This piece is based on a keynote Kati Krause gave at the QVED International Editorial Design Conference in Munich on 27 February 2015. If you’re too lazy to read or are into mad colour combinations, you can watch the video here.
The rise of listicles and the fall in display advertising rates has caused a lot of soul-searching in in digital media in the past years. Lines between journalism and entertainment have been blurred, no one knows how to pay for any of it anyway, except maybe by selling their children or their beliefs. The pressure to increase traffic and the low cost of online publishing have led to an increase in fluff and a fall in quality, at least relatively and at least according to gut feeling (because who knows, really?).
In digital media, the default attitude is too often: When in doubt, publish. Saying something is mistaken for adding value. Participating in the conversation is mistaken for contributing to it. It’s as if much of the media world had, without any sense of humour, accepted as their prophet the Bavarian comedian Karl Valentin, who died in 1948 and coined the phrase: “Everything has been said already. But not yet by everyone.”
A solution I see to this problem – both conceptually and in the day-to-day making of digital media – is to be very clear about what’s a blog and what’s a news site, and to make sure that publications that don’t fall into either of those categories don’t behave as if they were. Rather, let’s think of more online media outlets in terms of magazines.
What it means to be a magazine on the web is something I’ve been thinking about for a while and was confronted with in full force last autumn while working at Matter, a magazine launched as a crowd-funded science journalism project in 2012, sold to Medium, and relaunched as a general-interest magazine last summer. At Matter I was able to witness and participate in the painful process of defining a sensibility amidst the everyday performance pressure, noise and competition.
It’s also where I developed this first iteration of my grand theory of magazine thinking on the web, which consists of four main components.
1 Create value
This may seem obvious, but in the daily reality of digital media, it isn’t. Value, to me, means quality, enduring quality. Reflection. Responsibility. Also: Slowness. In digital media, slowness is relative. Waiting a day or two after an event to publish something, that’s slow. But that may be the time it takes to create value – and sometimes even longer than that.
Let’s think about what it is we want to publish, and why. Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: “What can be our unique take on this?” “Do we love this, and are we proud of this?” “What is this adding to the conversation?”
And: “Will we still want to read this in one month’s time?” If you are a magazine, this last question in particular is important.
One big thing I’ve learnt at Matter is that as a publication on the web, you can decide not to publish something in which you’ve already invested a lot of time, energy and money. You can look at a perfectly fine piece and say: You know what? This isn’t good enough. Even in digital media, there’s a point in having kill fees.
Just how important slowness, responsibility, reflection and quality are became very clear in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January. As the media rushed to participate in the conversation, value fell by the wayside. The few pieces I think are essential reading on Charlie Hebdo were published with a lag – like Teju Cole’s magnificent “Unmournable Bodies” in The New Yorker, published two days after the attack. (You may recall that two days, in Charlie Hebdo/digital media time, were something like two weeks in normal human time.)
Of course, not everyone can get Teju Cole to write an essay about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in two days’ time. However, every media professional can take a step back and think whether there’s anything meaningful they can add to the issue – maybe even something only they can add.
And if you don’t, you may want to choose to simply shut up. That, incidentally, is the path Zeit Magazin chose. 10 of the 13 most-clicked articles in German digital media in January 2015 were news items and live blogs about the Charlie Hebdo. Zeit Magazin, however, provided the second most-clicked pieces that month – a personal essay by model-turned-photographer Lina Scheynius. It’s an article that I, for one, would still want to read in a year’s time.
There’s no way anyone can read everything published on the web everyday anyway, so let’s just publish less.
2 Build community
Magazines have always been extraordinary community-builders. However, discourse around community in digital media has lately been dominated by broken comment culture and sites closing down or limiting comment functions. Yet some experiments show that once you inject a sense of community and purpose into a digital publication, debate actually becomes supportive and productive.
