Subcompact Publishing

Craig Mod does a much better job than I did a few posts back in articulating what is so special and revolutionary about Marco Arment’s The Magazine, which Mod cites as an exemplar of what he dubs Subcompact Publishing.

The clarity of The Magazine is exciting. It’s doubly exciting because it’s precisely the sort of app at which incumbent publishers balk. This is expected. Again, from Christensen:

Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use.

We are the new customers: The new readers, the new writers, the new publishers. The Magazine is indeed cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient than most other publishing apps.

Read the whole thing here.

Mobile surges for online purchases, but Android is slipping. Why?

Horace Dediu has some interesting data today on the growth of mobile as a percentage of Black Friday online purchases. This year, mobile accounted for nearly one-quarter of all purchases. Use that datapoint this week when anyone tells you that a mobile-first approach to digital communications and commerce is still “too soon.”

Black Friday Mobile Sales: Asymco

Data from Asymco.

Digging deeper, though, another interesting behavior emerges as well: While Android’s installed base has grown immensely over the past three years, the percentage of online purchases made on Android phones vs. iPhones has actually slipped noticeably.

Horace asks the right question: Why is this?

I believe this could be a simple matter of who is buying Android phones and for what reasons.

At first, Android purchasers were a lot like iPhone purchasers in that they were seeking out the device itself. They wanted the specific computer-like behavior and many of them wanted the greater customizability that they saw in Android over iPhone.

Now, I believe, many more Android buyers are simply getting an Android as their new phone as their carrier contract renews, replacing their old feature phones as the prices for Android devices get better and the ubiquity of touch-screen devices suggests to even the most casual observer that feature phones are now old tech. It’s entirely possible that these are much more casual users who rarely if ever fully use the capabilities of their devices (and, because of this, have the most-limited data plan) because they want a phone first, and a pocket-computer as a distant second. 

Most iPhone buyers, though, still are seeking the device first, even as more of them come into the fold later, after waiting for the next cycle of their two-year contracts. Think of it this way: These new iPhone buyers could have gotten a perfectly good Android phone for a much lower cost but chose the higher-priced iPhone for specific reasons. Discounting whatever percentage of those “reasons” are status only, I would imagine that most iPhone buyers are seeking ‘pocket-computer” features and not the core phone functionality (and who could blame them — when was the last iPhone ad that showed phone use?).

Simplified: New iPhone users are still actively seeking out the device and its computer-like features while new Android users include a growing percentage of their installed base that are choosing, essentially, a more advanced feature phone.

At least that’s my hypothesis. Perhaps it could be tested if there is any information available about the size of data packages (and usage) by platform.

Horace?

How one geek just outdid the entire publishing industry

Most of my friends and colleagues in journalism or the magazine world have never heard of Marco Arment. A few more may have actually used his offline article reader, Instapaper. But I’d be willing to bet that almost none of them realize that, earlier this month, Marco surprised everyone by simply doing a few things that the combined brain trust of the newspaper and magazine industry have talked about for years:

  1. He launched a new, digital publication.
  2. He charged for it.
  3. He began making a profit on it. By the second issue.

Marco Arment, a developer, small business owner, blogger and technology-focused podcaster, launched The Magazine a few weeks ago. It’s a stripped-down, gorgeous, text-only (for now) iOS Newsstand publication that gathers a biweekly collection of topics that Marco says is not limited to technology but which will “appeal to people who love technology.” After reading the first two issues, I’m thinking of it as something close to the experience of reading Harper’s in the 80s and 90s, when each issue begged to be read from cover-to-cover. Or, perhaps a very thin New Yorker, without the cartoons. Point being, this is a good solid read, albeit one you can make your way through in a couple of quick subway rides or bedtime reading sessions.

The Magazine is a lean, bi-weekly (though that could change) collection of mid-length articles that so far have tended toward the kind of personal essay that shines a pin-spot on a small slice of life that ultimately reveals something of the bigger picture. In the current issue, for example, there’s Gina Trapani’s visit to the sperm bank as she and her wife do the pre-work that goes into two women having a child, Lex Friedman’s  paean to the joys of wet-shaving and John Siracusa writing movingly about something you thought did not exist: a video game with a good heart.

