Thursday, May 30, 2013

Marco Arment sells off 'The Magazine' to its editor; testing notion that readers really do want a minimally designed digital pub rather than one designed by professionals

It's hard to bash a winner, and there is no doubt that Marco Arment's The Magazine has been a winner, at least in comparison to many of the other new digital magazines launched into the Apple Newsstand. But I've never seen it as a model when it comes to design, and its sale only reinforces my impression that its design simply followed function - that is, keep it simple because complexity is too much work.

If your unaware of the news, here is the skinny:

The minimally designed digital magazine has been sold to its editor Glenn Fleishman, who has formed an LLC (Aperiodical LLC). The editor will maintain the same subscription-only business model – that is, the magazine will remain ad-free.

Now if you think about it, exactly how hard would it be to publish a digital magazine that does not require complex layouts, doesn't involve ad sales, and only contains five medium-length articles each issue? My guess is that for most TNM readers they could do it in their sleep, they certainly wouldn't need an editor to help them out. So did Arment need an editor, and if The Magazine is so successful why sell it off?

Because Arment is not a publisher, he's a developer who also happens to blog. So when he decided to launch The Magazine he created a simplified design that would not require a talented art director and could show off only the content. The concept struck a cord with other techies, and writers, in general. The Magazine was hailed as a new trend in publishing, and indeed other similar magazines, and other similar platforms (29th Street Publishing and TypeEngine, for instance) have followed the trend.

Arment is sure readers want these kinds of publications saying that people "want to download publications quickly and read them without cruft. Publications that started in print carry too much baggage and usually have awful apps. The Magazine was designed from the start to be streamlined, natively digital, and respectful of readers' time and attention."

Bullshit. What he is saying is that magazine publishers and their art directors don't have a clue how to design their publications. If you believe that you might as well hang 'em up.

The idea that people can't handle a scrolling text box, or are somehow repelled by animated magazine covers is absurd. My guess is that if Arment has been an art director at a print magazine he, too, would be pushing the envelope of the new digital platforms, not creating Kindle Edition-like digital magazines.

For me, The Magazine is the equivalent of Tumblr, which many in the industry fell in love with when launched. It's bare bones design was attractive to many would-be publishers who didn't have the tie to worry about layouts and interactivity.

But then along comes Snow Fall and suddenly a whole other group within the industry is proclaiming that readers want the complexity and interactivity that the NYT's web feature gave them. Actually, many were the same people who said that readers wanted less, not more.

Few art directors I know think this
is the future of magazine design
The way I see it, you can pretty much predict where people will come down on the issue of design – art directors love the native tablet platforms; many publishers want it cheap and easy and are prone to the sales pitch that the PDF is the future of magazine publishing; editors want to keep it simple; I look at all this and say "when will the ads start coming, and why are we still stuck with ugly banner ads?"

(I have never heard an art director say that the future of digital publishing is automated layouts – gee, I wonder why? Maybe they like to eat like the rest of us.)

There is room in the market for The Magazine just as there is room for complex native tablet designs. But I think it is silly to believe that the future of publication design is to go back hundreds of years. (When you look at The Magazine on an iPhone what you see is pretty much the same look and feel as what BJPhoto: iPhone edition sports, the Mag+ built mobile version of the British Journal of Photography.)

As for the success of Marco Arment's venture, that was very much personality based. Proof that it's good to have friends. There is no The Magazine without Arment, just as there is no O without Oprah. What we'll see now is whether readers really did think the editorial content of The Magazine was great stuff or not. Editorially nothing is changing, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear some readers start to complain that something isn't the same without Arment in charge – even though, in fact, nothing really changes with the sale of the title.