Now and Later


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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Immediate gratification rocks. In the words of Veruca Salt, "I want it now. Don't care how. I want it now." Who can blame her? Indulged at every whim and surrounded by sugarcoated everything, how can Willie Wonka presume to deny her? And who am I to deny an information-hungry, Internet-indulged public the right to know whatever it wants exactly when the urge strikes it to know?

From its inception, the Internet has supplied near-instant communication of ideas to further our collective knowledge. Even its offspring—email, P2P, and other digitally-delivered information perpetuate its promise of unfettered information pushed, pulled, and proffered to anyone with a desire to use it (or at least an email box into which limitless spam can be stuffed).

And with all this offhand immediacy, publishing too has changed. Not so long ago, a newspaper could credibly offer information 12 or even 24 hours old, and likewise, a magazine could peddle "news" that might be as much as four months past its prime. But with the advent of just-sign-up services like Yahoo! News, even the most non-journalistic among us can access press releases straight from the vendor's mouth. The news race is on.

At this breakneck pace, information providers have a couple of options to keep content relevant. One is actually adding value to undigested information by employing context and expertise—likely of human origin—to excise self-serving hyperbole and shape random facts into actual knowledge that can be effectively leveraged (i.e., commentary and reviews; analysis and in-depth or behind-the-scenes reporting). While the "just the facts, ma'am" paradigm might once have sufficed for content, months after the facts, today they're a dime-a-dozen on their own.

Another obvious solution is to meet expectations of immediacy head-on and actually deliver news now—or as close to it as we can muster. For better or worse, those of us in technology-related publishing are often early adopters of publishing-related technology, so to some extent I may be preaching to the converted. At EContent, we've managed to shorten our lengthy print magazine lead-time by taking the pre-press work in-house, which allows files to go from computer to plate and has reduced our lead time (depending on the section) by as much as six weeks. However, to make a print magazine, the thing does have to be printed, which inevitably adds a few weeks to the process. Factor in the time it takes to ship magazines, and the clock keeps ticking.

Thus, we publishers explore digital delivery mechanisms that meet the old-news-is-not-news demands of the Internet age, while still providing some value above what our readers get from simply reading undiluted marketing fodder hot off the Web. Enewsletters provide one popular alternative. Even if they are comprised of distilled press releases, people value the distillation process in itself. Ask any maker of designer vodka; people will pay for processed potatoes. And if you've got more than potatoes to start with, if in fact you have a subscriber base that has expressed to you—by disclosing private information or shelling out subscription money—that they want what you have to offer, then delivering timely information directly to them does have value.

But while one side of the Internet information coin may be a childlike demand for (and glee in) getting what you want to know instantly, there's another side. The Web has also fostered in us all a sincere appreciation of the tangent. A magazine article might mention suggested reading, sources, or other information. But a digital version of that article provides links to related stories, organizations, blogs, etc. that allow readers to peel through onion-like layers of information found just a click away.

Yet many of us tenaciously cling to the printed page. And what are we holding on to exactly? Well, the feel of paper, for one. Tactile experience aside, portability still poses a hurdle for digital delivery, though even that is rapidly diminishing. But less tangible to publisher and reader alike is the actual way in which we read. Back in Journalism school, they taught us interesting facts like "half your readers will actually flip through from the back of the book first." Great news for that back-page advertiser, but a real head-scratcher when I think about how much trouble I put into cover concepts. We also were provided with other interesting j-school wisdom about how the reader's eye travels around the page and how to use textual and design elements to grab those eyeballs for a few minutes.

In a recent meeting to discuss the possibility of delivering a digital version of EContent, I was presented with the concept of "active reading." Now that's something I want to be a part of: A visual concept as inviting and stimulating as dear old print, but with all of the info-seeking, cross-referencing, data-collecting advantages of the Web. Yet many of the early forays into this medium have failed to satisfy, with unwieldy file-sizes, navigation, and software requirements. While I long for a new active way to read (and deliver content), I'm still waiting for digital replica publishing to find a way to blend both worlds into a hot new recipe for success.