Good news for those of you who have not embraced what I have learned to call “mobile platforms”—I’m looking at you, John Rosenberg—but would like access to the new UMagazinology Flipboard magazine. An exclusive UMagazinology investigation has revealed that by going here, you can read what all the cool kids are reading.
In 2012, The New York Times published “Snow Fall,” John Branch’s long narrative recounting the avalanche earlier that year at Tunnel Creek in Washington’s Cascade range. The story filled a lot of column inches in the newspaper, but what got everyone’s attention was what the Times did with it online: A digital cover composed of video of windblown snow, plus embedded video interviews, a swooping video fly-over map, a slide show, a motion graphic of the storm system that dumped the snow that roared down Cowboy Mountain, pretty much every trick in the book. The newspaper inadvertently created a new colloquial term for this sort of online treatment. To do what the Times did was to “snowfall” a story.
For the past year, Alcalde, the magazine of the University of Texas at Austin, has been snowfalling stories. It started with a bit of natural history in the July/August 2013 issue, “A Field Guide to the 40 Acres.” Online, the story was spruced up with photos, video (I could watch that squirrel for hours, the ants for not so long), and graphic art that expanded when moused over. (And who knew “moused” would become a verb.)
Alcalde followed its field guide with other snowfall productions: “A Classroom at the Edge of the World,” “The Robots Are Coming,” “Notes from the Violin Olympics,” and “Longhorn Rodeo Rides Again,” which begins with a nifty headline that you unfurl by scrolling down.
It’s latest snowfall is “Monday Monday,” an excerpt from a novel by Elizabeth Crook based on the 1966 sniper attack by Charles Whitman. For those of you not from Texas and younger than me—that last group is numerous—Whitman hauled an arsenal up to the top of the tower that is the UT campus landmark and began shooting. His rampage left 16 dead and 32 wounded. (In this case, the piece online only—it is not a digital version of an excerpt from the novel printed in the magazine, because only Texas Monthly had the rights to that.)
I asked Taliaferro if anything came as a surprise in producing these pieces. “The biggest surprise has been that, for so long, magazine pros thought the web a limiting space. A web version or online version of a magazine story has always been lesser. Until now. Now you are able for the first time to re-create the kind of reading experience that magazines have owned for so long and do it on the web. Plus, it’s totally freeing. It’s a blank digital canvas. As long as you ask from the outset, How can we best tell this story and with what media? Whatever you come up with for an answer, the web can accommodate it.”
Editors would be advised to keep in mind that something created on a 27-inch monitor may well be read on an iPhone: “My biggest mistake probably has been to forget that the majority of the audience will consume this fancy beautiful thing on their phones or tablets, so that should inform the design from the beginning. Just as the web used to be a lesser version of print, for some time mobile has been lesser than desktop. That is changing, and fast. So now we spend as much time or more on mobile as on desktop. The other mistake I might mention is to succumb to the temptation to put in stuff because you can and not because the story needs it. That’s a good force that print exerts on editors and designers—limited space causes you to be selective, even subtractive. That can be good force. Unchecked, you can stuff your interactive stuff with all kinds of flashy whizzbangs that don’t add to the story, and that does happen a lot.”
Media observers and pixel-stained wretches quickly formed a consensus after “Snow Fall” appeared in the Times: The project was shiny and cool and attention grabbing, but who actually read the story? The whole story? Show of hands? Anybody? Anybody? “I think the conventional wisdom about ‘Snow Fall’ is right,” Taliaferro said. “Its impact was maybe more on the industry than on the readers. And we have struggled a bit to get traffic numbers we think our ‘Snow Fall’ type stories deserve. But that didn’t stop us at the beginning and it doesn’t stop us now. What we try to do is marshal this technology in service of stories that deserve it. When we first started this we were more taken with the flash than we are now. It’s like a young writer who is amazed and thrilled at first by her ability to turn rhetorical cartwheels. As we have matured, like young writers tend to do, we try to move the reader back into the center of every decision. Is this feature necessary? Does it add something to the story? You can see the Times backing off the flash, as well. And that’s natural and OK. Doesn’t change the fact that the power is still there to tell stories better. It’s just about how you use it.”
As I page through new issues of various alumni magazines, I am beginning to come across these things: QR codes, or quick-response codes. They were developed by Denso Wave, a Toyota subsidiary, as a manufacturing barcode that would let the company track vehicles during assembly. Now they are showing up in advertising, on T shirts and business cards and access badges, on posters and billboards, and in magazines. Equip your smartphone with a QR reader and you can scan information into your phone, all sorts of information—weblinks, addresses and phone numbers, product descriptions, Paypal payments, coupons.
I’ve spotted them in alumni magazine advertising, which doesn’t surprise me, and embedded in sidebars to magazine stories, which does.
As writers, editors, and designers, we do everything we can to arrest the attention of the distracted members of the public and keep them in our magazines—reading stories, turning pages, engrossed in our content. So why would we ever want to provide an easy, one-click means of exiting our pages? Why provide an invitation for readers to stop reading the magazine and begin dorking around with their phones yet again? Do you think after we’ve diverted their attention to their Androids and iPhones, they will put the gizmos down and come back to our magazines? I don’t. I think they’re gone gone gone, at least for that day.
If there’s logic to this, I’m missing it.
John M. Culkin was a Jesuit priest turned media theorist, which must have made for an uncommon CV. In 1967, he said something often misattributed to Marshall McLuhan: “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.”
