, one-company one-job careers and more about bouncing around and trying to find a way, it works for now.

How long “for now” lasts is a bigger problem as we kick the can down the Future of Journalism road. Still, the post is an enlightening take on the real world of freelancing, good and bad, and worth a read in full.

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Time Inc.’s, and the media’s, death by a thousand cuts

Michael Wolff isn’t my favorite person. Actually, I find him quite loathsome — repellent and creepy in the same way I find Woody Allen and Ricky Gervais. He has described himself as a crank and an obnoxious know-it-all, and he has a decidedly Mr. Burns quality about him. But as a chronicler of the media industry, its rise and its collapse, the guy is singular and clear-headed. (Call me a sap: I started to pay him slightly more mind after reading his heartbreaking essay about his aging mother in New York.)

In his essay detailing the decline of Time Inc. from “greatest magazine company in the history of the form” to “farce,” Woolf levels his gaze at several factors that led to that company’s downfall. He applies his trademark snarky criticism, of course. But what caught my eye was not just the utter truth of it, which I’ll get to in a moment, it’s that in it Wolff displays a stunning encyclopedic institutional knowledge that’s lacking in most news reporting on media, let alone specific news about this merger (or sale, or whatever we’re calling this new magazine company that will be run by Meredith with mostly Time Inc. titles). This essay is precisely the kind of media reportage that’s going the way of the dodo (or, more to the point, the way of print). I doubt Wolff had to look up a single fact in his piece. The knowledge probably rolled right out his head and into his fingertips; after all, the man has studied this industry, written about it and thought about it for decades.

Compare this with the latest garbage produced by…pretty much everyone these days. I’ve talked about David Carr’s pollyanna-ish views before. The entirely of Huffington Post’s media beat apparently consists of reprinting emails and press releases. Keith Kelly and Jeff Bercovici do a fair job not out-and-out fellating their media subjects most of the time, unlike some of their peers. But I can’t remember the last time either of them actually broke news, and I definitely don’t remember the last time Bercovici actually wrote anything controversial — or original, for that matter. This “article” about Tim O’Brien leaving the Huffington Post features zero original reporting; it’s just a republication of the internal email. Really? There’s nothing more to dig in on about the company’s allegedly “rule” that a person can’t both write a book and be on staff simultaneously? That’s a new one to me and everyone else in the industry, so there’s probably something else going on. Pick up a phone and call some people. This is called news reporting.

Back to Wolff’s piece, which doesn’t have a ton of original reporting either, but is instead an informed assessment of what Time Inc. was and could have been, followed by no small amount of anger and sadness about what it ultimately became — and even a bit of enthusiasm for the small life it might yet have left in it.

Even in the context of the general decline of the magazine business, Time Inc. warrants special shame and humiliation. Not long ago, it was America against the Italy and France of its two closest rivals, Conde Nast and Hearst. But then Time Inc. became the Soviet Union. Now it is likely to be taken over by Meredith. Meredith. From Des Moines. Which is, well, Iowa.

Wolff captures my experience of the Time Inc., and I’m sure everyone else’s who has worked there, too. It’s a frustration that we know these titles and their web presences are huge and influential, and we’re proud of them, but navigating through the “warring fiefdoms,” as he calls them, and “dysfunctional management” really take it out of you on a day-to-day basis, and that is why the company has stagnated and stalled — and finds itself in the position it does.

While vast resources and considerable brain power in the company were devoted to digital adaptation, the result was to do as little as possible while building as large a bureaucratic foundation as possible. I’m not sure there is any company that has spent so much time talking about its digital future to such little effect. This was farce on quite an amazing scale.

Wolff describes the “hopelessness and frustration” of editor-in-chief John Huey, and I assure you that trickles down.

Cuts became the constant norm. Quality disintegrated. Influence dissipated. The end of the company was all but certain. The raging hostilities within the enterprise made redemption or progress or a new idea or even good will impossible.

