The bottom of the big blue

In a sea-blue auditorium at Sydney’s Maritime Museum, a series of panelists and keynote speakers took me on a voyage through the Future of Digital Publishing. It was a trip into the murky depths as these panelists are all experimenting in a very new, but surging tide of technology. Convergence was the theme, but contradictory views swam across it, showing how the readers (or audiences) are now the ones controlling the rudder. I was at a seminar (the Future of Digital Publishing), organised by the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA) and Publishers Australia. I saw it in Sydney, but the event will also be held in Melbourne on Tuesday, 21 August. (Full disclosure: I went on media pass).

If there’s one certain thing about the future of digital publishing it’s that nothing much is certain anymore. On the up side, our readers are still out there (somewhere) bobbing in little dinghies of their own choosing. They’re less interested in consuming broadcasts pitched to audiences of titanic proportions (that model is sinking). Different readers (sorry, *audiences*) want different things. In these visions of the future, words alone are not enough.

At the seminar, keynote speakers and panelists gave a range of perspectives. They debated pricing, business models, interactivity, skills sets and technology platforms. They agreed on one thing: print is not dead, but print alone is dead.

In his keynote presentation, ‘Lessons from Australia’s “oldest” iPad magazine’ Tony Sarno (Editor, APC Magazines and Techlife) shared the costly lessons of being ahead of the technology wave. It’s a cautionary tale of high seas and calm, and paints the picture of how technology and content could intermingle in new business models. He says advertisers are yet to understand the potential audience profiling that technology brings. He says free content has no future. And he doesn’t hire writers who can’t also script video or talk to camera. Land ho, according to Sarno, is ‘products with really good value.’

I guess I’m still an idealistic romantic when it comes to my writing. I can’t help but associate the word ‘product’ with mass-produced consumer goods - likewise ‘business models’ with economic rationalism. I take a lump of neither with my conception of writing and literature. But I do know the basics of how markets work, and I realise that if writers, editors and publishers want to earn from our crafts, we need to rethink our delivery and pricing models.

‘Reimaging the magazine’ was at the centre of science-focused Cosmos magazine’s move toward an iPad version. Cosmos netted benefits from paddling out behind the technology breakwaters. The editorial team (lead by Editor in Chief and keynote presenter Wilson da Silva) studied the marketplace first. They listed their likes and dislikes before they moved into digital. They learned from the efforts of pioneers like Sarno, scavenging good ideas and throwing out bad ones. Cosomos’ iPad publication has interactivity and bonus content. And in a nice twist for long form writers, da Silva says it has encouraged Cosmos to publish longer pieces.

Rebecca Haagsma, Director of Product Innovation at Mi9 (a part of ninemsn) spoke of the importance of making connections with your audience. Haagsma gave her five top tips to ‘make your audience really feel something’. They included: ‘The reverse’ (any story that tells the reverse of what you expect – otherwise known as ‘man bites dog’), cute animals, deviance and differing from the norm, things that make people go ‘Awwwww’ (citing this video of six year old kid with cerebral palsy walking to his U.S. Marine father for the first time) and humour. On the surface this list sounded chilling (cute animals?!). But on reflection I realised it is not all that different from the practices of mainstream newsrooms in the past (or at least tabloid ones). The 1997 film, Wag the Dog, plays on this fact.

At the end of the four and a half our seminar in Sydney an audience member asked the assembled panel, ‘Are we still in the business of publishing?’ No-one said yes. Da Silva stepped forward first, ‘We’re in the middle of the shake-up,’ he said.

For information on the Melbourne session visit the AIMIA website.