The price for this and a few other pieces, every other week: two dollars a month.

Is this a bargain? Dollar-for-dollar, no, in the days when you can pick up a year of Wired or Vanity Fair for half that. But that’s not really the point. Because, if it weren’t for those two dollars, these stories would not exist. In the footsteps of similarly independent-minded Louis C.K., whom Marco invokes in his first issue, The Magazine is the result of a refreshingly single-minded purpose: to create something unique, not just as an artistic outlet, but as a business — a business, it turns out, that was given an extremely short runway.

Marco explains:

I’m starting this with a staff of one. I can develop the app, procure and edit the articles, and write occasional articles myself. There’s no venture capital funding, no corporate backer, and very little starting capital. My biggest fixed cost is the up-front design and development of the app, and my biggest recurring cost is paying writers. If it doesn’t turn a profit within two months — just four issues — I’ll shut it down.

Partially from these constraints, and partially in the spirit of Louis C.K.’s anecdote, The Magazine’s articles won’t be laid out separately for portrait and landscape orientations. Articles won’t have custom designs at all. You won’t see any infographics, slideshows, or interactive panoramas. These multimedia features can all be valuable, and they have their places in other publications, but not here.

So, it would appear, the experiment part is over. The Magazine, young as it is, is a profitable success. It has no photos. It has no massive multi-hundred megabyte downloads. Instead of taking minutes (or hours on slow hotel or departure-gate wi-fi), The Magazine downloads in seconds.

And it’s profitable.

Will people pay for content? Ask Marco.

When I started working on this in August, it was definitely a risk. And until a few hours after it launched, I didn’t know whether it was going to be successful and well-received, or a huge waste of three months and a lot of money.

In hindsight, it was obvious, but only because it succeeded. Had it been received poorly, its failure would have seemed obvious in hindsight, too.Of course that wouldn’t work.

All these years, publishers have been trying to figure out new and better ways to force people to pay for their content — whether through increasingly intrusive advertising models, selling user data or putting up paywalls and meters. And the whole time, the answer was right there:

People will pay for content.

They just have to want to.

Keep an eye on The Magazine and other independent publishing efforts. You just might learn something.

 

Know your rights: Fair Use

Though it’s tempting to make a meta-joke and simply copy/paste the entire study here, here’s a pointer toward an excellent study from American University released recently on journalists and the concept of Fair Use.

It makes three important points:

  1. Overall, journalists have very little idea what Fair Use really is.
  2. Somehow, thought, many journalists intuitively apply its principles correctly, despite point #1.
  3. The overall lack of knowledge often leads to self-censorship in order to avoid potential (but, often, non-existent) legal threats.

The most common erroneous fair use understandings were:

  • Fixed amount. They often believed that there was an absolute number out there somewhere, beyond which lay lawsuits. (This common misapprehension is reinforced by a plethora of misguided attempts, available on the Web, to simplify fair use decisions.) Examples varied: “three graphs from a New York Times Magazine,” or “two to five paragraphs but make damn sure you source and attribute and are transparent and don’t use a whole page” or “keep it under 30 seconds” or “100 words in an article and 300 words in a book.” The comments of one print journalist—“the rule in the back of my head was it should only be a few seconds”—embodied the typical rule-of-thumb understanding many articulated.
  • Noncommerciality. A journalist working in public media said, “there’s an attitude that it’s more loose because it’s not for profit.” In fact, the dispositive factor in fair use is transformativeness—recontextualizing. While noncommerciality can feature in a decision, it is a secondary feature and never one that can make the difference. Furthermore, most journalism, including public broadcasting, has commercial elements.
  • Market loss. Another common but erroneous belief was that the “fourth factor” of fair use—effect on the market—was key. One academic said, “Infringement on the copyright holder’s ability to make money from their original work is the issue.” While relevant up to a point and within context, this factor is not dispositive in today’s legal climate. The key concept of transformativeness will safely ensure that a new user will not sap the market for the original work, even if the owner suffers the (hypothetical) loss of a licensing opportunity.

