Print brands on the Apple iPad — too little, too late

It seems Condé Nast is embracing the Apple iPad as its one and true saviour. Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, GQ, Glamour, and Wired are all getting gussied up for Apple’s WonderPad, according to the New York Times. Hey if you’re gonna do it, might as well start with the best.

I say, more power to them. If anyone can create a digital marketplace for a dying industry that has consumed much of my working life, it’s the Condé Nasties.

But I fear the ship for most publications may have already sailed. It may simply be too late — because people are too used to getting sub-standard content for free.

(Now I’m going to take off my geek hat and put on my editorial chapeau. Please talk among yourselves while I slip into something even grungier).

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Here’s the nasty little secret most publishers would rather you not know: Their online versions aren’t nearly as good as their print versions. The reasons are pretty obvious.

The premium rates publications charge(d) for print advertising subsidized a great many things — like teams of researchers, fact checkers, copy editors, and multiple line editors — that online ad models simply don’t support. So the very first thing that goes when a publication moves online is quality control. When faced with producing lesser-quality content or no content at all, that’s an easy call to make.

Meanwhile, in the print world, you more or less had a fixed amount of copy you had to produce to satisfy your readers each day, week, or month. Online, though, the need for new copy converges on infinity. It’s a hole that can never be filled. Publications are under intense pressure to produce more stories with fewer people, which is why so many of them moved to a blogging model, generating simple stories that can be produced quickly by a single person without a lot of oversight. (And sometimes that can really come back to bite you.)

More often than not, what you read on the Web is the work of a single person. If you’re lucky, a copy editor scanned the post quickly before making it go live — one of dozens he or she might have to edit in a single day.

(For the record: All posts are copyedited, which is why so I don’t sound quite as foolish as I otherwise might. Thank you editors for saving my sorry behind.)

Don’t believe me? The Columbia Review of Journalism surveyed more than 600 print publications with online editions. Slightly more than half of them fact-check online articles in the same manner that they fact-check print articles; the rest use a less-stringent process or none at all. Per Victor Navasky, the big cheese behind CRJ:

“One of the things that it appears to mean is that there’s this trade-off of standards for speed,” Mr. Navasky said of those topics. “The conventional wisdom is that you have to be there first in order to get traffic, and you need traffic in order to sell ads, therefore you do not have time to do conventional copy-editing and fact-checking.”

And there you have it: Internet publishing is a different beast. The problem is that readers haven’t adjusted their expectations accordingly. They still expect the same kind of quality control they got when magazines were fat and happy, even though they’re paying even less for it than they used to — usually nothing at all.

Now having said that, you can still find original, well researched, well-written articles on the Web (on InfoWorld’s site and elsewhere), but the vast majority of online content is none of those things. And as more of it gets machine generated, that will only get worse.

The notion behind putting magazine articles on an iPad is that, assuming people are willing to pay, publications can still afford to produce quality material without taking a financial bath. But the question is, are people willing to pay? Does quality matter? Or have we passed the point of no return, where fast and cheap trumps fast and good, and everything else be damned?


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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