As a specialist in magazine websites, I do a lot of thinking about why people like magazines, and whether that special something is transferable to the web. I also do a lot of thinking about what web-only properties do especially well, and how print magazines are evolving with online behaviour in mind.
A fantastic series on “content farms” like Demand Media currently running on PBS site MediaShift has had me thinking about these kinds of things a lot more. And the latest piece, “Don’t blame the content farms“, really solidified some of the issues for me.
Question: Why do you read what you read?
Are you looking for specific information? Entertainment? Education? Interesting articles on topics you’re interested in?
In the pre-internet age (remember?), print media could and did fulfill all of these needs for readers. But with the ubiquity of the web – and especially of search – some kinds of information have become superfluous in print. Pure news, for instance, is next to useless in print. (I’m not talking about analysis.) And a lot of service pieces are becoming that way, too.
Let’s look at an example. Bon Appetit magazine has a lot of recipes. And they follow the seasons with a lot of them. But you may have noticed that aside from the annoying habit of, say, August issues coming out in early July, most Americans get fresh local peaches at least several weeks ahead of us in Canada. So for me, it takes weeks if not a month or more for Bon Appetit’s “seasonal” recipes to actually be in season. I’m not blaming them for this. But it makes it a big hassle for me to organize magazines and recipes. And why do it that way when I can just search for what I want online?
Bon Appetit is trying to give its readers what they’re looking for. But the problem is that readers aren’t always looking for those things when they’re reading the magazine, or when they have the magazine available. (Maybe I’m at work looking for a dinner recipe using fresh peas, and my magazine is at home.) More and more, the competitive advantage magazines can offer to readers isn’t specific and searchable information, but targeted and curated information – the kinds of articles you didn’t know you’d be interested in until you came across them and read them.
Is there really a greater reading pleasure than immersing yourself in your favourite magazine on the day it arrives in the mailbox and following the editors’ suggested journey through the issue, absorbing new ideas along the way? Or in picking up a magazine from the newsstand based on one cover line, only to discover an amazing article you didn’t know would be there?
To me, it’s this immersive experience, combined with incidental reading, that makes a magazine a magazine. When I read Runner’s World, for example, I want to enjoy myself. I want information on being a better runner, of course, but I also want to be inspired to run more, and to read about other runners, and to learn about things that only the specialists – the editors at Runner’s World – can share with me. I want to read that really long profile of the person I’d never heard of before. I want to learn about a fun race in a city I’ve never been to.
This magazine experience isn’t only available in print, although it works better that way (so far) because there are less distractions. But more important, the web search experience doesn’t work well in print. So when you’re creating your magazine, don’t try to recreate the web. And above all, don’t give your readers what they’re looking for.
Give them what they don’t know they’re looking for.
There is no rule that says online papers must play print’s little brother. On the contrary, the most successful ones are more like inspired riffs on a print theme.
I’ve always disagreed with this statement. Attention span has to do with where the reader is, not where the text is. If most of the people who access your website are at work/eating breakfast/on the bus/in a hurry/sitting in an uncomfortable chair at an ancient computer, then of course they’re not interested in reading a long, in-depth story. But as computers become more portable and more pleasurable to use, people are more likely to have the physical and mental attention span to focus on longer stories.
As evidence, Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism Lab reports on a project taking place at Slate, where all editorial staff get the chance to take four to six weeks of paid time off in order to focus on one in-depth piece of reporting (or a series) “on a topic that compels them”. And the results have been positive, both in terms of quality of work and in terms of pageviews.
You’ll always have people who don’t read: tl;dr [too long; didn't read] is an often-commented string of characters that I learned about while reading this piece. But to cultivate a quality audience, you need to give them quality stories to read. It’s worth thinking about that rather than always aiming for the lowest common denominator.
The website is a companion to the book, not a substitute (I bought the Kobo ebook version), but what’s up there for free is a good start when it comes to web-specific editorial questions, such as what part of a website gets the most reader attention and how to write strong headlines – as well as a Q&A with the editors and the chance to submit more article ideas. It’s definitely worth a look to get a solid overview of web editorial questions.
In brief, what is Dogs in Canada about?
Dogs in Canada serves the interests of Canadian dogs and the people who love them. Our readers range from purebred fanciers and breeders to pet lovers. We love dogs!
What is your website’s editorial strategy?
It’s simple: we cater to the diverse needs of the dog-loving web user. Our magazine has a history of relying upon industry experts to provide advice on matters relating to canine health, nutrition, training and behaviour. We’ve kept that standard for the website, transitioning many of our experts to the web, where they provide the same level of authority, but often in a condensed format. So for example, where our vet writer might put together a lengthy feature on parvovirus in the print version of the magazine, whereas for online he might condense the subject matter down to the five things you must know about parvovirus.
What are some of the highlights of your site?
The most popular element of the site is our Directory of Breeders. Consumers have increasingly turned to the internet for researching and purchasing, and this has been the case in the pet marketplace. Visitors come to learn about the many different breeds and do their research on what kind of dog might be suitable for them. The Directory of Breeders is an online listing of Canada’s breeders, including links to their sites. The puppy videos are also a very popular part of the site, understandably!
What updates are you hoping to do?
We are very keen to implement some design and navigation changes, including a more advanced search engine on the site. We would also like to incorporate additional elements of social networking sites and technologies into the next stage of design. From a content perspective, we will likely continue on the same path, though as the site grows we’d love to increase the frequency of contributions.
What makes your site the best magazine website in Canada?
We were pleasantly surprised to have received that recognition. With only three staff working on the site, we felt our odds were pretty slim, especially when we considered how many excellent Canadian magazine websites are out there. One thing that might have given us an edge is that all of us working for Dogs in Canada are truly passionate about our subject matter. We know a lot about dogs and we know even more about our audience because, in many ways, we’re just like them. We come back, time and time again, to a simple question: “is this what our readers want?” The answer to that question is paramount and dictates our design approach, our choice of artistic elements and most of all our editorial content.
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