Information Format Matters

I’ve just cancelled Maclean’s magazine, a Canadian print weekly that we have received almost since arriving in Canada as immigrants.  For me, it was one of the best introductions to Canadian culture and politics for any newcomer.  They have announced that, as of the start of 2017, the print weekly will become a monthly, with the weekly content available only as a digital publication.  It’s the sort of digital strategy that has become common and yet, for my family at least, means the end of the road as their readers.

I’ve been watching the transition of print to digital for awhile.  I’m by no means an expert.  I read pieces like this one on the newspaper industry by people who are.  I’m a professional consumer, as a library director, and private information consumer.  I’ve even tried Maclean’s multiple attempts at digital apps over the years, whether as stand alone options or as part of the Zinio digital magazine offering.  So while Maclean’s is the publication that’s at the top of my mind, it’s not just about them.

Digital Needs a Device

The end with Maclean’s comes because we get a print copy because there are 5 of us in our family.  Most people flip to Scott Feschuk first, then scan the rest of the magazine.  Sometimes the issue is worth reading for every page, others – especially the special photo editions of the Royal family – it gets binned pretty quickly.  But it passes through everyone’s hands, sits on various surfaces in the house, waiting to be read (or re-read).

And that’s it.  it’s a weekly publication, like the American Newsweek, another magazine that has flipped to and fro on digital.  It doesn’t really work as a monthly, because it’s top-of-mind content and why would I check it only one of every 4 weeks?

But the fundamental problem, even if Maclean’s could execute it’s digital strategy perfectly, is that there’s no way for our family to share the publication any longer.  We have one tablet (mine, and so not even in the house most of the time) suitable for reading a digital publication on.  And if you don’t have a digital device on which you can get this publication, why would you get it as a monthly?  If a digital subscription forces us to the desktop, we might as well just be reading the online site.

The reality is that these digital attempts – Montreal’s La Presse and the “failing” Toronto Star app are other local examples – are difficult as the publisher tries to transition as much of the print base over.  As libraries find when people say everything is on the internet, it is hard to get people to pay for information they see as being freely available (even if it’s not yours).  Anyone who has run a library will be familiar with this shift, since we’re often the resellers of the information we license or buy.  An example close to home are the e-books developed by the legal publishers.

They have done what the fiction publishers have done, which is to transfer the print into an electronic format.  They have created proprietary apps with run-of-the-mill tools for using the e-text: highlighters, bookmarks, dictionary, and so on.  But they haven’t rethought the format.  Since lawyers do not read legal e-books the same way they’d read Fifty-Shades of SubParagraph (3), it means the e-books face the same format issue a print-to-digital newspaper or magazine does.  What if the information you’re selling isn’t really usable in the new digital format or app?

Alternate Access

Maclean’s is again a good example.  Unless they paywall their content, there is little downside to cancelling the subscription.  If my family is going to continue to consume Scott Feschuk’s articles, I can pop the RSS feed for his column into my reader and, when there’s a new article, Skype the kids the link.  It’s all upside:  no circulation hassles, entirely automated, entirely free, and I never ever have to see anything written by Barbara Amiel again (I always felt as though Maclean’s owed me the $0.07 her column cost each week).

And they might paywall the content, because otherwise it’s hard to see the app working.  The Telegraph has just retreated from its paywall, which didn’t surprise me.  It’s one of many publications I monitor that, depending on how I reach it – desktop v. mobile device, Flipboard v. Google Newsstand – the paywalls are either there, porous, or non-existent.  If you’ve got content that is good enough, the paywall should be firm on all platforms.

La Presse is betting its future on the app and has discontinued most print issues.  It’s assuming ad revenue can fill the gap.  But the ad blocking on web browsers will move to tablets sooner or later (I already ad block in-app ads on my tablet) and so this isn’t a long term bet either.

La Presse’s continued reliance on its Saturday print edition as a revenue generator, and Newsweek’s resuscitation of print, are examples of how hard this transition can be.  If a publication has unique content, then it has a shot.  But when you visit national news web sites that are republishing content found on US news sites, or syndicated from Canadian Press, why would you lock yourself into their app or paywalled site?

Now that our kids are getting older, we’ve increased the number of print periodicals we get.  But they, like their parents, read individual articles, whether in print or online.  Format changes that assume access to a specific type of container are working in the opposite direction.   When the print option disappears, the idea of limiting oneself to a single app or web site is counterintuitive.

Addendum:  I’ve been thinking about how to enable print access digitally, not by changing the format but by providing a digital tool that could access the print.  So much of the legal publishing world will remain in print, that we will perpetually be providing access to print even when we are licensing, and using by default, electronic data.

Here’s the sort of thing that’s been rolling around in my head – a variation on the DIY book scanning rig, but with the ability for someone to remotely control the pages.  Even if a publisher goes entirely to one format – and figures out how to make up new consumers to replace lost ones – libraries are going to figure out how to provide access to the right format for the right purpose.

A drawing of a book viewing rig, so that a remote user could see a print book and page through it.
A drawing of a book viewing rig, so that a remote user could see a print book and page through it.
David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.