Just look at the advantages of on-line publishing: ad revenues are soaring; Internet publishing is Greener than print publishing; readers are more comfortable reading on screen than they once were; and devices like the new Apple iPod Touch allow readers to browse Web pages on the move. We’ve reached a point where it’s hard to imagine why any publisher contemplating launching a new title would bother with a print version. On-line rules.
But there’s a problem, and as usual the problem is money. Attempts to get us to pay for on-line content appear doomed. As media observer Jeff Jarvis noted in an article in The Guardian, ‘All on-line is a freesheet’. And yet, although we may not want to pay for on-line content, there’s no shortage of it. All the major UK newspapers have thriving on-line versions. As a reader of The Guardian, I buy the printed version every day, yet spend almost as much time on the Guardian Unlimited website.
The newly designed arts and blog pages offer less sophisticated design than the newspaper (the best designed paper in the world, in my view), but they are nevertheless highly readable, without the usual colonisation by ads that disfigure most on-line newspaper sites – compare it to The New York Times on-line to see what I mean. Guardian Unlimited claims to be ‘the most popular UK newspaper website, with 18.4 million unique users in October’.
The situation is not so rosy among the glossies. We are told that sales are falling. Perhaps one reason is that they haven’t integrated their on-line and print versions as successfully as newspapers have. Too many magazine sites look like advertising hoardings, and too many are pallid versions of the printed editions.
Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle website avoids this trap. It is smart, slick and full of multimedia content. Using it is a pleasure, and it offers a rich mix of features that can’t be found in the printed publication. Dazed & Confused offers a similar media extension on its site. Both titles make visiting their respective websites rewarding.
And yet for many observers, the really interesting stuff is happening at the other end of the on-line publishing spectrum. It is now possible for tiny players to enter the market, and a host of micro publishing ventures are mushrooming. The illustration world has been quick to take advantage of these new opportunities. The Italian website This is a Magazine invites visitors to click through a downloadable PDF. In Ireland, Candy Collective has created ten issues of Candy, ‘an independently produced digital magazine’. It, too, uses PDF technology, and provides a 500-page on-line magazine literally stuffed with content. Both publications are free, and carry no advertising.
The digital culture magazine Mute offers yet another variant on on-line publishing. Mute launched in 1994 offering readers an early glimpse of the digital revolution. In 2004 it ceased publishing a news-stand version and now exists solely on-line. Its initial aim was to offer website readers the opportunity to ‘compile their own Mute’ using articles from the site and then order a printed copy via print-on-demand technology. Currently, the site only permits users to ‘shuffle, sequence and format the content, including images’ into a printable pdf, but Mute has plans to offer a full POD service. As POD technology improves this solution looks increasingly attractive. The future looks hybrid.