I’ve seen all of this, and more, in action. Sadly, so far this hasn’t resulted in an epic Supreme Court case settling the matter once and for all, but rather a creeping over-cautiousness — the study calls it self-censorship — among news organizations which should know better, but don’t.

One speck of potential good news in the study:

In a convening of leading journalists and journalism professors to assess the implications of these findings, attendees formulated an expectation that journalists should shape a set of principles that would articulate an appropriate interpretation for the field of a fair use doctrine. Subsequently, the Society of Professional Journalists undertook this project, with the help of the Washington College of Law’s Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property and the Center for Social Media at American University. The set of principles is expected in 2013.

 

(I found the link to this study in an article by Andrew Beaujon on Poynter.)

Did Craiglist just leave the door open a crack?

Ben Brooks has a great post that gets straight to the point about a business that, suddenly, is wide-open with possibilities again: Local classified ads.

I can’t be the only one that thinks Craigslist is ripe for a disruption, because there is so much wrong with it that goes beyond the hideous and user hostile design of the site…

I would remind you that no matter the size of your network, if your service becomes too douchey the users will flee for greener pastures. Primes examples: MySpace and Digg — both relics of a different time (though Digg is trying a comeback)…

By far, the most interesting of his five suggestions of what to do toward that end is the last one:

5. Charge per listing, like $2 to post an ad. This does two things: removes ads; and helps cut down on SPAM listings.

I think he’s right. The very thing that rocketed Craigslist to popularity and destroyed, utterly, an entire category of income for local newspapers – the ads are free! — is now the piece that’s getting in the way of a quality user experience. Because no matter how much you spruce up the interface (#1 on Ben’s list), when it comes to ads, content actually IS king. Charging something nominal for an ad* doesn’t just create a revenue stream, it ensures that the ad itself is real and has value.

But how to stand up such an effort quickly? How could, say, the daily newspapers in our major cities take this advice and run with it (even if Ben wasn’t necessarily thinking of newspapers when he wrote his post)?

Given that so many metro dailies have thrown in with Press+ for their paywall initiatives, perhaps this could be a good line extension (and one that, unlike the paywall, is user-friendly) for the service which has already crossed two important hurdles: It’s in widespread use but managed centrally and it is capable of completing transactions.

Your ball, newspaper people…

* This is not to say that the newspaper industry biz wouldn’t screw this up by getting greedy and charging by the word, with upcharges for “premiums” like photos, maps and video or some other such genius move. Great ideas sometimes do turn out to be Ishtar in execution.

What if your users actually want to play along with NBC’s tape-delay?

Jay Rosen just asked this on Twitter:

So how come no one’s writing about the odd and forbidding art of eluding the news when you want to watch a race on tape delay in prime time?

The answer I had when I was with The Baltimore Sun now seems quaint, based on what I’m seeing on most news sites this week.

Back then, we decided that, even though the result of an event was “news” in the strictest sense, it wasn’t exactly the kind of life-or-death news that we felt that site visitors absolutely had to get, no matter what. So we wrote home-page headlines that said the race had been run, but required the user to click through for the result. On the sports home page, though, we went with the results unfiltered. The thinking here was that anyone actively visiting a sports section during an Olympics should expect to see all of the most recent news in that category, but that more-casual visitors to the home page should at least be given the benefit of the doubt.

It came down to this: If someone has decided that they want to spend three hours in the evening, unspoiled, with the tape-delayed coverage, why should we ruin that for them?

This week, at The Sun, different rules are in place, as every result of hometown hero Michael Phelps is trumpeted on the home page the moment it’s known.

Given that such news is almost impossible to miss if you dip into Twitter or Facebook or your email for just a moment this week, doesn’t that make sense? Shouldn’t news organizations now just assume that everyone is spoiled and run with the story on the home page?

At the risk of sounding out of touch with the prevailing wisdom, no.

Yes NBC is blowing it on many key details, and they should have both live-streams online and the nightly recap, but they’re mounting a massive, two-week-long entertainment that, it turns out, a lot of people want to watch. The viewers all know they’re being “lied” to, that the result is long-settled and the athletes chilled out with their beverage of choice hours ago, but it’s how they’ve chosen to spend their evenings and, really, will a democratic society collapse if we make them click on one more link to find out the result as it happens?