I doubt Culkin envisioned the digital technology now ubiquitous in our media landscape, but he sure nailed its effects. Our digital tools don’t just shape us, they make us do their bidding. Consider email, a tool that we shaped for speed and efficiency. Its utility mostly lies in its potential immediacy, how it can enable a writer or editor to send a note to China verifying a fact, and get a response in 10 minutes or less. That utility occasionally makes email of great value in our work. But from its advent, email has wasted no time in shaping us. All the productivity gains from instant communication have vanished because most of us cannot resist checking our inboxes every five minutes and allowing every inbound message to distract us from the work at hand. Email has shaped us in other ways, such as taking the control of our calendars out of our hands, by creating the expectation in all who send us messages that they can impose their schedules on ours by making us drop what we’re doing and attend to their needs. And why wouldn’t they expect this? We demonstrate day after day that they’re right.
(And consider this: If you use a cloud-based system like Google’s Gmail, then email has probably bent you to Google’s will. Because the more you go to your Gmail inbox, the more messages you send and receive and read, the more of those little Google ads the company can sell. So those of us who use Gmail—I am one—now spend a good bit of our day working for Google at the ultimate minimum wage—zilch.)
I was set to thinking about all of this by some CUE listserv posts during the last few months, posts that indicate a number of schools have or are creating social media strategies, driven by the widespread belief that we have to be on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and whatever comes next. I’ve seen no demonstrated benefit that justifies so much time and effort, but no matter—our digital tools want our time and attention, and they get what they want. They shape where we channel resources, how we write, and where we allocate that which is most scarce, our time. The effectiveness of and demand for our print publications has been proven time and again, yet we work to fashion messages of 140 characters or single short paragraphs because . . . because . . . because the digital tools we’ve created demand it. Communicating through social media is like feeding a rat—we shove time, money, and talent into this insatiable digital maw even though nobody has the slightest idea of how we profit, if we profit at all.
We often forget that unlike print, all digital media is in its infancy. It has yet to prove out. Perhaps 30 or 40 years from now, we’ll have a digital platform so superior we all jump from print to bytes for reasons as good as the jump from the oral tradition to the written word, from hand-scribed vellum to Gutenberg’s progeny. But until then, may I suggest pausing to consider greater resistance to becoming the mindless tools of our tools?
Two things photographic caught my attention when I paged through the May-June issue of Rochester Review. First was the magazine’s gallery of winners from its annual student Study Abroad Photo Contest, which revealed a lot of accomplished photographers among Rochester’s undergraduates. Even among the photos that did not win, I found one student after another who had a good eye but not, for now, the technical knowledge and craft to create a good picture.
The second photo that snagged my attention was Adam Fenster’s shot of writer Mark Peter Hughes, subject of the Review‘s cover story, “Paperback Writer,” written by Karen McCally. Hughes has scribbled three novels for teenagers, including one titled Lemonade Mouth that became a Disney Channel movie. Fenster’s feature portrait captures a good-humored Hughes with a lemon wedged in his mouth, and when I went to the magazine’s website to look for an image I could grab, I realized that Rochester Review has gone for multiple platforms in a big way. You can read McCally’s piece in any of six formats (click any image to make it grow):
Print . . .
On the website . . .
PDF . . .
Kindle/Nook/ebook . . .
iPad . . .
Smartphone . . .
Editor Scott Hauser comments on all this platform promiscuity: “We haven’t found a technology that works quite as well as printed paper, but over the past few years, we’ve tried to think about the ways that we can use different technologies to make Review available, given how people would—and could—access the magazine.”
Design and production for all of these different platforms has stayed in-house, thanks to designer Steve Boerner’s tech savvy. The version for Kindle was the magazine’s first e-reader experiment. “The Kindle (and the Nook and the iBooks app for the iPhone) are not great for magazines. They’re designed for books with lots of running text. They probably could be better for magazines—and probably will be in the future—but as we’ve explored the technology behind them, we’ve found it limiting. So it’s a big tradeoff between convenience (you always have the Kindle or the Kindle app with you; you don’t have to be on the Internet to see the magazine) and experience (it can look kind of like a sixth-grader’s PowerPoint project). A skilled developer may be able to make their publications look much better, but our experience has been that the more design dependent you are, the less you will be happy with the result.”
Hauser acknowledges a currently unavoidable tradeoff between the magazine’s appearance and gains from new technology. “The printed version looks fantastic, but you can’t access it if you’re not holding it. The PDFs look great, but are often difficult to navigate if you’re not willing to go page-by-page. The website looks great, but it looks like a website, you have to be connected, and it doesn’t look as good on mobile devices. The mobile version of the website displays well on small screens, and that looks nice, but kind of utilitarian, and you have to be connected. The iPad version of the magazine looks great, includes multimedia, is accessible whether or not you’re online, but you have to have an iPad to use it.”
He concludes, “We began experimenting because we really thought that as a magazine that represented a major research university, we should try to be innovative in what we do and how we do it. We knew the magazine was generally well thought of (based on our CASE surveys) and that people preferred the printed magazine to the online version. But our goal has been to try to meet people where they increasingly say they want to be—mobile, readily accessible (but also downloadable)—and to provide them with a great experience of the magazine. A few years ago, that was e-books. Now, it’s the iPad and new tablets.
“One thing we haven’t done well, but hope to improve this summer is making Review easier to tweet, and making it easier to ‘like’ us on Facebook. If I were starting today, we’d put more of our effort into social media, then we’d work on the iPad app, then mobile Web. We’d probably do the Kindle last. But it’s important for university magazines like Review to be in ‘the electronic space,’ as the marketers would say, because it underscores that we’re trying to think about what works well for the people who read the magazines. And, finally, as someone who oversees the design and production of a magazine, I’ve been intrigued to see how willing people are to trade accessibility, portability, and the ability to share information for design. People want to be able to get the magazine the way they want to get it and they want to share their experience of it. They want to be able to put it on their Kindles, or tweet a link, share something on Facebook. And that’s not all bad, even though it means we have to think differently about how we do things.”