The rise of interactive Web 2.0 technologies has changed user expectations relating to the immediacy and accessibility of content in context. Nearly every day there’s a press release touting a new tool or site that allows users to customize, modify, and mash up traditional forms of media to suit a specific function or need. And nowhere have the ramifications been felt more than in the traditional print publishing industry.
Dan Strempel, senior editor/analyst for the Business Professional Group at Simba Research, says that delivering content in channels other than print goes beyond the change in user expectations; it’s also a case of evolving job demands for the end user. “Publishers have a legacy of print, but they are using technology to enable their users to access that content within their workflow. For example, a legal publisher might deliver relevant information from a database directly into an attorney’s case file for immediate review.”
No longer able to satisfy customer demand by producing print-only products, or even by enabling online access to semi-static content, established publishers are embracing new models for publishing, web-style. At the same time, new entrants to the publishing world aren’t automatically assuming that they need a print product to attract readers and advertisers.
Fast Agile Content
One of the obvious benefits of an online distribution channel for content is the speed with which publishers can reach readers with breaking news. Sites like TechCrunch and Gawker attract eyeballs and the advertisers who follow them with their obsessively up-to-the-minute commentary on events in Silicon Valley and Manhattan, respectively. Along with original content, these sites and others like them make ample use of another key benefit inherent in online distribution: the ability to easily aggregate third-party content.
PaidContent.org is a website and daily digital newsletter providing independent commentary and aggregated content on the state of the digital media industry. Its founder, Rafat Ali, says he never gave serious consideration to producing a print version of the emailed newsletters that propel readers to his site. “Online publishing is faster and allows for interactivity,” says Ali, “and that’s what makes it alive.”
Ali also cites the flexibility of the online-only model, especially in a cyclical market. “It’s expensive to establish a print publication in the first place,” he notes. An online-only publication can easily adapt to changing market demand by updating formats, content, and structure at a cost significantly lower than a print publication is able to. Ali gives the example of his site’s quarterly Digital Media Deal newsletter, covering M&A in the digital media sector. “We saw there was a demand for this type of information and were able to roll it out quickly, providing more advertising revenue opportunity for us,” he says. For now, the newsletter is quarterly, but could easily be distributed more frequently and provide yet more advertising opportunities, if customer demand merits the change.
Dr. Matt Cockerill, publisher of BioMed Central, an open-access scientific research publisher, boils it down to the basics. “The inherent value of online distribution is that it changes the economics of distribution. A publisher can create and distribute content to a million people for very little more than it costs to distribute it to one person.”
Getting More from Content
Another factor influencing the evolution of post-print publishing technologies is the recognition by publishers that they need to make their content work harder, and that print is only one playing field on which to make that happen. By digitizing and indexing print content for more granular distribution, and producing new content optimized for the non-print world, publishers have an opportunity to reach new customers and create new, customized products.
Jason Hunter, principal technologist for Mark Logic Corporation, refers to this as “sweating the content.” Mark Logic’s XML content server facilitates content integration, repurposing, delivery, and publishing for traditional print publishers like Harvard Business Review, Elsevier, and O’Reilly. Once a customer’s content is uploaded to the Mark Logic server, the publisher has a range of options for “sweating the content” by distributing it through multiple portals, and quickly adapting the user interface until it finds what works best.
One noteworthy Mark Logic implementation is O’Reilly’s Safari U, which allows educators to select chapters or sections from across the catalog of O’Reilly books and articles to include in custom print books and online learning resources that students can access directly, either in print or online. According to Hunter, “Publishers see this as a cost savings because they have the ability to customize the book more quickly and accurately.” Customers in the scientific and academic community have responded positively to their improved ability to select just the relevant topics for their students, and to make them available in a professionally compiled format, either online or in print. Brent Wilson, a professor at George Fox University, says that his students “thought it was really cool to have a book compiled specifically for their class.”
Digitizing scientific content has provided BioMed Central with the opportunity to reach new audiences, according to Cockerill. Unlike traditional scientific research publishers, BioMed Central’s open-access journal model charges individual authors and institutions a fee to distribute their research online. Cockerill says this appeals to the desire of researchers to have their content cited quickly and widely, which enhances their reputation and improves chances for future research funding and tenure. It also broadens the readership to those unable to easily access print journals.
“With our open-access model, we can reach researchers in the developing world more easily; it allows more inclusiveness in poor countries,” says Cockerill. He cites as an example the Malaria Journal and says, “It is hugely important that Malaria Journal is completely accessible online” as a means of furthering the fight in this preventable yet often deadly disease.
Amazon Upgrade is another service that takes a print product and pushes it farther. Under this program, buyers pay an additional 10% to 20% of a book’s list price to have immediate online access to the entire text. It also enables customers to search, annotate, bookmark, and print individual pages, leveraging digital functionality to enhance the book buyer’s experience. The functionality provides incremental revenue to both Amazon and participating publishers, and provides benefits of access and immediacy to buyers.