As soon as the world’s largest publisher hired an advertising executive instead of a publishing one to lead the company last year, it was obvious and inevitable that the company was headed toward oblivion. I know there are other factors at play, mostly macroeconomic ones — the ruinous economy, the dismal advertising climate, the digital (r)evolution. But it used to be that Time Inc. took pride in its ability to survive disaster. When I was there, I was bucked up more than once by the stories of the company surviving wars, catastrophes, the Depression. It seems hard to believe that what took down such a blue-chip publisher — with its own freakin’ building in midtown! — was…what? Banner ads and CPMs? Bureaucracy? Upping circ by lowering itself to the poor quality of its competitors? Bad decision making at high levels?

It’s a sad state of affairs. I guess this is what is meant by death by a thousand cuts. It’s too bad, because Time Inc. was always a beacon of quality and determination, a leader in the field. RIP. Which is a sentiment even the gimlet-eyed crank Michael Wolff can get behind.

Disclosure: I once worked at Time Inc. (obviously!) and at AOL.

Update: The Meredith deal fell through, and Time Warner announced March 7 that it plans to spin Time Inc. into an independent public company; current Time Inc. CEO Laura Lang will step down.

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Are print-to-digital apps ruinous for media?

As I mentioned in a previous post, many of my recent freelance gigs have involved reading printed materials on various electronic devices. For several distinct projects, I read the same material on no fewer than four devices at a time, and each had a different layout, different size, different coding language and different interactive elements. This was the case because Apple, Amazon and the rest render their materials in different, proprietary programming languages, and the hardware they’ve created boasts proprietary specs. It has been a major shock to learn how much work and money must to go into optimizing the same printed material for all these devices. And it’s abundantly clear that as publishing professionals, we must do much more work, and soon, in establishing standards for print-to-digital conversion.

“Technology is always destroying jobs and always creating jobs, but in recent years the destruction has been happening faster than the creation.”
—Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business (via)

Arguably, this obtuse process is employing me. The technology has, in this case, created a new job: There’s a need for someone to read each article of each issue (or each page of each chapter of each book) on each device. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I’m developing quite a little niche for myself as an expert on print-to-digital conversions. But I wonder how long it can last, considering that print media is undergoing huge change at the moment. Momentous, disruptive, industry-wide change that’s happening at a rapid pace, particularly with regard to technology.

We might be powerhouse publishers, but in the tech world we’re just like every other Joe App Maker, 96 percent of whom do not make significant money on their apps. According to a recent article in the New York Times, 25 percent of Apple game app makers made less than $200, with only 4 percent making upwards of $1 million. Granted, random game app makers don’t have the brand recognition or cachet of major publishing houses; neither do they have an overarching, Apple-endorsed app that features their stuff (Newsstand for Apple, if you’re still following me).

But make no mistake, the field has been leveled, and instead of competing only with each other, even the biggest content publishers now also compete with Angry Birds, Twitter, Facebook, travel apps, e-commerce apps, dining apps, coupon apps…the list is endless.

The difference? Unlike many apps, the media’s brand relevance and reputation absolutely hinges on an amazing user experience across devices at all times. In short, it has to be perfect. And in order for that to happen, the same material must be reconceived by its creators multiple times. It seems impossible to believe, but publishers optimize the same product over and over again, incurring all sorts of real costs from designers, editors, producers and programmers with each iteration. (And this isn’t even counting the web producers who conceive it all over again for the online version!) Once you account for these costs, in addition to the so-called legacy costs of creating the print product in the first place, it hardly makes sense even to enter into the realm of app creation for many print products. That’s even if you can get your app sponsored or otherwise monetized, and even if you use Adobe to help you create it.

I realize that the common line of thought is that, like websites, if you don’t have an app presence, you don’t exist. Half a decade ago, this principle propelled the creation of a million new half-assed websites (websites: another print-distribution model without a standard!). But I’d counter that without apps — without content — these devices would be useless. So unless we want to bankrupt the already struggling print media industry further, we must stop playing by the device makers’ rules and rewrite them to benefit our business. We must invent technology that adapts our product (ie, content) to any device at any orientation. We must create or help market forces create a standard we can implement and follow; we must negotiate a better rate than giving away 30 percent of our revenue; we must not “throw in” digital access with print subscriptions.

