This is one in an occasional series on MediaShift where I discuss issues in-depth with thought leaders in online media. The format has changed to give you a profile of the person, as well as more of our dialogue — including audio clips. If you have suggestions for future Q&As or want to participate yourself, drop me a line via the Feedback Form.
Hometown & Current Location: Washington, DC, and New York City
What Makes Him a Thought Leader: Gaines has had a long career in magazine journalism, as a reporter at Newsweek and later as managing editor of People, Time and Life magazines at Time Inc. He also pushed initiatives at Time Inc. that included TV specials, custom publishing and online editions. He then left full-time magazine publishing to write books and do consulting. He’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, American Historical Association and Online News Association.
What He’s Doing Now: Gaines came back to long-form publishing with Flyp Media, an online publisher of magazine-style content that combines video, audio, Flash animations and interactive features. Flyp was created as a proof of concept, financed by Mexican media mogul Alfonso Romo, and is only now starting to look for advertising and business partners. The site is working with Time Inc. publications and talking to many others about collaborating using its technology platform.
The magazine industry is in a quandary as far as the Internet goes. How do you see things being different now than when you were starting online ventures for Time Inc.?
Jim Gaines: Well the world has completely changed since then. Now you have practically ubiquitous broadband usage, with maybe 20% of the country not covered. The media available to people has way outpaced the ability and willingness of publishing to keep up. The possibility of audio and video and motion graphics and Flash design have bypassed or been ignored by most publishing companies. Not that there aren’t elements of those on some print publishers’ websites, but the art and craft of storytelling hasn’t been reinvented to incorporate those media.
Where we are right now is almost a perfect analogy to the early days of television where all they could think about was filming radio shows. Publishers haven’t really taken advantage of that fact, and not all print media should be in mutlimedia form. There’s still a place for print. The toaster oven didn’t replace the toaster. A lot of vertical titles, where there’s a tremendous personal investment in the subject of the publication, haven’t developed their brands with the media that’s available to them.
If you’re interested in yachting, why would you confine yourself to words on paper and still images? You’d want to see races, you’d want to see people building boats and hear great America’s Cup captains talk about racing. There are so many ways to experience a subject that aren’t ink on paper. It’s not just a failure of imagination, it’s a measure of just how disruptive this media transformation is. It’s fundamental, and it’ll be awhile before people figure it out.
I’ve been hearing about new forms of multimedia storytelling for 10 or 15 years. I agree part of the problem is with the publishers, but what about the readers? Are they also stuck in the same mode of seeing stories in words? Is it hard for them to grasp this new way of experiencing stories?
Gaines: I don’t think so. Our experience with focus groups and our own readers suggests it comes naturally. And they are amazed there isn’t more of it available. This is anecdotal evidence and not real evidence. I can’t point to any hard data, but it seems to come naturally to people to use multiple media. All you have to do is watch your kids doing their homework, and Facebook’ing and listening to their iPods to see that multi-tasking is familiar. We are used to doing different things at the same time, and dealing with life in layers.
The fact that these media all co-exist in a form that’s ubiquitous and becoming more mobile all the time suggests that it’s manifest destiny, it’s not a passing fancy. Life magazine, which I used to edit, started with photography, it started with a media form. Different kinds of storytelling follow available and compelling media. That’s how television started, how radio started. I don’t pretend to know all the forms it will take because the future will tell us that, and reader reactions will tell us that. As the platforms become ubiquitous, this kind of storytelling will become dominant.
Gaines talks about what skills he believes journalists will (and won’t) need in the future:
You mentioned that some magazines will stay in print. Which ones will survive in print?
Gaines: It’s hard to say. I was reading the Sunday Times this weekend and was thinking about a couple stories that were really complex and terrific enterprise pieces that really belonged in print. E-readers are getting very good, I do almost all my reading on the Kindle now, and that may be the form of print that survives. I don’t know about paper. I do know that the biggest cost of publishing is paper and ink and distribution. To the extent that publishers can rid themselves of those costs, they can plow that money into journalism.
Of course there are other expenses that need to be met online, like server cost and tech support — it won’t all go to journalism. But the circulation acquisition cost alone is enormous. When everybody is more on the web than at the post office, it will be a huge savings. I understand why the transformation isn’t happening faster, but it’s frustrating to watch.
What about the advertising in print magazines? People like those big colorful ads, and the advertiser will pay more for that look, and it’s hard to get it on the Kindle now or online.
Gaines: Online, you can get that in spades. Rich media advertising is far more engaging and impactful than the best static ad in a magazine could ever be, because it can tell stories and jump out at you and grab you by the lapels. I think rich media advertising is a huge opportunity; the only problem is that it doesn’t have a good place to live. The best rich media ads are winding up on the advertiser’s website. If you go to Honda’s website you’ll find a great rich media ad, but you have to go to Honda’s site. That’s not generally where audiences congregate.
