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Goodbye, Table of Contents

Posted on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 10:07 PM

Hello to à la carte magazine content?

By Meredith L. Dias

Could the concept of a magazine be evolving? Traditionally, magazines have consisted of content selected by editors, but today's digital publishing platforms make it easier than ever for readers to customize their experience. Could tomorrow's magazine content be sold à la carte like songs on iTunes? What would this mean for the concept of the single issue?

The iTune-ization of Magazines

Some industry insiders consider conventional magazines to be an outmoded form of content delivery. Years ago, iTunes marginalized the album by making individual songs the unit of sale. Now, some say that magazines are at a similar crossroads. Will single issues remain profitable in the digital realm, or will readers start paying only for the content they want?

Last month, Forbes.com ran a piece ("Steve Jobs' Ghost: Hi-Res iPad Will Undermine the Magazine Model") exploring these very questions. The article likened the magazine industry's approach to digital editions to the music industry's erstwhile "album-oriented approach." While magazine editors are still operating under the single-issue model, "readers have called [magazines] loosely associated bundles of content, only a fraction of which they will actually read."

Readers vs. Editors?

Is this true? Are today's readers really at odds with the editors who select and arrange traditional magazine content? If we take the above quote out of context, we might be inclined to think so. Before you overhaul your entire editorial department in response, though, keep in mind that the article doesn't specify which readers have been so dismissive of single issues. Is this a vocal minority or a sweeping majority? Is it something one person said or indicative of a wider shift in reader preferences?

In truth, readers still appreciate quality editorial products -- so much so that the annual Webby Awards have a category for exemplary editorial content. So even if the medium changes, even if single issues go by the wayside in the future, readers will still look to editors to put up quality à la carte items.

The Prospect of Single Articles

The idea of à la carte magazine content is seductive from both a reader and editorial perspective. But, as William Dunkerley (editor of this newsletter and publisher of our sister newsletter, STRAT) pointed out in last month's STRAT issue, there's an important difference between a song on iTunes and a magazine article on a similar purchasing platform: "When a consumer buys a song," he wrote, "it's unlikely the song is intended for single use. It's a keeper. A magazine article is more likely to function like a disposable." So, in an iTune-ized magazine world, editorial quality would just as important as ever. While editors wouldn't necessarily be uniting content under the banner of a single issue, they would need to maintain high standards to drive readers to their articles on a continual basis in the single-article marketplace.

But before we consider this model seriously, we must first dispel some of the hype surrounding digital publishing. Whether or not the market eventually sways toward single-article units, we must not forget the current market, where print and digital issues alike are still performing well. There is still, in other words, plenty of reader demand for unified editorial content (i.e., single issues). While some vocal readers may be expressing a desire for à la carte options, we can't let those readers speak for everyone until we've done the necessary research and surveying.

Imagining a Single-Article World

Let's consider how the editorial profession might change if the industry ever abandoned the "issue" model. We can start with the obvious: If content were served up bit by bit, the editorial calendar might encompass an entire month rather than cluster around a given print deadline. If a hot topic arose, editors could develop an article, get it into the marketplace, and start raking in revenue from it. No longer would one problematic article hold up an entire issue. This model would also make it easier than ever to add or drop an article at the last minute.

Design and layout might also change. The workload would shift from laying out an entire issue at once to working on an article-by-article basis. What challenges might this piecemeal publishing present? Would it be simpler or more complex than the traditional model for the layout artists and designers?

Headlines would become more important than ever under this hypothetical model. If the marketplace were like iTunes, content would likely be listed by magazine brand and by article title. So, while brand identity would continue to be vital, snappy headlines might spark impulse article purchases from readers who might not otherwise have engaged with a given magazine.

Keeping It in Perspective

We've explored a hypothetical model this month. There's plenty of smoke to suggest a future shift in reader preferences, but for the time being, we can only speculate about the "iTunes-ization" of magazine content. It's a compelling model, but the traditional magazine is hardly dead.

While magazine editors must always have their eye on blossoming reader trends, they should never act prematurely and adopt untested models because of hype or fear-mongering. As always, they should engage with their audience via social media and surveys to determine whether their magazines continue to fulfill reader needs.

Only when the findings indicate that readers are unfulfilled and/or unsubscribing should editors consider an overhaul.

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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