I know, I know: Nature abhors a vacuum. If we don’t follow suit, we’re nothing. But following hardware makers blindly down dark passageways as our pockets get picked around every corner isn’t a smart strategy, either. In one big way, we are not like Joe App Maker: We possess a hugely powerful medium. We must harness our strengths and lead ourselves forward. A nice start might be to begin taking a stand against having to endlessly tinker with every article in every issue of every magazine, every book, every design.

As Shawn Grimes, the app developer profiled by the Times said: “People used to expect companies to take care of them. Now you’re in charge of your own destiny, for better or worse.” Let’s be in charge of our own destiny.

Related: Read my post about the best e-reading devices.

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The best e-reading devices, as determined by a control group of one

Many of my recent freelance gigs have involved reading printed materials on various electronic devices, so I’ve basically become a one-woman control group for determining the best device-reading experience. I’ve had the opportunity to directly compare the following devices: Kindle E-Ink, Third-Generation Kindle (“Keyboard Kindle”), Fourth Generation Kindle, Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD, Samsung Galaxy, iPad 2 and iPad 3.

Ready for the results? The winner is…the iPad 3 with retina display!

The result is perhaps not surprising, but the gap in performance and readability among all of these devices versus the iPad 3 really is shocking. The iPad 3, in addition to being a more more sleek and elegant experience overall for the user, is also far, far easier to read. The display is better than even the original printed product to which I was comparing it, believe it or not. The words are clearer and crisper; the photos are deeper and livelier.

When evaluating tablets, we must start with the premise that every six months a new one is released, and that the newer versions are superior to the previous generations. That leaves truly valid comparisons, at the moment, between only the iPad Mini, the iPad 3 and the Kindle Fire HD. Setting aside the iPad Mini for the moment because it doesn’t (for some stupid reason) yet have retina display, that leaves the latter two. Perhaps to casual users, the gap between the iPad 3 and the Kindle Fire HD isn’t noticeable, but having spent many weeks putting down one device and picking up the other, I can tell you with certainty that the Apple product blows the Amazon one out of the water.

I acknowledge that I am an Apple person. I have an iMac, an iPad 2 and an iPhone, and when I had a Droid phone for about six weeks last year, I wanted to throw it out the window. (Except Swype. I love Swype! Why doesn’t Apple have Swype?!) So for me, the Apple experience — gestures that just seem to make sense, buttons where they should be, seamless navigation among apps, access to hundreds of thousands of other amazing and useful apps — in addition to the reading experience put the device in a field of its own.

Is the difference in quality worth $200 ($499 for iPad 3 versus $299 for Kindle), especially if you aren’t already living the Apple lifestyle? It depends what you want to use it for and how much weight you want to tote around town, but for my money, even if — or maybe especially if — you only use it to read books and magazines, the retina display is such a game changer that I absolutely think so.

Separately from work, I recently test-drove a Microsoft Surface briefly, and my initial thoughts were that it might be nice if you already live in the Windows universe — native Outlook and Excel apps, for example — but it really doesn’t do anything better than the iPad does. And that includes the weird add-on cover keyboards, which are either nontactile (in other words, useless versus the virtual) or just small enough compared to a normal keyboard as to be aggravating. (And this is coming from someone who loathes Apple’s virtual keyboard.)

I’ve also had the opportunity to play with the seven-inch Nexus, which has a nice hand-feel and is extremely portable. I don’t think this makes up for its lack of sensible navigation or access to trusted apps, but it’s an OK alternative to the real game-changing device, which will be the next-generation iPad Mini, with retina display. (True story: I’ve never even laid eyes on a real-life Nook.)

