The AfterWeb: Digital Distribution Without the URL

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The World Wide Web is so 2001. Forward-looking publishers are, well, looking forward…and beyond a digital platform that often proved to be a wildly popular place for users to engage with content, but a disastrous business proposition. For many B2B and B2C content providers, wringing revenue out of Web pages continues to be the "cold fusion" of modern publishing—a phenomenon rumored to happen for some people somewhere, but not in any reproducible way.

This may be overstating the case, but it is true enough for many because after a decade of development, the Web's limitations as a digital distribution platform are more apparent than ever. Not only are the revenue models still uncertain, but even the very users who made this medium a mainstay of their media environment are showing their impatience. Aside from trying to peruse the newspaper under a fellow commuter's armpit on a subway train, reading material from a PC display while shackled to one's desktop and tethered to a modem line is about the most uncomfortable form of content absorption yet invented. There is a good reason why "Print This" is one of the most popular Web site functions. Content and readers yearn to breathe free again.

And so, in looking at evolving channels for digital content distribution, we discovered the most buzz surrounding platforms that put a premium on getting the content off of the damned Web. The digital magazine format got serious in 2002, as users surprised even the digimag technology providers with their hunger for downloadable versions of print products. PDA makers and mobile content portals already know how much users want to cut the cord to their PCs, as millions of users now routinely download content to their Palms and PocketPCs. Tablet PC vendors (and Microsoft, with its Tablet PC Windows OS) hope to bring this impulse to the next level, providing a bigger, more lush way for users to get the production values and portability of print with the interactivity of digital. The immediate promise for this pricey gadget may be in the enterprise, however, where mission critical business and sales information needs to live larger and away from the Web. Hovering above, in, and around all of these tentative platforms is the one undisputed success story in offline digital content formats, Adobe Acrobat's PDF. Here we find that publishers are only beginning to imagine the promising ways to PDF their way into increased efficiencies, greater usability, and even (dare we say it?) real revenues.

In digimags, portable devices, and even PDFs, there are signs of the next stage in digital distribution, one that seemed to meld the interactive strengths of digital with older publishing values of design, portability, tangibility, and maybe even profitability. Are these the first glimpses of the AfterWeb?

The Day of The Digital Magazine?
We used to laugh at the idea of downloadable digital magazines. Exact replicas of print material for reading on a computer screen? Who needs 'em, most of us asked. Isn't that why we have the Web? In 2002, companies such as Zinio, LinkPath, and NewsStand left us laughing in their dust as subscriptions soared and surprised even some of the companies themselves. When Zinio began selling its digitized versions of PC Magazine, Harvard Business Review, and others in April, 2002, it had hoped to gather 300,000 subscribers by year's end. But sales were so brisk that by summer president Mike Edelhart revised the estimate to half-a-million. Business publishers— Ziff-Davis, IDG, and Penton—were first to experiment with Zinio's format. But now even National Geographic, Time, and some of the teen magazines have been beta-testing facsimiles of their print products in the proprietary Zinio Reader, which recreates the look and feel of turning magazine pages on screen. "Everything we are doing is testing very strongly," says Edelhart.

While Zinio appears to have the lead in getting high-profile publishers into this format, chief rival NewsStand also reports subscription "increases on the order of 20% to 30% per month," says CEO Kit Webster, and his stable of digitized foreign and domestic newspaper titles exploded from 7 in July to 38 by year's end. "It's huge," Webster claims, and it is all about easier access to content. People from around the world are buying his downloadable New York Times and China Today mainly because "they couldn't get it otherwise or in a timely manner," says Webster. Testing suggests that users like their content to be portable—away from the Web—and business readers especially like searching within and across issues.

Digital magazines enjoyed a major boost in 2002 when both the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) and the Business Publishers' Association (BPA) changed their auditing guidelines so that publishers now can count digital subscriptions in the total rate base. "Prior to that, our phone was not lighting up," says John Kerr, senior vice president of LinkPath, which converts 35 print publications such as Hotelier and Fire Service Journal into image files that users view or download from publishers' Web sites. "Now people are saying they have to look into this." Even more persuasive for many publishers was initial research with early adopters. "Of those [Digital subscribers] who have the print edition available to them on a regular basis, 61% prefer the electronic edition," says Webster.

Like all things digital, these attractive new formats seem to precede the business models. Of course, digitizers such as Zinio and NewsStand make their money off the top, often taking a cut of subscription fees. Their proprietary readers give back to publishers a great magazine look and feel as well as digital rights management and a better fit into existing fulfillment operations. Working with smaller business publishers, LinkPath charges a flat $20-$30 per page fee for converting pages into online images that users download or view from behind subscription walls on the Web. Many publishers, however, still view their digital versions as experimental, an alternative means of delivery for those who can't get print, or as a nice value add to retain old subscribers. Most publishers will not disclose the size of their digital subscriber base, but PC Magazine's vice president and publisher Tim Castelli did recently tell Technology Marketing that he has 6,700 readers paying for the downloadable version and thinks that it is possible to convert 15% of his 1.2 million subscribers to the format eventually. Whether and when digital magazines really can produce substantial revenue streams for offline publishers remains an open question.

While most publishers simply port print layouts into this portable format for now, Webster maintains that the real magic of digital, perhaps even the real revenues, come with the new power to customize content endlessly. Why not have newspaper and magazine versions or special issues targeted specifically to niches within a subscriber base? "You can slice and dice information and target it to various people," says Webster. "In the next few years, we are going to see an evolution in how print content is being adapted to electronic media."

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