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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Technology Review Goes Digital First

Beginning in June, our emphases as a media company will change. The most important changes need your input.

  • June 4, 2012

Beginning today, and reaching a kind of climax in October, you will see an increasing number of changes at Technology Review. The changes are part of a new commitment on our part to becoming a more digital-first media company.

To be clear: digital first doesn’t mean that we won’t publish our print magazine in the United States or internationally. We know some people find print the preeminently pleasurable medium; we’ll publish print magazines so long as I am the publisher of Technology Review. But henceforth people will be able to read everything we publish free of charge on the Web, and we’ll publish nothing first in print. Some stories we’ll post online first, and then in our magazines. Other stories we’ll publish simultaneously in various media. The website will be the complete repository of everything we publish. For us, print will be just another platform (to use the jargon of software development), and by no means the most important.

I began as a traditional print journalist, and I still delight in what print does well. But there’s almost nothing, with the reductive exception of magazine covers, that print now does best. To give one example, long-form stories, sometimes said to be repellent online, are perfectly readable on websites, such as Bostonia, whose story-page templates borrow from the long, rich history of graphic design and adapt it to digital media, or on rich-graphics multimedia pages optimized for tablets, such as those produced by the Atavist, a Brooklyn-based publisher of long-form nonfiction. 

The phrase “digital first” means different things to different people. (We’re uninterested in one idea frequently packed inside the words: that digital-first publishers should throw open their editorial pages to so-called content from a ragbag of constituents, including nonwriters and marketers.) For a media company to declare itself digital first is mostly a matter of emphasis. Most simply, we feel we can better serve our various audiences on electronic platforms: we can do smarter and link-y journalism, design more beautiful and interactive experiences, and create higher-value and unique advertising opportunities for agencies and their clients. For us, digital first is a mode of being that promotes innovation and excellence.

The initial changes are subtle—what our user-interface designer Emily Dunkle wittily calls a “predesign.” Frequent visitors to technologyreview.com will notice an updated navigation bar and new layouts for our home page and channel pages like Computing. We’ve changed how we present Views and Opinions, which we used to call Blogs: they now look like opinions and not news stories. One change is more significant. We understand that in digital media, voice is singularly important to readers, but while our editors have always encouraged authors to cultivate distinctive styles and adopt explicit points of view, our designs have tended to occlude the individual identities of writers. We’ve redesigned story-page templates and the personal pages of writers to make it clearer who is speaking and “where [they’re] coming from.” Readers deserve to know the backgrounds and interests of the authors they follow.

Throughout the summer, we’ll make further, iterative improvements to the story pages for news stories, Views and Opinions, and Features. We’ll relaunch our Business channel and Business Reports. And in late October, you’ll see an entirely new website, a redesigned print magazine, and even a new name and branding for Technology Review.

These are important but relatively cosmetic alterations. The biggest change is the development of a new relationship between our most devoted readers and Technology Review.

I believe strongly that some readers should feel intimately engaged with a media company’s publications and contribute some of the working revenues of the company. (See my post from 2009 “How to Save Media.”) In part, mine is a professional prejudice, but I have a pragmatic reason, too. Organizations care about those who pay their bills: if a media company’s revenues derive solely from advertising, then it will be advertisers whom publishers ask editors to serve. If the editorial published by media companies is not to be deformed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, readers must have some skin in the game.

During the early years of the digital era, different publishers tried various experiments to restore their falling subscription revenues and single-issue sales. Some, with mostly disastrous results, implemented “all-or-nothing” paywalls. Others, including Technology Review, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, raised what are sometimes called “porous paywalls,” where the most frequent visitors to the website pay to read more than an arbitrarily determined number of stories. This sort of meter has worked better for the Times and the FT than for us. (My working hypothesis about why our porous paywall failed? We don’t publish so much that a threshold irritates enough readers.)

But as I try to describe these experiments, they all sound so … print-y, don’t they? Paywalls, no matter how elegantly devised, have for me the smell of paper and ink, as if publishers were trying to revive a subscription business irremediably tied to the distribution of physical products. We want something more innovative and natively digital: a true electronic homologue to the old circulation business that will enhance readers’ interactions with Technology Review.

Thus, as part of our evolution, we’re exploring a new membership experience for Technology Review. We need you, our readers, to tell us what you want.

Maybe you’d like to see fewer or more useful advertisements? How about commenting privileges? Perhaps discounts to our EmTech conferences and other events? Or access to digital replicas of the magazines we’ve published over the last 112 years? A free membership to the MIT Enterprise Forum, the global organization of entrepreneurs of which I am chairman? Books from the MIT Press? Invitations to participate in the interviews we conduct with innovators, entrepreneurs, and industry luminaries? Monthly meetings with me, editors, or other staff?

Perhaps you have other, better ideas. Tell them to us in this 5-minute survey.

This week’s changes, as well as the really big transformations in October, are just a beginning. After this autumn, we are planning yet more innovations, including a strategy for mobile publishing that combines the best of native apps with all the openness of the Web. As ever, we won’t do anything that doesn’t delight the great majority of you and win us new audiences. To that end, write to me and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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