Unbundling the Magazine

Via The New York Observer piece, Selling Magazines, Piece by Piece, caught this news about the new (at least new to me) venture, Maggwire.com:

“We’re going to do for magazines what iTunes did for music,” Mr. Klenovich, the start-up’s chief executive, told The Observer in an interview…

Here’s the pitch: Offer users a year’s subscription to a “channel” where they can get premium magazine content from a series of relevant magazines, for, say, $1.99 a month, with an additional 99 cents per magazine that they want to add to the package. The publishers would keep 75 percent of the profit, and Maggwire would get the rest.

Indeed, an analogy between the album and the magazine holds in many respects.  From this point of view, the magazine can be seen as a publisher-driven and controlled “playlist” of articles.  Particularly enticing is an opportunity to cherry pick only those articles in which I have an interest.  Better yet, by harvesting data that consumers provide about themselves explicitly (subscriptions, fav’ing, etc.) and implicitly (sharing, etc.), Maggwire.com can provide recommendations and personalize the “magazine” to their tastes.

If Maggwire executes against this well, they could become a welcome solution to the filter failure that characterizes this age of content and information abundance.  Furthermore, just as Netflix did for film/movie libraries, magazine publishers may find new life breathed into their archives.  Though from what I’ve read, it appears they will have the challenge of balancing their product vision for a personalized, socially optimized user experience with the interests of their other important stakeholders: magazine publishers.  The content library and “search & discovery” experience that Maggwire plans to deliver looks like it will of course be significantly influenced by the existing business climate facing the magazine publishing industry.

Maggwire will have its work cut out for them.  Already, RSS feed readers provide a means for consumers to create their own “playlists” of articles, blogposts, etc. – at least at the feed level.  Google Reader is one of the more significant of those feed readers.  It is certainly not beyond Google’s capabilities to incorporate more fine grained recommendations.  Google has already layered in a number of such social capabilities.  That being said, it is possible that Maggwire could and will be designed in such a way as to be complimentary/compatible – for example, by exposing playlists via RSS, enabling “email a link” (or tweat, etc.) capabilities.  From a product positioning perspective, I am sure that the Maggwire team is giving a great deal of attention to how their offing will fit into the preexisting set of content consumption tools, social features, and consumer behaviors.

Aside from feed readers, it is likely other industry initiatives may be underway to create a similar aggregation point for magazines, as The New York Observer infers from Condé Nast and Hearst’s lack of denial when questioned on the matter.  Simply aggregating magazine articles won’t be enough to compete – particularly if they may be available for free elsewhere.  Perhaps publishers will rally to Rupert Murdoch’s banner and erect pay walls en mass, eliminating the “free” option – or at least reducing significantly.  Even so, the “article” as traditionally conceived and distributed (like many other forms of digital media) is easily copied, making illicit redistribution nearly impossible to prevent.  Furthermore, as Mr. Klenovich himself observes: “The biggest threat to magazines is not competition from within the market, but with other forms of media.”

This dilemma is not confined to magazines.  The digitization of media formats and their convergence onto an increasingly ubiquitous and interconnected computing infrastructure is a forcing function for every media company to contemplate its navel and ask some fundamental questions – in particular, vis-á-vis their online presence.  For example, why can’t magazine publishers employ audio and video as part of their offering?  Truly, this is yesterday’s question as so many of them have gotten that memo and are ramping-up video production/distribution at a furious pace (there are many ways to go about doing this – a topic for another post).  Indeed, what constitutes a magazine has been a function of the print medium’s technical limitations to date – not some divine mandate stating, “thou shalt be images and text on glossy paper.”  Ironically, Esquire’s 75th anniversary October issue highlights this point by physically embedding video on the front page.  Likewise, book publishers like Simon & Schuster know they’ve got some experimenting to do in order to figure out how their traditional medium will evolve with the times.

And it would appear that this is not lost on Maggwire.  Folio observes that while the service looks to be going after premium article content, they also appear to be focusing heavily on user experience – not just of their overall site/service, but also by enabling their content partners to create their own differentiated experiences:

Down the road, Klenovich said publishers will be able to create an interactive experience within their interface standards using Maggwire’s API. “Rather than programming for Apple’s Appstore, publishers will program for Maggwire’s API to create the best experience for users and the best situation for publishes,” he said.

What will constitute these unique experiences?  Only Maggwire could say at this moment.  From a technical perspective, their publishing format is stated to be based on HTML5.  As observed by Folio, this should serve as a hedge against getting blocked by the emerging eReaders and such.  It also should make them compatible with most of the latest smart phones that ship with browsers supporting HTML5.  Audio and video become first-class citizens in HTML5, and many other arrows come in that quiver to enable Maggwire to, as they say themselves, “create an experience that rivals desktop coding.”

