Digital magazine publishing is increasingly within reach for all kinds of content creators — big, small, non-profit, for profit. As another way to reuse existing content and reach audiences, digital magazines might especially appeal to non-profit and public media news organizations.
At least two such organizations — ProPublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting — have launched free digital iPad magazines to showcase their reporting. The magazines are a low-cost way to gain exposure for their work because they repurpose existing digital content into a new storytelling medium. These organizations’ creative use of digital magazines shows how versatile digital magazines are, and early reactions to the publications suggest the experiments may be a success.
Oregon Public Broadcasting
OPB’s digital magazine, published since December 2012, goes a step beyond the digital magazines created by other public broadcasters, which have primarily been program guides that offer background information for their radio and TV shows. OPB’s magazine reflects OPB’s larger focus on digital storytelling across platforms.
“We are producing very high-quality digital pieces constantly, but we know that not everyone is seeing them,” said Lynne Pollard, OPB’s vice president for new media. “This is a way of re-presenting the content so that we get as many people seeing what we’re doing and are serving as many people as possible.”
For more than a decade, OPB’s website has featured digital complements to its radio and TV programming. The organization’s rich audio and video content repository is a foundation for further development. In recent years, Pollard said, OPB has also made a concerted effort to create content for mobile devices.
“We’re moving into a whole new CMS [content management system] built on responsive design so we’d have a mobile site. We produce apps for smartphones and tablets. When we saw a digital magazine, it became another way of showcasing that digital content,” Pollard explained. “Whatever device the audience is using, we can show them breadth and depth of OPB’s storytelling about the region.”
Steve Bass, the CEO of OPB, visited a digital magazine production class at the University of Oregon, and was inspired by the students’ work — enough to hire one of the then-students, Jason Bernert, as a digital producer. Pollard said Bernert now works with the OPB newsroom staff to develop an editorial calendar, gather content and design the magazine. In addition to the media available from all of OPB’s content creators, the digital magazine also can include high-resolution images that can’t be used on OPB’s websites because of load times.
Pollard said the magazine app has been launched about 40,000 times, with around 10,000 downloads of single issues and about 2,200 subscribers.
“We’re actually quite encouraged by those numbers. It’s obviously a very regionally focused magazine … The people who see it love it, and we have been able to secure sponsorship funding with different advertisers,” she said. “The only complaint has been from people who aren’t Apple users and want to know when it will be available on Android devices” — which may happen in the future.
A digital magazine can be a good option for public broadcasters and other non-profit news organizations, Pollard said, if it fits their overall strategy and capabilities.
“We’ve already got this ongoing editorial process and strong emphasis on digital storytelling, so it wasn’t a difficult thing for us to add. It wasn’t tremendously expensive,” she said. “If you know what your organization’s strategic focus is, and you use the new technology to further that strategy, that’s the appropriate thing.”
ProPublica, the non-profit investigative news organization, has also launched its own digital magazine. Though ProPublica’s work is also available on its website, a magazine provides the organization another mode of storytelling, and offers its audience a different environment for reading.
Mike Webb, ProPublica’s vice president for communications, said the magazine’s first issue has had more than a thousand downloads so far, and expects that the release of the July issue will boost its exposure. In addition to making the organization’s content accessible on a new platform, the magazine provides a more focused experience for readers, Webb said.
“It’s a more quiet experience. You don’t have all the distractions of a website on it, and get the story plain and simple. We wanted people to have an opportunity to read the stories without links to other stories on the site, or information about other things — to be sort of immersed in the investigation,” he explained.
ProPublica is working with 29th Street Publishing to create the magazine. 29th Street (previously covered here on MediaShift) takes a minimalist approach to digital magazine publishing, focusing on text and clean design, which fits the philosophy Webb describes. Using an external publishing service was the most significant cost of the project, he said, along with the time required of editor Krista Kjellman Schmidt to create the publication.
Each issue also groups stories thematically, looking across ProPublica’s work to find pieces related to a specific topic. For example, the July 2013 issue, titled “Dream Denied,” covers the challenges of achieving the American Dream today, uniting stories on foreclosures and college debt, among other problems.
Expanding its work to include a thematically organized digital magazine, Webb said, also supports ProPublica’s goal of causing change through its investigative work.
“We want to have impact with our stories. If we’re able to get our stories in front of people who will share them, maybe advocates who weren’t familiar with the stories, we have a second shot at reaching the right people,” he said.
Done well, digital magazines provide these non-profit news organizations with yet another way to publicize their work and offer a distinctive experience to audiences.
“Ultimately, it’s work that you’ve already done. It’s a great way to showcase it and repackage it so people can discover it anew,” Webb said. “With non-profits generating content on tight budgets, it’s a fantastic way to work with what you’ve already created.”
Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. She teaches media theory, writing, and editing, and does research on magazines, social media, and political communication.