I believe there’s a dual revenue model for magazines — or whatever the future name is for whatever we’re doing becomes — that aggregate audiences that advertisers want to reach. Advertisers will flock to those publications, if that’s what they’re called in the future, because they want to be in the environment that the publication creates.
People will pay for this. If you had told me as a kid that people would pay for water, I would have told you that you were nuts. The same with coffee. Clearly there was a need I did not perceive in Starbucks. People will pay for what they want. There’s nothing that wants to be free about stories any more than anything else. This is becoming an ideological debate, and I don’t look at it that way. I think it’s a matter of fact and human behavior. I don’t see the pay wall as a wall; it’s an interaction and conversation between people who have something to sell and people who want to buy it.
Listen to Gaines explain what it’s like working at Flyp:
What is the business model for Flyp?
Gaines: There hasn’t been one up until now. We’ve been supported by Alfonso Romo, our Mexican investor, who started Indigo Media in Mexico. We share their platform and technical expertise. It’s been a proof of concept since it began where we’ve been tasked to tell stories digitally. We only began marketing to readers in May, and we’re only now going out to get content partners and and getting investment dollars and advertising.
We were never asked to make it a business; [we were] just told to go do it. So it’s become more than a project, it’s a business. We’ve been going to publishers, and now have a partnership with Time Inc. and with others in the works.
How do those partnerships work?
Gaines: We do a thing called C-Suites with Fortune magazine, sponsored by IBM, so that IBM could serve its rich media advertising in Fortune because we’re Flash-based. We have collaborated with Fortune on three of their cover stories and are doing work with other Time Inc. publications as well. The IBM stuff is interesting because it’s an example of how rich media advertising can work and how we can make a Flash product work in an HTML environment, and how we can transform a content for print into a multimedia environment.
Are Fortune reporters working with you? How does the content get created?
Gaines: Yes, we work with those reporters, in terms of getting the text to be a lot shorter, and to make sure the multimedia elements we add to their work are integrated usefully and correctly with the content they’ve developed. We probably do most of the work here, but we work with their journalists, too. We’ve also done content with Entertainment Weekly. We’re also talking to Warner Music. Nonesuch Records just opened their archives to us, and we did a special issue on them. It’s no secret the music industry is looking at ways to package their artists and assets in ways that go beyond just a tune. The Nonesuch project showed them a way they might use multimedia and the web.
Do you split the revenue from the IBM sponsorship with Fortune?
Gaines: No, we’re doing that as an experiment, as a proof of concept, so they cover our costs. But it’s in revenue-sharing that we see our future.
When you say the Nonesuch project is successful, how are you measuring that?
Gaines: I mean aesthetically beautiful. Nonesuch has such a great history and such a diverse set of artists and genres that it made a beautiful issue. If you’re a music fan you don’t want to just read about music, you want to hear it. If you’re a fan of film, you want to see the film and see the director talking. You want to be able to sample and experience the material in layers so you can control it and drive. Some of the best meetings we have are really ruthlessly self-critical about the mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned about playing different media at the same time.
How do you see the Flyp platform differing from other interactive magazine platforms?
Gaines: The main difference, I think, between Flyp’s platform and other digital publishing platforms is that we try to use every media form that is appropriate in each one of our stories — from video, audio, text and Flash animation, to moving infographics, creative typography, etc. We aim to combine mediums in a manner that allows the stories we develop to make sense together as a package, as in traditional print magazines — but in a much more dynamic and frankly, more realistic way, given how people now consume media. I don’t really see anybody else out there doing what we do, frankly, and I’ve been very actively looking.
What are the challenges of doing work as an editor with this publication vs. the work you did in the past?
Gaines: It’s a lot more collaborative, it’s a lot less hierarchical, it’s flat. It’s everyone sitting around a table — the director of videography, the art director, the reporter, the writer, the researcher, the designer, the animator — all thinking through what is the kernel of this idea. So you do this meeting before you’ve even started the story and then after all the media is back. And you think about how to build this thing. At Time or Life or People, it was pretty easy: ‘Here’s a story we want that’s 150 lines, I’ll pick that picture and that picture.’ The editor created the thing there, and here it’s gotta be a group and can’t be one person imposing their vision on everyone.
Gaines compares the way troops were managed in the American Revolutionary War to the way stories are managed at Flyp:
What do you think about Flyp’s multimedia online magazines? Are they the future of online storytelling? What magazine sites do you think are innovative? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.