Conference speakers: Digital magazines offer a variety of specialized benefits, but should not be seen as a replacement for print.

By Matt Kinsman

Digital magazines in their current form have so far fallen short as a replacement for print, but they are offering success to many magazines in more specialized and complementary roles, according to a variety of speakers at this week’s Digital Magazine Conference in New York.

The event, produced by digital-magazine supplier Qmags and sponsored by two Qmags competitors;Texterity and NXTBook Media;was broader than in prior years. Many of the sessions;as well as much of the buzz and comment;covered a variety of digital-media initiatives, not just traditional replica-oriented digital magazines.

Still, there were plenty of success stories regarding digital magazines. Several publications, including Health-IT World and VNU’s Hollywood Reporter, said digital editions were useful in getting timely content to select audiences faster than print.

The Hollywood Reporter is also enjoying cost-savings from digital editions of its newsletters, which previously cost as much as $7 per copy to distribute. "Some of these larger publishers may not care about saving $20,000 but to us, that’s a big deal," one smaller enthusiast publisher attending the conference told Folio: Alert.

Others cited current digital magazine formats as a viable custom publishing tool. Marta Worhle, vice president of digital media at Hachette Filipacchi, said that Woman’s Day was able to create digital editions of its Countdown to the Holidays program for Unilever in a much more cost-effective way for the advertiser than in print. Time Inc. director of alternative media Peter Meirs cited working with Texterity to develop a rich media version of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

The event was striking in other ways as well. Talk about freedom of speech: In a conference created, hosted and sponsored by suppliers, there were a variety of sometimes brutally frank observations from some speakers.

For example, Meirs suggested digital magazines actually do the opposite of what they’re intended to do;which is make magazine reading more accessible and functional. "We’ve taken something people like to engage with and put up barriers," he said. "Why would consumers want it? When the digital works like print, then we’ll have something."

And Hachette’s Worhle said she originally acted as an evangelist of digital magazines to the rest of her company but claims actual returns have been miniscule. "I won’t be spending any of my resources on developing digital magazines," she said.

Several other panelists (and audience members) said it’s been a challenge selling advertising into digital editions. "Advertisers want print or online but digital magazines are a weird animal that doesn’t fit either," added David Klein, vice president of publishing and editorial director of the Ad Age Group.

Many of the negative comments focused on a digital-magazine vendor, ranging from its proprietary download system to lack of user data (something offered by other digital magazine vendors).

Even the event’s host, Qmags CEO Dan Schwartz, said "Is technology the answer? Or do we have to think about how long people will sit with a screen?"

Others said the experience of some of the speakers isn’t reflective of the overall industry. "I agree that to be successful at a level that is not just a niche we need a device that really makes it happen for people and we’re not there yet," said Cimarron Buser, vice president of marketing at digital magazine vendor Texterity. "However, it’s negative when you hear people say, ムMy experience with digital magazines didn’t work, and therefore it won’t work for anyone.’ Does that mean it doesn’t work at all for consumer magazines? I don’t think so. We are working with consumer magazines and we’re having a good degree of success with some clear business objectives. There are a lot of reasons to use digital, including creating demand for the magazine by digital sampling and promotional purposes. It may not be the ideal way to read content but it is a good way to start to get a sense of it."

This is just the first step, says NXT Book Media marketing director Marcus Grimm. "The fundamental challenge which exists for publishers is to realize that there is no silver bullet format that will delight all readers," he adds. "The real challenge which exists for digital publishers is to find ways to take a publisher’s PDF, optimize it via rich media and render it into any way the reader chooses. While we’re not there today, we’ve already opened publishers content up to blogs and forums via permalinks and are also distributing content via RSS feeds."

Looking Ahead Indeed, there was much discussion on the future of the technology. A panel called Digital Magazines of Tomorrow: What Will They Look Like? said digital magazines will eventually be successful, citing promising advances in e-paper and in e-readers, but not for at least five years. "The question should have been what is the reader, not what is the magazine," said panel moderator and Precision Media Group president Bo Sacks. "As we proceed, the interface will be better. Digital magazines are not for you, they’re for the next generation."

That may be true, but it’s also cold comfort for publishers who’ve been told over and over that their survival depends on revamping their business model for digital today. Grimm addressed Sacks’ comments in his blog, writing, "What perhaps came across most of all in Bo’s speech was that technology will continue to get better. But waiting until it does is not a strategy."

Much of the conference attempted to answer the question of "What is a magazine," and many said the format will change significantly, particularly on the b-to-b side. "I don’t think there will be b-to-b magazines at all in five years, it will be all bits and bites," said Gloria Adams, senior vide president of audience development at PennWell. However, she did follow up by saying that the shift away from print will be primarily in the technology categories, at least in the near future.

Those changes will occur with almost all media publishers currently work in, no just print. "We will look at Web sites tomorrow like we’re looking at print today," said Paul Gerbino, publisher of the Product News Network at Thomas Publishing, who added that all Thomas directories are online now and that on the magazine side, online will soon dwarf print.

But while publishers may not be able to take advantage of the technology yet, Sacks said publishers will survive because of their primary role: Content. "There will be devices that we can’t even imagine. But we own the content. The Teamsters haven’t driven horses in 100 years but they still deliver. We will still deliver the content."