The key to saving the newspaper and magazine industries just might emerge from a new way of saving individual articles. I've just spent an agonizing week discarding over 30 years of back issues of my favorite magazines as we move our business into a setting far more compact and delightful than the one we're leaving. Late on a back-aching night, as I leaned into the final walk home, the idea occurred to me. Here's why publishers need it:
We've all read how newspaper and magazine publishers have struggled mightily in the Internet era; you likely have lost several favorites over the last decade, as have I. The reasons are well-documented, and basically boil down to two main points: time and money. Why get something tomorrow or next month that you can have in moments? And why pay when you can get something free? We've made it abundantly clear that we'll accept content that is put together more messily if we can get it free, and now.
There are detailed reasons as well. For example, searching paper issues for an article has grown increasingly frustrating measured alongside the blazing speed of Google searches. And if you manage to find a digital version of an article online from an issue published in recent years (the old ones never made it online), you'll likely find it's a shadow of its paper self, with a different layout and most of its graphics stripped out. The experience of reading such an article is substantially less satisfying than holding the paper edition in your hands.
Publishers know they must be online, else they're invisible. But they're trying to do it the cheapest way possible because they're in a money-losing game already and putting their content online is just one more financial burden. The trick they apparently haven't thought of yet is how to out-Internet the Internet-only content. And speaking of things people haven't thought of yet, when this idea unfolded to me last week, my first thought was "this is too good; surely someone has thought of this already." If so, then please count this post as a vote of ratification of the idea. Here's how it works:
Every article in a paper edition would have a QR code at the end. A QR (Quick Response) code is a little square graphic composed of black & white dots arranged to create a coded message. If you have an app on your phone or tablet that can read QR codes, you merely point your device's camera at the code and press a button and it captures the information. (Try it now.) Some magazines already use QR codes, but none I’m aware of use them the way we’re about to discuss.
When you read an article you like, you would take a second and scan the code with your publisher's app. For simplicity, publishers could have an app that works with all of their magazines or newspapers, not a different app for each of their publications.
When you scan the code, the article would pop up on your app pre-loaded with "tags", which are keywords the publisher thinks best describe the content of the article. Like "summer", "recipe", and "salad", for example. But you could also add your own custom tags, like "artichoke", for example. Once you're satisfied with the keywords, you would save the article to your app. Actually, the app doesn't save the entire article, but rather just the identifying number assigned by the publisher plus your custom keywords. So you could save a ton of articles without using much memory.
So far, this might sound like something only a database nerd or software engineer could love. But if designed properly, it could feel as natural as liking a page on Facebook or tagging a photo with names of your friends.
The real magic happens after you’ve liked several articles because you can then search for a specific article at any point in the future using your app. It would be more accurate than a Google search because you’ve already fine-tuned the search by adding your own tags. You know you better than Google knows you.
When you find the article, it wouldn’t be the watered-down mostly-text articles that online content is today. Rather, it would be a PDF or similar facsimile of the original page in all its beauty, with all of the page layout design, photographs, graphics, and fonts fully intact. And yes, if there were ads on the original page, there would be ads on the online page as well. Except these ads could be more effective than the originals because they could link directly to the advertisers’ websites whereas readers of paper magazines have to read and then type the addresses. Who knows… the magazine publisher might sometimes make more money from clicks on the online ad than they did on the original ad.
What we need today isn’t more beautiful or insightful content that we see once on a page, then recycle into a paper towel. What we need is an easy way of finding those meaningful things again… and finding them quickly… and not in some watered-down form, but in their original beauty. Building easy-to-find and durable links to meaningful things has value.
PS: Yes, I know there are tools like Digg & Diigo (see the chiclets below?) that let you tag online articles. But those are the watered-down versions you’re tagging, not the originals. And there are several more great reasons this might save periodicals that we should discuss… What do you think?