Digital Imitation Is A Form Of Flattery For Old-Guard Publishers

It was pop-culture philosopher Marshall McLuhan who wrote: “All media come in pairs, with one acting as the ‘content’ of the other.”

That assertion is true once again, now that a range of developers is pushing out digital products that depend on paying homage to physical-media forebears…

On the web, where countless embarrassing “newspaper” blog templates have been available for years, sites like The Twitter Times and redeploy the aesthetic and lexicon of printed news – but not necessarily the content. Instead, they try to make “a daily newspaper” from stories linked to by fellow Twitter users.

It’s on e-readers where this format flattery is most pronounced, and where independent developers are incongruously following conventional publishers in the rebooted electronic “magazine” or “newspaper” goldrush

The Early Edition RSS reader app for iPad reconstitutes what is usually a lifeless, date-ordered list of stories in something reminiscent of a morning rag, with front-page lead stories, distinct section layout and turnable pages. Rival app NewsRack, on iPhone, even displays feeds as though on a wireframe sidewalk stand.

The buzz about socially-organized e-magazines, like the Twitter examples above, grew to a short-lived fever pitch last month when Flipboard debuted its app for showing friends’ linked content in something like a page-turning fashion.

Now web developer Cooliris, better known for its interface that turns web photo galleries in to navigable slideshows, is getting in on the act, launching Discover, an iPad app it says is “the most elegant and effortless way to explore, search, and enjoy information from Wikipedia in a beautiful magazine-style interface”.

Problem is, it’s not; and, in attempting to shoehorn new content in to an old medium, the creators of these “publications” succeed mainly in exposing their limitations…

Flag Of Singapore, the “cover” story on today’s “edition” of Discover, is pulled and paginated from Wikipedia’s corresponding article, but with no prior set-up for the editorial justification (today is Singapore’s National Day). That’s not magazine publishing; that’s syndicating Creative Commons-licensed XML feeds.

There’s doubtless a business to be built in making meaning from the content our friends share but, for all its recent buzz, Flipboard does a chronically bad imitation of the “magazine” it purports to be. That’s not because recontextualising articles written by friends is necessarily a bad thing – but, by their mostly ephemeral nature, the articles are content ill-suited for presentation in the more considered, time-consuming leanback medium that magazines really are. (Any magazine whose cover boasts the Teen Choice Awards and a pic of my friend’s Nando’s loyalty card, I’m probably not going to buy).

It smacks of developers playing wannabe publisher in the new content space. But, for all the tricks these folks can perform with code and touchscreen swipeyness to drape themselves in the attire of yesteryear’s power brokers, they’re lacking the editorial instincts that make tick the products they seek to imitate.

It’s ironic. Though many professional analogue publishers are lazily shoveling their one-dimensional print editions on to e-readers, increasing numbers of them are also designing custom tablet editions that are truly suited to the device’s unique form factor. Five months ago, I mocked Holland’s De Telegraaf for posting an iPad edition prototype which merely showed its existing website; last week, it launched an iPad-specific edition that’s as tactile as Flipboard and Discover – and infinitely more useful.

Traditional-media operators can take heart and feel flattered at digital-native developers’ stumbling attempts at mimicking old formats in new gadgets. But they should also stay alert – the digital space where old and new meet is providing ample opportunity for upstarts to cast themselves in incumbents’ image, and add plenty more besides.