Publishing for the digital age

I learnt my trade as an editor and publisher during the late 1970s and early 80s. I edited a bi-monthly magazine for the youth service that was printed on paper and sent out in envelopes through the post. The production methods were primitive by today’s standards but the skills were basically the same.

Today I publish an Arts Magazine which is read by more people. I publish it digitally. The phrase “webzine” was coined to give a name to magazines that are published on the World Wide Web.

It did not start life as a magazine. In fact, it was created as a spin-off from a web site that was about travel. Back in February 2005, when the domain name was registered, it was intended only to be a small web site that provided a bit of information about music and the arts. Now, with over 200 pages, I consciously and deliberately always refer to it as being a “magazine” and never as a “website”. To me, the product is just as much a journal as something that sits on the shelves at newsagents or which goes out in the post, as some still do. I am a journalist first and a web designer second.

My mission is to contribute to the methodology of digital publishing and to achieve the same status and recognition for a digital product that might be conferred on a paper-based product. I call it a “journal” rather than a periodical.

Artsin, as we nickname it, is not published periodically; it does not come out once a month. It’s content is renewed on a daily basis. It lacks back issues but some of the pages can be on line for a very long time and we maintain some pages intact as they were in 2010, 2009 and more rarely in 2008.

We do not, of course, revise every one of the 200 pages each day. New material is published as and when we write it or when it comes in. That is the first distinguishing characteristic of digital publishing: disengagement from a time-scale to achieve continuous on-line refreshment of content. If an important news story comes in, it can be available to the public long before the local newspaper can put it out and often well before the broadcast media.

The second characteristic is that it does not mimic a paper-based product. I have seen some versions of on-line magazines that are laid-out and typeset like paper and even those that employ huge amounts of overhead script to give the impression, on the screen, of pages turning. In fact there are companies offering to sell the software to make ‘e-Mags’ that will visually turn pages. I laugh at these ludicrous ideas as much as I do web sites that are composed entirely in Flash. I am unabashedly ‘old skool’ and Artsin was entirely handcrafted in traditional HTML.

It’s also accessible to people with visual impairments and meets most of the accessibility standards which many of the page-turning efforts do not.

I have seen products where the publisher has gone to immense trouble to publish the product in PDF format which is then e-mailed to subscribers. Well, it’s a solution and it sticks to the idea of publishing periodically. There are numerous examples of companies that send out newsletters using full HTML formatting and that are delivered by e-mail. Fair dos, it serves its purpose.

I never even thought of doing things in this way. At no time did I sit down and say to myself “I want to publish an arts magazine”. The online magazine that we see today evolved. It came from the spin-off web site of 2005 and only as I worked with it, over about five years, did I realise that I was edging gradually towards a magazine format.

So, what is the difference between a magazine and a web site? This is largely a matter of approach to the content. I wear two hats: I have my web designer’s baseball cap. When I am working on Artsin I am a journalist and editor and my work is based on those years of laboriously preparing paper based periodicals.

I like to think that Artsin works as much as a magazine as it does as a web site. The methods and principles that are used to put those 200 pages on the web share a lot in common with what paper-based editors do, as much as they share some things in common with what web designers do.

Artsin borrows some conventions from paper publishing but I have never wanted to mimic print layout or make pages appear to turn; when I have been on sites that have done things in this way, I have had a really good laugh.

It is true that there are some things we have done on Artsin that the paper editor might have done: The mast head, the use of by-lines, the occasional use of a two-column layout, the disciplined use of headlines, subheads and intros … but there are aspects of paper layout that I have deemed to be inappropriate to digital production.

The layout and styling of Artsin is driven by web principles; it has to work as a web site because that is how people are going to use it. People do sometimes ask me where they can buy a copy of the magazine. During the day time I simply respond by saying its an online product and you don’t have to pay to read it. At night, in the pub, after a few jars, I tell them they can print it out from their computer. I then go on to warn them that they will need more than two reams of paper and a large collection of cartridges because on paper it would be bigger than the average telephone directory. I know the equivalent number of A4 pages because we systematically archive pages using a PDF printer which reports the number of pages of A4 size that have been printed to the hard disk.

Why have I never published a paper version? I have never had enough money to do this. Artsin has cost little to set up and run; its overhead cost is the renewal of its domain names, an annual hosting fee for the web server and, of course, the economic value of my time as editor. If I had wanted to produce a paper version of it, I would have to have had access to tens of thousands of pounds in set up, typography and distribution costs.

At the heart of digital publishing there is a big commercial issue. Sales of newspapers have been plunging down; more and more newspapers now have their digital equivalents on the web. A few pioneers have opted for a digital only approach – The Huffington Post – and a few national newspapers are now charging a subscription to access their online content – The Economist, The Times.

