Calm down, Marco: micropublishing is about more than just The Magazine
Marco Arment, founder of The Magazine and Instapaper, today took to his blog to tut-tut over the emergence of a startup that is building a platform to make digital magazines for the iPhone and iPad easy to create. Seattle-based TypeEngine caught Arment’s attention with a newsletter headlined, “Holy crap, did we just rip off Marco Arment and The Magazine?” In the newsletter, the TypeEngine founders, Jamie Smyth and Daniel Genser, said that while The Magazine inspired what they’re working on, they’re not trying to replicate Arment’s product. They’re simply creating software to allow others build similar products with minimal fuss.
Arment didn’t look too kindly on the homage. After noting in his post that TypeEngine seems to have lifted “quite a few elements from The Magazine,” Arment goes on to argue that TypeEngine is focusing on “the wrong side of the problem.” The apps are secondary, he says. They’re just containers. If TypeEngine should be copying anything, he adds, they should be copying the time and money that The Magazine has invested on content.
“I’m not going to get a meaningful number of new subscribers because I add a new setting or theme,” Arment writes. “This is why publishers like Condé Nast can have such mediocre, reader-hostile apps: the apps don’t matter as much as we like to think.”
Part of the problem here is that the TypeEngine guys, ill-advisedly, are advertising their wares with sample designs that are very close to The Magazine's look: a red, black, and white color scheme; centered headlines; similar fonts. The founders say publishers can tweak the font, colors, and layout in order to make their products look much different. But that similarity is hardly a coincidence, given the headline of their post.
Arment is right about the importance of quality editorial in attracting and maintaining a readership, but his argument about platforms is surprisingly out of touch. Platforms are of critical importance in any new era of publishing. What we’re seeing today with publishing platforms for iOS is similar to what we saw with the emergence of publishing platforms in the early days of the Web. New software enabling everyone to publish instantly to the Web broadened the number of voices in the media conversation and ushered in an era of “new media.” The TypeEngine of today could become the Blogger and Wordpress of the early 2000s, even it is unlikely to have as significant an impact.
Sure the advent of Blogger, Wordpress, and the likes also ushered in an era in which we have been bombarded with substandard writers filling up the Internet with pages of crap. But such software also allowed some great writers to emerge, and some of them have launched careers and created decent businesses because of it. People and publications like John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, Jason Calacanis’ Weblogs, TechCrunch, Daily Kos, and Glenn Greenwald all fall into this camp, and that’s just to name a tiny few. All of them invested immense time, money, and energy into editorial – and they also happen to be compelling writers – but they couldn’t have done it without the blogging software.
The same will be true of this new age of micropublishing, in which regular schmucks can easily publish magazines for tablets and smartphones. The vast majority will be unreadable and will fail, but there will be successes. Strong writers and editors who can build an audience around a particular niche or personality should be able to earn enough money or attention or downloads – whatever is their preferred metric – to justify continued investment in their publications. (Indeed, that's the general idea behind the publications issued by 29th Street Publishing.) Businesses and institutions might turn to a platform like TypeEngine to produce prospectuses, juiced-up newsletters, or reports that are cheaper than printing a paper magazine and more attractive than a website.
So why is Arment lecturing a platform built by engineers about his editorial ethos? That’s like telling Adobe that InDesign should be more like the New Yorker. For someone who seemingly grasps the value of both in practice, it seems strange that Arment confuses the roles of software and content.
Arment’s argument also smells a little self-congratulatory. The Magazine is succeeding, he says, because the editors, authors, illustrators, and photographers relentlessly publish “roughly two original illustrations, four photos, and 10,000 polished words every two weeks.” But not all of it is exactly Pulitzer worthy.
The Magazine certainly has carried good work, such as a recent story about people who are bringing home the remains of American soldiers from Laos and other war zones, and a first-person account of harassment by cellphone in Pakistan. But some of the stuff it publishes isn’t noticeably better than what appears on personal blogs. Take, for instance, a bloggy piece about the pros and cons of GPS navigation systems, and a history of ice in bar drinks that includes this scintillating description of a swizzle stick: “Strictly speaking, a swizzle stick is a long, thin branch with tiny spokes radiating out from one end.”
My point here is not to deride The Magazine’s content. Every publication carries stories of varying quality, and The Magazine is still young – it has published only 11 issues. Certainly, PandoDaily has its own ups and downs, as much as we're proud of our progress. My point is that clearly The Magazine didn’t get 25,000 subscribers and become profitable solely on the strength of its content. It also benefited significantly from being the first publication of its kind, and the attendant publicity that entails, as well as from Arment’s tech-industry celebrity on account of his success with Instapaper and, before that, Tumblr.
I subscribed because of the freshness of Arment’s idea, the promise of the technology, and because of the editorial vision of being a general interest publication with a geeky bent. But I must say that, as much as I want to like it, it is far from a must-read. I check in from time-to-time, but I’m yet to be truly blown away by its stories.
Arment’s argument that The Magazine’s success is entirely attributable to its content would be more plausible if Medium didn’t exist. Yesterday, I got my weekly email from Medium pointing me to its “weekend reads.” Included on the list was a short first-person account by Bret Easton Ellis about why he decided to write another novel, an amusing and informative longform piece by Sloane Crosby that took readers inside the mysterious (to me) world of Jewish circumcision ceremonies, and an opinion piece by Reuters’ tech editor Paul Smalera about how it is journalists, not publishers or companies, who have to save journalism. All good reads, all produced within the last week, and all published by individuals taking advantage of free-to-use publishing software.
Medium is one of the best advertisements for why the likes of TypeEngine and The Periodical Co deserve to exist. TypeEngine is not trying to copy The Magazine, even if its founders used poor judgement in showing off an example that looked just like Arment’s product. It is instead trying to take advantage of the micropublishing trend first articulated in Craig Mod’s essay on “Subcompact Publishing.” That’s a trend in which digital magazine publishing is cleaner in design, more lightweight in file size, and more transportable across the Web than the earliest iterations of the form, which continue to be dominated by bloated and repurposed PDFs. The Magazine is an important part of that movement, but it is not the movement itself.
Marco Arment deserves huge credit for being a trailblazer, and I continue to be a supporter and occasional reader of The Magazine. But other indie publishers deserve the chance to create their own beautiful iOS magazines, and to charge for them, even if they’re doomed to failure. To criticize TypeEngine for facilitating that just completely misses the point of the wave he's riding.