It’s a safe bet that when the iPad Mini with retina display — small enough to feel good in the hands and fit in the bag, but with the text clarity of the iPad 3 — comes to market, I’ll be first in line.

Related: Read my post about why print-to-digital conversion is more difficult and more expensive than it should be.

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The differences between print and online publishing

I’ve spent the past month helping edit a book. A real, old-timey, printed-pages book, with big photos and tons of words. While it has been an all-consuming grind to move the thing from words on a screen to designed layout to perfected page, creating a book also opened my eyes even further to a handful of differences between the print and online worlds of publishing. I suppose I knew these differences abstractly — after all, I’ve worked in the print publishing world for a more than a decade and I’ve written about some of these variations before — but living the book-publishing life instead of the online-publishing one for a month solid has put these five distinctions into stark relief.

1. Standardized technology
Practically the entire print world (magazines as well) uses Adobe’s Creative Suite. If you’re a publisher, you’re using InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator, period. Occasionally there are major disruptions —  when the industry moved from QuarkXPress to InDesign around the turn of the century, for example, after having been Quark-centric for the previous half-dozen years. If a stranger wandered in off the street to a prepress shop or printer, they’d see InDesign being used. If a college kid majors in graphic design, she’d better be taught to use Illustrator. If you’re a photographer or retoucher, Photoshop is your go-to.

Compare this to the completely opposite world of online publishing. There’s not a standard content management system that every publisher uses. Open-source platforms like WordPress and Drupal are huge and growing — they’re being selected as the go-to CMSes more every day — but they’re not widespread enough to be called a standard, at least not the way InDesign is for print publishers. More often, each Internet publishing site has its own, homegrown, cobbled together, Frankenstein half-solution, which works well enough to connect A to B, but just barely, and it is not a complete solution in the way that Adobe Creative Suite has been for print.

There’s also no standard photo-editing app: Photoshop is one option for online photo editing, but so are Pixlr, Aviary, Gimp, on and on. Even Facebook and Twitter — not to mention Instagram — offer online photo editing.

In fact, Internet publishing reminds me of nothing more than print in the 1980s and 1990s. Computers were being introduced and used to some degree for word processing, but there was no single software system for print publishing. We’d moved well beyond copy boys, news alerts coming across actual wires and traditional typesetting, but the “technology” that most publishers used then included paste-ups and X-acto knives (or some version thereof). We’re living the equivalent now online. Will the Internet standardize to a single CMS? Will there be a turnkey solution invented that takes online publishing from primordial to fully evolved?

2. Established process and workflow
The printed word carries with it an established process, one that has been more or less the way things have worked since Gutenberg. First you write the words, then you edit them, then you publish them. This is true still in print publishing. Broadly: brainstorm, assign, write, edit (line edit, fact-check, copyedit), design, prep, print, and then distribute completed, unalterable product. There are often many rounds of each of these steps, and distribution can be a months-long process. But a process it is, and one that carries a fixed order and a good degree of finality.

Online publishing, on the other hand, usurps this process from end to end; the online workflow is not fixed. Anyone can devise her own ideas and then write them. They needn’t be edited nor fact-checked, but even if they are, many people and even organizations publish first and edit later, and then republish. This doesn’t actually disrupt the distribution process a bit, because the piece is a living document that can always be changed. The immediate distribution means that readers can also respond immediately, and they do, via comments and social media, and this often precipitates yet another round of reediting and republishing.

Compare the reactions of print versus online outlets to the publishing scandal of the summer: Jonah Lehrer’s making up of quotes and self-plagiarization. His book publisher, Houghton, had to “halt shipment of physical copies of the book and [take] the e-book off the market,” as well as offer refunds to readers who purchased copies of the book. Presumably, they will actually fact-check the book sometime, then issue a new version in a new print run sometime before…who knows when.

Lehrer’s online publishers, on the other hand, merely republished his pieces with an “Editor’s Note” appended that they “regret the duplication of material” (NewYorker.com) or a  “notice indicating some work by this author has been found to fall outside our editorial standards” (Wired.com).

