09-04-2014

Zach Wise on the state of digital publishing and the value of the printed product



The publishing industry is in a state of constant flux. New media experiments are popping up by the dozen, surprising acquisitions are taking place and software-generated content is threatening to do away with traditional journalism. Where does print stand in the midst of these developments?  We recently had the pleasure of interviewing award winning interactive producer Zach Wise to hear his perspectives on the future of print and the larger media landscape. Zach has worked for The New York Times’ Multimedia Team since 2008, and has earned several awards including a Peabody Award, an Emmy Award and numerous industry honors. He is currently an Associate Professor in The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

What do you think the future of publishing will look like? What are the key advantages of the web and what can print still offer?

I believe that most people will consume magazine content on digital devices in the near future. It is much cheaper to deliver content to devices and to the web and cheaper for the consumer, too. The tradeoff is really one of permanence. With digital content, the experience is not physical and the artifact is transitory. The old content disappears when new content comes along. There are ways to still view it but the mental model we have of it is gone. Having a printed version of the content provides a physical artifact that remains a real thing, even when new content comes along. The desire to have a physical artifact speaks to the importance of that particular content. The viewer doesn’t want it to disappear. It becomes a luxury good or a keepsake.

What is keeping large newspapers from abandoning their print operations to focus only on digital?

Legacy and advertising. Most newspapers are institutions with a tradition of doing things a certain way for a long time. Some of them for over a century. Print advertising is more lucrative per unit than digital is. Even though there are more viewers on the web and there are more ad units to sell, the units are so cheap that they have not caught up with the revenue that print advertising brings in…yet.

Revenue is always on every publisher’s mind – what would you say are the keys to building a viable digital publication?

We’re still seeing what makes a successful digital publication unfold. What works for one brand doesn’t necessarily work for another. Micropayments work for some established long form journalism and some advertising models are working for digital native news organizations. For the Times a combination of subscription and advertising is working. So far there is no single successful model but there are many publication specific models that are working.

Can you name your Top 3 publications that have started digital-first and are setting the ‘standard’ for innovation in the field?

Vox Media’s publications are the ones to follow. The Verge, Polygon and SB Nation. They’ve built a really engaging platform, filled some editorial holes no one else was covering and they have strong engaged audiences for each of their publications.

Can you name any publications that have succeeded building a digital brand and are leveraging print on demand for niche content?

This year we’re just starting to see this approach to magazines. Book publishers have already had success in this field. Politico is the first example that comes to mind. Their website is full of short and fast content. The magazine is a deeper approach to political issues that usually appears as long form. It’s branded as more serious and valuable content with rich thoughtful stories.

Far from being the primary and ubiquitous means of communication that it once was, print is becoming a luxury item and an interesting alternative for publishers that want to capitalize on an additional revenue channel. Let us know if you agree by posting your thoughts in the comments and make sure to follow Zach on Twitter for more insights.

Jolien

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