Good Things & Small Packages

Thoughts on the future of travel publishing.


Yesterday I downloaded the June 2014 issue of National Geographic on my iPad. At almost 200 megabytes, it took over an hour to download. After swiping through the issue that is filled with editor’s notes, tables of contents, app instructions, advertisements, photo contests, user instagram showcases and single-page micro-features, I found only three long-form, in-depth articles that I could really sink my teeth into. And the issue cost $4.99. What’s with all the noise? What if I just wanted those three meaty articles? Why do I have to pay for content AND look at interruptive advertisements?

I can’t even find refuge in the travel sections of mainstream media websites. Outlets like The Huffington Post and The Guardian seem hellbent on publishing Top 10 round-ups, click-bait puff-pieces and how-to-travel tips. And if I head to the personal blogs of travel writers, most of the time, I am met with more puff-pieces or even sponsored articles with subtle advertising and a discreet ‘paid-for’ bias—not to mention sloppy reporting.

High quality travel journalism is just too bloody hard to find — and, when it can be found, it’s just not that enjoyable to read. The travel publishing industry is in a state of mind-numbing neglect and there are three major elements that need to be addressed seriously: readability, depth and monetization.

Readability

Medium changed—or rather, is changing—the way we read text online. Before @EvWilliams came out with his new blogging engine, most online publications were two or three column layouts that left plenty of room for advertising banners, in-house promotional images and miscellaneous, self-interested ballyhoo to increase bounce rates, page views and ultimately, the bottom line. Fonts were small. Ads were big. The experience was decidedly reader-hostile. But Medium came and prioritized the reader with a single column layout, comfortable letter spacing, line heights and carefully thought-out font choices. It is clean. It is black-on-white. It makes sense.

Lately, there’s been a great many mainstream outlets veering from their standard layouts and running easier-to-read features like The Over Protected Kid by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic, the recent Edward Snowden feature in Wired and just about any feature from BuzzFeed’s new long-form BuzzReads. If we’re going to coax people away from settling for truncated, light-weight content, we must take the reader-experience into consideration. We need longer articles that are easier on the eyes.

Publishers like Medium, who also commission pieces of journalism by professional writers in addition to the user-created content, are certainly lending this style of reader-first text consumption some much needed plausibility. To the degree that they’ve inspired others. Maptia is a perfect example of a quality publisher who took these design techniques and applied them to the travel publishing sector.

Depth

Craig Mod’s manifesto on sub-compact publishing changed the way we (will) catch up on things that matter to us. Mod called for smaller issue sizes but longer articles. Why have a whopping 200 megabyte-sized issue with only three in-depth features?

Epic Magazine’s “Argo” was the basis for the major motion picture.

Long-form, investigative works are nothing new to the journalism industry. But what is changing is how they are packaged and presented. Publishers like Matter, Narrative.ly and especially Epic Magazine are popularizing this style of in-depth writing in the web-based world of digital journalism. In a few years’ time, we’ll have access to a plethora of these tightly-focused, digitally-native publications featuring comprehensive and un-biased content. That these compact publications will act as an alternative to the beasts of big publishing is almost inevitable. That they will replace the beasts all together remains to be seen. Big publishing is a tough old dog.

Monetization

Of course, if clean, minimal, text-based articles are the solution to reader-hostile, generalized web layouts, many travel publishers will ask themselves: Without spaces reserved for advertisements, how will we make money? But another important paradigm shift we need to accept is the way in which we monetize.

We’ve been seeing a slow erosion of the post-war business conglomerate structure. Many of us are beginning to lose trust in behemoth companies that manufacture everything. In businesses that import or export everything. And in publishers who publish just about anything. The General Electrics and the Proctor & Gambles.

We’re now in an age where people know exactly what they want and know where to find it. Companies like KickStarter and Indie GoGo have helped to facilitate this exercise. People can find the product they are looking for that is produced by a small company that they believe in for a price they can understand. Less time spent hunting. More time spent enjoying. In terms of the web and publishing industry, this translates to the removal of interruptive, ugly advertising and the installation of a digitally aware pricing.

Derek Thompson wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic, “Most people you know don’t click online ads. At least, not on purpose. But now research is getting closer to quantifying exactly how few people click on Internet ads and exactly how ineffective they are. It’s not a pretty picture.”

It’s time to stop selling our readers to faceless ad brokers. Our readers deserve better than that. It’s time to cut out the middleman. The time for newspaper moguls and media magnates is coming to a close. Micro-publishers like The Atavist, Byliner, The Magazine and, my personal fave, BKYLNR, are exploring monetized versions of Mod’s sub-compact publishing model. They have proved that, as a philosophy and as a business model, it can work. If the writing is great, people will want to read it. And if people want to read it, and they feel as though they are being respected, they will pay for the content.

To buttress this “fewer casual visitors, more loyal readers” philosophy is the Pareto principle, otherwise known as the 80–20 Rule or the Law of the Vital Few. After Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, he officially developed the principle after observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden also contained 80% of the peas. In business, of course, the principle asserts that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients.

Without impression-based or click-based advertisements on a web page, a publisher no longer has to worry about generating the maximum amount of traffic. The publisher can instead focus on content quality and pleasing the 20% of the readers that most likely will generate 80% of the revenue. Sam Parker has a great piece in The Guardian about this content-over-clicks school of thought.


All of these advancements culminate, for me at least, in Compass Cultura. A humble website-magazine-start-up lovechild that my wife and I have been working on for the past few months. We aim to be like Mark Lotto described his own venture, Matter, “a magazine for a generation who grew up not caring about magazines.” At Compass Cultura, we celebrate creative, thought-provoking journalism about interesting people and places. We prioritize story-telling and readability above all else.

Matter’s co-founder, Bobbie Johnson, bluntly added, “The web is the future of journalism, but let’s be honest: the future isn’t living up to expectations. Newspapers and magazines have cut back on in-depth reporting. Gossip sites have proliferated. The web has become a byword for fast and cheap. Why isn’t it synonymous with fearless, investigative and enthralling writing?”

I couldn’t agree more…