I doubt that Artsin will ever charge people to read its pages although we have seriously considered this for another of our publishing outlets. What prevents us from giving serious consideration to this option is that the publishing industry is an a transitional state.

Since the emergence of the web as a mass market, publishing is going through a revolution, every bit as dramatic as that which occurred when Caxton invented his printing press. In the West, at least, people have been used to accessing online textual content free of charge. They might have got used to paying for music and films, but they sure have not got used to the idea of paying for news and feature articles.

It will come. The commercial realities of digital publishing will inexorably move both publishers and readers back into a priced relationship. Consumers will get used to paying for content, just as they were used to paying for their newspapers and magazines at the newsagents. I know that if I slapped a subscription charge on Artsin, tomorrow, only a fraction of the current readership would pay it, however small the charge might be.

Web surfers have not got used to the idea to paying the full economic value of what they see on their screens. They think it all appears there by magic and costs nothing to make it come up, so why should they have to pay anything to read it.

My rough estimate of the cost of producing Artsin is that we are talking of between £25,000 to £35,000 a year, in full economic cost terms. Roughly speaking, the page you read free of charge is worth between £125 and £135. That’s what I pay to put it there but you get to read it for nothing.

If you want to read your local newspaper or national arts magazine, you are reading a page that would have cost its publisher much more than that, to put on your screen and considerably more to put a copy on your coffee table. Ok, I have simplified the economics of digital publishing to make a point. Consumers are happy to pay £2.20 for a 65 page copy of Kerrang; they can take it home and read it and then throw it away or, like me, carefully file it away for future reference.

Newspapers are purchased and then invariably discarded or used for wrapping chips or as makeshift cat litter. When we look at books however, something rather different emerges. Paper books are still prized and valued by the literati. I recently read somewhere that, on the Amazon web site, the turnover from sales of e-books has outstripped that of paper products. This is due to the popularity of digital book readers, such as Kindle. The manufacturers and designers of electronic gadgets have achieved a remarkable success in revolutionising the world of book publishing. They have also revolutionised the publication of news.

Millions of people now access news through their mobile phones. In the age of Twitter, news has ceased to be the prerogative of newspapers. What the statistics tell us, is that reading paper news is now a tiny fraction of all such reading and that the majority of people now get their news from media that is broadcast rather than printed.

Should I see if Artsin can be produced in this way? Possibly. I have to bear in mind that Artsin has a deliberately limited audience. It is concerned almost exclusively with the Arts and Entertainment of Leicester and Leicestershire. That alone takes it out of the ball park for other e-media.

Today, there are local newsagents on every street corner. In most large supermarkets there are shelves laden with paper periodicals. I wonder how long this will last. In an economy that is systematically weighted against small businesses, more so in retailing than in most other sectors, how long can the corner shops survive? It would be a shame if the purchase of paper magazines becomes limited only to those who can gain access to the large chains of supermarkets that are invariably positioned in locations that require car ownership to access them.

If I want to purchase a copy of Kerrang I can walk to my local shop in the city centre and pick one up. If I wanted to I could pay a subscription by direct debit and have it dropped into my post box. If I happened to live in some remote Scottish Island, it still would not be an option for me to pay for it online and have it downloaded to my hard disk but, I guess that option might well be round the corner. Probably, more so than the local newspapers.

I want to say one more thing about Artsin as a digital product. If you go to our front page (notice I didn’t say home page), you will see a list of social networking sites where Artsin has a presence. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, ReverbNation and quite a few more networking portals play a prominent part in the online presence of Artsin.

Unlike a paper product, we can show videos on our pages, we can link to music downloads, we can offer ticket sales directly and, in the near future, we want to get into pod-casting, allowing visitors to listen to interviews rather than just reading them.

Our accounts on these third party portals allow us to do two things: spread news at national level and drive traffic to our main site. It works like this: if we go to see a band and like what we hear, we are not just going to write about them in the pages of Artsin. We are going to shout about them through our social networking outlets; we are going to Tweet about them to our national followers and we are going to write reviews about them on sites like ReverbNation.

I have closed down a number of my nationally-oriented web sites mainly because their role and purpose is now redundant in the age of social networking. The bands themselves could abandon the idea of getting signed to a record label or hooked up with a publishing house and do it all themselves. Many bands have made it this way. In music publishing, there is also a sea change underway, as there is in the world of text publishing. Sales of digital tracks now out-strips those of plastic products. We no longer go to the record shop to buy a plastic disk and we no longer go to the book shop to buy a novel. At any rate, not the numbers that used to be the case.

A small local band can make itself into a record label. A small local web designer can create an Arts magazine. They can do this with relatively little cash investment. For a fraction of the cost that would have been the case ten years ago, anyone can now become a publisher – of news, music or reviews. You don’t need a sack-load of money to get started in the publishing business.

To be successful in publishing you still need the same age-old skills, knowledge and commitment that our forebears had but if you have got it, you can do it.