I haven’t discussed the cost-as-expectation factor because I want to limit this post to my observances on technology and workflow as an industry insider, but I do wonder whether, because the Internet is free, the standards are lower for both process and product. Regardless, it’s clear that making corrections as you go along isn’t possible with a printed product once it’s been distributed.

I also think that because the Internet is not only a publishing business but is also a technology business in a way that print is not, editors are cribbing from technologists’ desire to embrace iterative methodologies and workflows, such as Agile (in relief to Waterfall) — more on this below.

3. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
Hand in hand with the process itself are the people who conduct the process. Print, having been around for centuries, has evolved to the point where jobs are delineated. It can be stated generally that in the world of print, photographers shoot pictures and photo editors select among these pictures. Designers marry text and art. Copy editors edit copy. Printers print. Managing editors meet deadlines, collaborating with all parties to get things where they need to be when they need to be there. There’s no such delineation in the online publishing world. Editors in chief shoot photos and video; copy editors crop art; writers publish. Everyone does a little bit of everything: It’s slapdash, it’s uncivilized, it’s unevolved.

I think that soon this madness will organize itself into more clearly defined roles, or else we’ll all burn out, go crazy and move to yurts in the middle of Idaho. This is happening already in small degrees in online newsrooms, and it’s starting to reach into online publishing broadly, but I have to believe that the insanity will decrease and the explicit definition of roles will advance as we sort out how it all fits together.

4. Focused, respectful meetings
It caught me off guard to realize that something as simple as speaking to coworkers is very different in the print versus online worlds, but the meetings I had when I was working on the book were a far cry from those I’ve had when I was working online. They were focused, with little posturing, corporate speak, agenda pushing or bureaucracy. At no point did anyone say, “Let’s take that offline” (translation: “Shut up”). At no point did I wonder, “Are you answering email or IMing the person across the table right now instead of paying attention to what I’m saying?” It’s pretty simple: No (or few) laptops and lots of respect for others and their abilities.

Technology likes to put labels onto concepts that publishing has been using for decades. For example, Agile has concepts like “stand-ups” and “Scrum.” Print has been having these sorts of as-needed-basis check-ins as long as it’s been around — it’s called “talking to your coworkers,” and it works quite well as a method of communication and dissemination of information. For all that’s going against it, print succeeds on a human level; technologists are playing catch-up in this respect. Whether this is because most technologists are men or most technologists are introverts I’m not sure, but the cultural and human-interaction differences are clear. If online publishing did a little more in the way of focused and respectful meetings — or maybe even fewer organized meetings and more on-the-fly collaboration — I think the industry would reap major benefits.

5. Frequency of disruption by and importance placed on email and social media
When I was head’s-down editing on paper for this book, and when I was on the computer editing, devising schedules or creating task lists, I didn’t check email, Facebook, Twitter, or really any other website except during lunch. Turns out, this behavior is fairly easy to do when you’re not working on a website yourself. I’ll admit that I felt a little out of the loop on the latest stupid thing Mitt Romney said. I missed the uproar about, next-day recap of, and explanatory cultural essay regarding Honey Boo-Boo. But I didn’t actually feel less engaged with the world. Having been completely engaged in the task at hand, I felt like the focused energy I was able to pour into the book benefited the work and my own sense of accomplishment.

When I work online I often end days thinking, “What did I actually do today? Meetings, emails, checking social media…now the day is over, and what do I have to show for it?” Quite distinctly, when I ended days on the book, I could say with conviction that what I had worked on mattered. I moved whatever I was working on from one state to the next, and I improved it when it was in my hands. It was a welcome departure.


The book will be in stores a few months. And I’m about to press “publish” on this post, which will then be live and available to anyone with an Internet connection the moment after I do. All of which serves as the starkest reminder yet about the benefits of, drawbacks surrounding and often chasm-like differences between each medium. Unlike print, for online publishing the history is being written as its being lived, and I feel privileged to be a witness to it.

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