When you look back at it, 2012 was a stupendous year for news and magazine publishing. We witnessed the emergence of several paradigm-altering trends – from micropublishing to micropayments – that will be consolidated and built on in the year ahead. Not one of these trends is enough to save magazine or news publishing by itself, but the combination of them all certainly makes the space more lively and dynamic. Even with glum news about plummeting circulations and evaporating ad dollars, the months ahead promise to be among the most exciting in digital publishing for years.
It started with Marco Arment’s The Magazine, then was followed by an essay by Craig Mod on “subcompact publishing,” and now it’s developing into a movement, with publications like The Awl’s Weekend Companion and Matter jumping in, and digital publishing shops like 29th Street Publishing, The Periodical, PressBooks, and Ganxy providing the tools for the age of premium micropublishing.
The defining characteristic of micropublishing is that it is lightweight, putting the focus on text-based stories while eschewing the rich-media add-ons, and sometimes even pictures, that require more computer memory and download time. The publications can be distributed on the open Web or via apps. In 2013, as reading habits shift to memory-lite and cloud-enabled mobile devices such as iPads and large-screen smartphones, this approach to publishing will become more prevalent and important.
Also according to the tenets of micropublishing, digital magazine issues or books can be short and produced using free or very cheap software, so publishers don’t need to invest as much in design, distribution, or marketing, freeing up budgets for editorial. For the same reasons, micropublishing is also a movement that is friendly to self-publishing. Meanwhile, it’s possible that a small number of “micropublications” – the likes of The Magazine or Matter – will emerge in the coming months to compete not only for readers but also for the best writers.
Digital ad revenues are flatlining, and events can’t pay for everything. But there might be hope in subscriptions. Now, some magazine and newspaper publishers – perhaps most successfully, the New York Times – are finding that it is possible to recapture part of the old glories of the all-you-can-eat subscription model, and micropublishing newcomers like The Magazine and The Awl’s Weekend Companion are also bold enough to ask for some money in return for a regular publication.
As content becomes atomized, pried away from homepages and spread across the Web by Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit, it makes sense for readers to have subscription-based content as their media “base,” just as many of us already subscribe to streaming media services such as Netflix, Spotify, Rdio, Hulu, and Amazon Prime for a steady diet of movies, TV shows, and music. Again thanks to the rise of mobile devices as reading devices, you can expect more publishers to integrate a subscription element into their offerings in the year ahead (and hey! Andrew Sullivan just did it). That’s because, like subscriptions themselves, mobile devices are very personal – they say something about their owners, and wherever they go, so too does content. Thanks to smartphones and tablets, it’s also easier to start, stop, and pay for a subscription than ever before.
Related to the emergence of micropublishing and subscriptionization is the return of serialization, an old-school form of story publishing that had its heyday in the Charles Dickens era, when newspapers and other periodicals would publish novels in instalments. Through a partnership with Byliner, Margaret Atwood is perhaps the most prominent forerunner of this revived trend, but publishers themselves are also driving it forward. The New York Times, for instance, published its narrative non-fiction feature “Snow Fall” in six instalments. Which brings us to…
As a counterweight to micropublishing, with “Snow Fall” the New York Times showed just what’s possible with a big budget and a big newsroom. The six-chapter story was published on the Web in HTML with rich interactive graphics, high-definition video, photo slideshows, audio, and responsive design (although it was best viewed on a large-screen desktop computer). It was much wowed-over by media and tech watchers alike and attracted more than 3.5 million pageviews.
The “Snow Fall” feature is nothing new – Atavist has been doing similar things with its own technology and stories for two years – but it is so far the best and most recognized example of multimedia publishing. It also took six months and 16 people to produce. What it really showed was not so much “the future of journalism” but what premium digital publishing can look like when given the right resources. Because of its success, in 2013 we’ll likely see more experimentation with HTML-based multimedia publishing, from the Times and its competitors, from ESPN to Frontline.
Buzzfeed has a new longform editor – who apparently didn’t oversee the site’s disaster of a feature about The Oatmeal – Tumblr is commissioning longform journalism, and a bunch of other newcomers, from The Verge and Polygon to NSFW and PandoDaily, are getting excited about producing the sort of reporting that the likes of the New Yorker and The Atlantic have excelled at for decades. This new crop of digital publishers realize that people are more willing to read longer stories on their tablets and smartphones. They’re only just getting started – Buzzfeed’s longform editor came on only a month ago, Vox Media’s Polygon launched only in October, and Tumblr issued its call for paid freelancers in the same month – so 2013 promises to be a big year for magazine-length stories, even if they’re no longer in the pages of actual magazines.
Spotify founder Daniel Ek told Sarah Lacy at PandoMonthly that the music streaming company’s next challenge will be to help users make sense of the millions of songs now instantly available for free. The same challenge exists for news media and longform stories, which spread at lightning speed thanks to social sharing. In 2012, we already saw the rise of human curators, such as Dave Pell (NextDraft), Jason Kottke, and Bill Bishop (Sinocism), and Pinterest ushered in an era of self-powered curation. As read-it-later apps such as Instapaper, Readability (with which I’m so enamored that I called it the one indispensable app of 2012), and Pocket get faster and better, the mania for curation will only accelerate. In general, I’m picking that “more signal, less noise” will be a big theme of the Web in 2013 – a point reinforced by Gdgt co-founder Ryan Block’s New Year’s Eve Bits Blog post about simplifying our technological footprints.
In October, I wrote about a journalist friend who made $5,000 from a story that he published on a blog just by asking for tips, and soon after covered Vimeo’s introduction of a tips jar for content creators. They were two significant stories in the early days of a micropayments trend that is set to gather steam in 2013. Swedish startup Flattr, which launched in May, already promises “big change through small donations,” and fellow micropayments startup CentUp will launch in the coming months. I know of another micropayments startup that’s currently in stealth that will also show its head this year. Now that we’re getting used to buying things with our mobile wallets, it’ll be only a small step to start tipping for digital content we truly appreciate.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]