Take Rookie mag. They own community. Rookie takes its readers seriously, creates things that are of great value to them, and gives its community ownership over its brand. There’s a so much exchange happening between writers, editors and readers that the lines between who is who are blurred. Rookie isn’t its editors. Rookie is its readers.
Another interesting experiment with community is Krautreporter, a German crowdfunded online magazine modelled on the Dutch De Correspondent. The idea is that the community doesn’t just comment but plays an active part in research and reporting. It’s early days, but the model is catching on: Science and philosophy magazine Aeon has just launched Aeon Ideas, a social network for the debate of profound issues which, similar to Krautreporter, could eventually be used for monetisation but for now offers quality conversation – a rare enough thing on the internet. (That community offers a path towards funding journalism hasn’t gone unnoticed among some bigger media companies like The Guardian.)
3 Develop a voice
A recent article that caused a bit of a stir on Media Twitter claimed that there was no discernible difference between a whole number of US online media outlets, including Vice and New York magazine. There’s some truth to what the author says, but in this particular case I think he’s wrong: There is a discernible difference between Vice and New York magazine, even though both cover pretty much everything. It’s their voice. Whether Vice talk about British politics, the intricacies of investigative journalism or London swinger clubs, they do it in an unmistakable Vice voice. The same goes for New York magazine. New York is a content mass producer and they certainly don’t always create value, but pretty much everything they do, whether it’s Obamacare or Oscars red carpet fashion, sounds like New York magazine.
For an online magazine, finding its own voice is important – maybe more so than for a print publication, which can fall back on other means of differentiation. Online, voice is often voices, as publications are built around or modelled on outstanding writers. But while that’s important and easy, in itself it’s not a sustainable model.
Voice supports brand. It helps readers identify with the magazine and builds community. Increasingly, it’s becoming important for business models, too. Display advertising (which demands clicks) still dominates, but rates keep falling and native advertising is on the rise. The latter favours strong brands that somewhat bind readers – a reality few understand better than Vice.
4 Design well
Web magazines are pretty much the opposite of objects, and the way we consume media online is rarely design-driven if we understand design in an aesthetic sense. But while editorial design may be more constrained and less prominent online than in print, that does not mean that all web publications have to look the same. Visual identity and diversity still matter – they support voice, community, and of course make publications more appealing and therefore more valuable to readers.
However, you could argue that online, design plays an even more important role than in print. It may be less visible, but it informs the reader (user) experience to a much larger extent – a fact that usually becomes obvious when the design is bad. Design can also drive new story formats and distribution strategies, and can thus be an integral part of any online magazine.
But even if you approach front-end design mainly from an aesthetic point of view, there’s plenty of room for play. Just look at The Atavist, Green Soccer Journal, Aeon, Lucky Peach and Bloomberg Businessweek, to name but a few. And of course, Matter: a magazine whose design is constrained by the fact that it runs on Medium, but whose art department still manage to give it its very own look – whether the art is for female UFC fighters, an essay on fat-shaming, Chaturbate, a series on the resurgence of avoidable diseases, or a reportage on Aleppo’s emergency response squad.
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So, to conclude:
The internet is a great place. People debate. They argue. They insult. They support. They celebrate. They create together. They profess love. They mindlessly click on stuff.
The argument against a quality approach to online publishing often resembles that of junk food producers: Hey, if people want it, who are we to deny them their wishes? And of course, there’ll always be fast-paced entertainment publishing on the web and that’s not a problem. (Incidentally, the day I gave this talk at QVED was also the day that The Dress broke the internet.)
But it doesn’t mean that we all have to do it. It also doesn’t mean that everything published online today is outdated tomorrow. Six-month-old articles suddenly resurge when the story becomes relevant again, and my gut tells me people must dig out old quality pieces online at least as often as they pick up an old magazine again. (Because who keeps old magazines?) Google’s algorithms may favour newness, but Google also assures that very little ever gets completely lost. The internet doesn’t forget. So we should fight to make it a little bit better, a little bit more beautiful.
Thank you to Kati for adapting her notes for this post.