There is no silver bullet for a journalism revenue stream or the struggle to reinvent storytelling for the Web. But there are fragments of a bullet that we can piece together.
Jim Gaines, editor in chief of FLYP, an online magazine that combines traditional reporting and writing with animation, audio, video and interactive graphics, thinks he has found a piece of that bullet. It includes rethinking the way storytelling is done online.
Magazines and news organizations may want to keep an eye on what Gaines and his team are doing with FLYP and learn from the site’s successes and shortcomings.
Experimenting with digital distribution and multiple storytelling media
FLYP published its first issue in March 2008 and now has produced 35 biweekly issues. The magazine, an experiment in telling stories through multimedia, is part of the company’s overall goal to become an online publishing company that creates all sorts of publications.
There is no reason, Gaines said, for publications to spend so much money on ink, paper and distribution, expenses that can cause magazines to fail.
Two of the advantages of the Web are not having to worry about these costs and not being limited to one storytelling medium. FLYP’s approach often involves multimedia that allows users to watch a video, flip through pages, listen to an interview and click through an interactive graphic.
“When we think of which medium to use, we think, ‘how do we get the story off the page?’ ” said Gaines, who has worked as managing editor of People, Time and Life magazines.
Charles Whitaker, director of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said in a phone interview that FLYP does a good job of guiding users through a digital narrative, while at the same time giving users control over how they experience the story. Whitaker talked about preserving the experience of flipping a page, saying, “For old-timers like me, there is something comforting about that.”
The question is whether it’s enough. Michael Turro, director of publishing technologies for M. Shanken Communications, the publisher of Wine Spectator, Food Arts and other magazines, said in an e-mail that restructuring magazine publishing isn’t as simple as changing how a magazine presents content to readers. Many emerging tools, he noted, give audiences the power to create their own media spaces.
“As they become more sophisticated in the construction of their own media spaces,” Turro said, “media participants will look for content chunks that they can remix in a way that makes sense to them.” He said publishers should stop wasting their time creating Flash-heavy, multimedia presentations and instead provide tools for readers that allow them to remix the content in a way that makes sense to them, whether through pushbutton technology or something else.
Reorganizing production structure, rethinking the ‘rules’ of writing
Gaines said the production process at FLYP is different from any of the “old media” publications he has worked for. At many publications there is a pyramid structure; at FLYP the production process is flatly distributed across teams. Everyone gathers and each medium is considered for a particular story. At magazines, on the other hand, the text is the primary medium. Even for Web sites multimedia elements are often an afterthought.
Turro said a production process that’s distributed across teams is a step in the right direction. “It mirrors the wider trend of content production that the Internet and emerging publishing technologies have enabled,” he said.
Along with thinking about their production structure in new ways, the folks at FLYP are also considering how the writing on the site can better reflect users’ reading habits. “You don’t read the same way on the Web as you do in print,” Gaines said.
There’s a lot of debate as to whether people take the time to read long form journalism online. Time.com’s managing editor, Josh Tyrangiel, recently said the magazine’s content doesn’t do well online because it’s too long. Yet The New York Times Magazine‘s assistant managing editor, Gerald Marzorati, has said the magazine’s longer pieces attract the most traffic.
Aware of this tension, Gaines said FLYP uses a writing strategy that involves keeping sentences short and compressed. The site’s written stories, he said, are dense with content, but short in length.
Figuring out how to best engage readers
Gaines said one of the stark differences between print and the Web is the way in which publications engage and interact with their readers through Web sites and social media. He said that when he was at Time, he barely read readers’ letters. Now, given all of the conversations that take place on the Web, “you talk to your readers every day and all day long,” he said.
Turro said FLYP needs to take this one step further by implementing third-party tools that will extend its reach beyond e-mail and RSS. The least FLYP could do, he said, is “dip a toe into their readers’ social graphs by getting Facebook Connect integrated” or by allowing readers to comment through social networks using commenting systems such as Disqus. In general, more social tools could be integrated into the site.
Right now, multimillionaire Alfonso Romo funds FLYP, and the site doesn’t have any advertisers. Its 20,000 subscribers get the issues online for free. So how does the site make money?
Gaines’ strategy is not that different from his approach to the site’s content. He said rich media ads, such as this IBM ad that accompanied a story that FLYP did in partnership with Fortune, are one of the few bright spot in online advertising.
These types of ads require a certain level of engagement — which works well on a site that has rich media content, Gaines said. Rich ads call for a limited amount of space because having too many of them would overwhelm readers and take away from the content on the site. Supply for these types of ads, therefore, is lower and demand is higher, meaning advertisers are sometimes willing to pay more for them.
Whitaker noted that rich media ads can be pretty engaging. The question is whether users will find them so engaging that they’ll get distracted from the editorial content on the site.
Because FLYP is privately funded, it’s in a great position to experiment with revenue sources. “If they can attain an authentic fluency with unbound, conversational media,” Turro said, “they would be in a unique position to start answering the call of a hell of a lot of marketing directors.”
Gaines said FLYP’s approach is to look at online storytelling in a revolutionary way that goes beyond how storytelling has traditionally worked in print.
“This is about a fundamental transformation,” Gaines said. “You have to look at a new medium in a revolutionary way.”