Pure speculation, but I wonder how deeply Maggwire might enable publishers to go when it comes to creating unique and compelling experiences: perhaps to the articles/stories themselves?  Here is where things could get interesting.  One of the big issues with trying to create a premium service for magazine content distribution is the fact that ultimately even the best written article in traditional terms is a mix of primarily text and images, layed out on a series of pages.  For an article to be “premium,” surely good writing and compelling visual imagery are crucial.  However, what if they enabled publishers to inject more dynamic media like audio and video, let alone, provided them with tools to produce interactive media of the caliber that can be found in The New York Times Innovation Portfolio?  Not only that, but what if Maggwire enabled publishers to create these “article experiences” through the use of its socially infused platform – and perhaps thereby feeding and enhancing the platform at the same time?  Such an offering would then have gone so much further beyond delivering an easily copied/replicated, “commodity” article.  It would become inextricably woven into the fabric of the Maggwire service itself.

Maggwire is just one of an increasing number of options that magazine publishers have to get distribution and reach their audience.  Does it mean they abandon their own efforts to build a destination and/or service?  Not necessarily.  It is, however, a reminder that online publishing goes well beyond a centrally owned and maintained online presence for distribution and monetization.  More and more opportunities like Maggwire are bound to emerge.  This can often lead to a “chicken vs. the egg” stand-still as innovative new offerings struggle to become attractive to content owners for lack of compelling content, while those who might provide that content sit on the sideline waiting until these new offerings “prove themselves.”

This is a scenario in which illustrates the value in building an open API.  By this approach, a company provides programmatic access to a range of assets, services, etc. over the network.  A number of top tier media brands have not only delivered an API to market, but have continued to invest in its expansion (such as, the New York Times, Reuters, BBC, NPR, and The Guardian, CBS Interactive, Hoovers).  In some cases, leveraging these APIs can be done for free.  In such cases, the API is often a tool for syndication, brand awareness, and driving traffic back to the company’s web properties.  In other cases, various forms of charging for access to the API itself may be employed (e.g., “pay per drink,” content versioning, usage caps, etc.).  Earlier this year, The Guardian incorporated advertising into its API, effectively becoming an advertising network composed of the uses of its API.  Via Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine:

That’s why the Guardian is trying to add its advertising business model – because it wants to release everything; it wants its content to be used all around the web. This is the new distribution.

Upfront investment is necessary, but that investment is best considered in light of the real option it provides the company toward pursuing present and future business opportunities.  Fixating on the ROI of an immediate, potentially risky venture can result in losing sight of the forest for the trees.  Indeed, aside from accelerating and expanding the business development funnel, APIs are often lauded on account of the boon to internal productivity and innovation that occurs.  This arises from the fact that an open API, once built, no longer requires IT to get involved every time there is a new need to access the resources, functionality, etc. that at that point is provisioned by the API (aside from operational matters such as support and maintenance, of course).

An API is only as good as what lies behind it.  Media companies need to make sure they have created “purified” asset repositories, free from platform-specific formatting, thereby achieving content modularity.  Furthermore, they need to imbue those assets with a rich set of meta-data/context in order to maximize their downstream (and future) value.  For example, consider how valuable it might be in the not too distant future to have the geocode associated with each asset once many modern browsers will be capable of sharing the consumer’s current geo-location (p.s., many of them already are; p.p.s. including those in the latest mobile phones)?  National Geographic gets it.

Note that this exercise may prompt the discovery of interesting and new ways to repurpose and remix those assets – perhaps even by consumers themselves.  For this reason, proper attention must be given to legal and copyright issues, sorting those out in advance, as well as embedding them into the logic of the API itself.  NPR’s Daniel Jacobson encapsulates these concepts nicely in his recently coined acronym COPE, standing for their philosophy of “Create Once, Publish Everywhere,” and illustrates it by way of a diagram of their content management architecture/workflow.

Maggwire is applying tools and techniques that have been very successful in other digital media arenas, such as music.  It will be interesting to see how well they translate.  Magazine owners contemplating Maggwire and the like would do well to take the 30K foot view and figure out how they best position themselves to manage an ever evolving portfolio of such distribution options.  One such approach is to proactively “unbundle” their media assets and archives, and provision them through an open API.  Many publishers are hunkered down, riding out the advertising nuclear winter, and don’t believe “innovation” is a luxury they can afford.  While understandable, the barbarians at the gates are set to exploit the situation, so inaction could come at a dire cost.  An open API provides flexibility and agility that is not so much a luxury as it is a key strategic capability for approaching uncertain future.