It took Shahruz Shaukat (21), David Mancherje (28), and Cyrus Ghahremani (25) just 26 hours during the Los Angeles event of the AngelHack Hackathon to build a working demo of The Periodical Co, a product the men are calling “Digital Magazines as a Service.”
For about three of those hours, they slept. The rest of the time they spent building up a content management system that would not only let people do a copy-paste publication immediately fit for the App Store, but also hook up to Stripe, to allow the micro-publishers to accept payments. The WordPress-like publishing platform will allow people to simultaneously push content to a website, a mobile website, and Apple’s Newsstand without any coding skills required.
It’s a similar idea to Chad Hurley’s and Steve Chen’s Zeen, but more user friendly, way more stripped back, and with instant monetization ability.
Periodical Co’s aims are to let people produce simple, beautiful magazines unburdened by the rich features and interactive elements that weigh down most digital magazines on the market today. “Digital doesn’t need to mean multimedia,” reads an inscription on the site. “Digital can free us to simply enjoy text, beautifully.”
Subscription payments go directly to each magazine’s creator, with Periodical Co taking a few cents from each subscription. The product isn’t quite ready just yet – the guys are still giving the chrome a polish – but a full-fledged alpha version should be ready by next week.
Shaukat says the three Los Angeles-based developers, who had all worked together at comedy podcasting network Earwolf and now have a Web design agency called Fountain, came up with the idea for the tool while driving to the hackathon on Saturday morning. But it wasn’t wholly an accident. Shaukat had recently read writer-designer Craig Mod’s essay on “Subcompact Publishing,” published just a week ago. In the essay, Mod argues for a less-is-more approach espoused by Marco Arment’s The Magazine, which eschews rich features, and even illustrations, in order to deliver a lightweight and reader-friendly digital magazine. Wrote Mod:
In product design, the simplest thought exercise is to make additions. It’s the easiest way to make an Old Thing feel like a New Thing. The more difficult exercise is to reconsider the product in the context of now. A now which may be very different from the then in which the product was originally conceived.
In contrast to The Magazine, many of the digital magazines on the market today – you can find them anywhere among Next Issue’s stable of subscriptions – are glorified PDFs that lean heavily on the design concerns of print magazines, with a few interactive elements tacked on in an effort to take advantage of the new medium.
Basic rule: If the magazine app requires an instruction guide for how it should be used, it’s probably failing. But it’s not only user experience that most magazines have wrong on digital platforms – such publications are also married to the business models of yesteryear, with print-era publishing schedules and resource-heavy editorial departments. These were some of the ailments that contributed to The Daily’s demise.
Mod likened the coming disruption in magazine publishing – indicated not only by The Magazine, but also by Kickstarter-funded Matter and The Awl’s Weekend Companion – to Honda’s N360 (pictured above), a subcompact car that was cheaper, more economical, and just as reliable as its more gas-hungry American competitors:
The N360 was something an American car company would never dream of producing. You can’t blame them though: they had no incentive by which to dream such dreams. Unlike the American automotive industry, the Japanese automotive industry wasn’t beholden to industry momentum or legacy. And when you’re not beholden to legacy, you can be excessively brazen.
Guess who’s who in the analogy.
To Shaukat, Mod’s argument made total sense. “When I read the Craig Mod article where he defines subcompact publishing, every line I was reading I was nodding my head,” he says. “I don’t think my opinions on it were fully formed until I read that article.” And so, they set to work on a publishing tool that, in their words, “would not offend readers with graphics or interactive elements that are just distractions.” It’s all about the reading, baby.
One could look at the arrival of The Periodical Co, and many others sure to follow in its wake, as a natural extension of a golden age of personal publishing that has brought us blogging, Twitter, and new micro-blogging platform Medium (all of which, by the way, bear Evan Williams’ golden touch). We have long been able to publish our thoughts to a wide audience for free, and now we have a way to just as easily monetize premium versions of what we consider our finest work.
Naturally, most people who use such tools will make diddly squat. Competing for an audience has never been easy for a magazine, let alone for an individual armed with nothing more than a barebones CMS and a Twitter account. But there will be a few independent content producers or curators who can make it work and at least earn some bus money, and there’s a good chance some professionals will take up the challenge. After all, thanks to our increasingly mobile-centric reading habits, subscriptions may be making a comeback.
This is hardly the future of the magazine business, and the likes of the New Yorker won’t be quaking in their boots. There is still a massive barrier to entry for micro-publishers who aspire to the quality produced by those deep-pocketed publishers. But these experiments will give old and new media alike a lot to learn from. And it may achieve something that anyone who calls himself a writer should be all for: to enable people who love to write to get paid something for their work.
Who might use such a tool? Disaffected editors, perhaps? Journalists with strong personal brands and large Twitter followings who want to strike out on their own? Thought leaders in specific verticals? The publishing equivalent of YouTube-era Justin Bieber? Hobbyists who can speak engagingly to a niche audience? Obsessive stalker types who can channel their unhealthy Miley Cyrus mania into something her fans might actually buy? Perhaps even blogs like PandoDaily could put together a useful digital digest that readers would be willing to pay money for (probably not, though – we like you to have our sweet words for free). The possibilities aren’t endless, but they’re comfortably greater than zero.
To some degree, the era of “premium micropublishing” – let’s go ahead and call it that because it has to have a name – is merely rekindling pre-existing predilections. Think of these insta-mags as the reawakening of the old-timer zine, without the photocopying, distribution costs, or stapled pages. There will always be people eager to foist their thoughts onto the world in whatever way possible, and always a sizeable-enough portion deluded enough into thinking those thoughts might actually be worth a bit of money. The Periodical simply exploits that phenomenon.