Avoiding rabbit trails by keeping readers in view
Illustration by Seth Nickerson

Through the Looking Glass

Avoiding rabbit trails by keeping readers in view

by Zack Bryant

I read a lot of magazines. An average month involves quality time spent with The Economist, Fast Company, Outside, WSJ, Inc., Garden & Gun, Print, HBR, The Atlantic, Esquire and Wired — not to mention the half-dozen magazines we publish here at Journey. They’re a part of my identity. They contain the tales I bring up at supper. They provide points of entry for conversations with strangers. There is a relationship forged between a reader and a good magazine that is uniquely persuasive and memorable, and thereby extremely valuable.

For the past few years, we as an industry have been asking (often with great consternation): What is a digital magazine? All of the magazine titles I mentioned are answering this question differently. Some have created a news feed. Others, a video channel. Many repurpose their print articles into blog posts. The smart ones have created a searchable archive of past issues. A few just beg you to download their app.

When we ask the question that way, we open the floodgates to all sorts of slop that is decidedly un-magazine. The typical guru’s answer involves heavy-handed social media. And push notifications. And monetizing your online channel by paginating just below the fold, capitalizing on viral lift, and recalibrating expectations to include a mix of advertorial content and strategically placed calls-to-action powered by a new algorithm to maximize synergistic opportunities.

Gross.

As the broadcast era (one-to-many) gives way to the networked era (many-to-many), publishers should abandon attempts to replicate the singularly elegant print form — the magazineness of their magazine — on the screen. With no time to waste, we should instead ensure that existing readers recognize our voice in new spaces and connect with our stories in ways that deepen that special relationship.

Most of us make use of our own networks to filter the noise into a consumable, me-oriented signal. Sure, part of the allure of social media is being exposed to new people and ideas. But — and this is the insight, I think — when stories from a trusted magazine show up in my network, it’s like running into an old friend at a new friend’s party. That’s magic. And it has a lot more to do with humans than technology.

With that in mind, we should be asking the question about digital magazines in a new way. That is, we should stop worrying about what and focus instead on who. Listening to your existing readers in the digital space is the place to start. Who already appreciates your point of view — and how can technology be used to serve them, not just heap more bells and whistles on them?

Magazines have always been about delivering a package of stories rooted in a proprietary insight of your audience's unique aspirations and convictions. They inform and delight, and not just in print. They make the stream of content flowing around readers more relevant, and they're grateful for it. There are pitfalls aplenty, but — for publishers big and small — the right answer lies in first asking the right question.