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Media Pros: Don't Fear the Digital Realm

NEW YORK -- Conversations about publishing models transitioning from print to online -- it's all such familiar terrain to media professionals.

But what is still very unfamiliar is whether the print publishing model will even factor into the media mix of the future.

Don't fear the digital realm: Magazines must view the Web as a complement to their print outlets, not a replacement, said media experts gathered at the MediaBistro Circus media conference here.

"There are a lot of trends in social media that can actually help our mission," said Paul Rossi, publisher of the The Economist, during a panel discussion. "But we start from the very simple principle that it's not about the technology. It's not about a widget. It's about the reader and the reader expectations."

The Internet gives a magazine a chance to interact and engage with its readers in a way that a static print publication cannot, the panelists agreed. Blogging, reader comments and the other bells and whistles that have come to define the Web 2.0 experience, can go a long way toward chasing down that engagement, but they warned against a blind embrace of new technologies simply because they're hot.

The great promise of the Web for magazine publishers is to provide an interactive complement to their print publication. Inviting readers to comment on stories, blogs and in some cases submit their own can drive engagement and create a community in a way that print publications never could, but it has to match the magazine's brand.

The Economist, for example, has begun packing its Web site with audio content. Indeed, come this Friday afternoon, visitors can find the entire content of the print magazine available in audio files. Video has been a much slower starter for the venerable weekly, Rossi said, largely because the editors haven't figured out how to introduce it in a way that complements the publication's reporting.

Conversely, Rossi said that the magazine had introduced a popular interactive debate to its Web site, where experts present opposing viewpoints on one of the hot-button issues of the day, and viewers are invited to vote on who won. That feature, Rossi said, was a perfect online counterpart to The Economist's editorial mission of informing and guiding public debate.

"If you're building a brand around something that's not you're brand, you're finished," Rossi advised.

James Daily, editor-in-chief of Edutopia, a magazine dedicated to improving public education published by the George Lucas Foundation, offered a few warnings to the audience during the MediaBistro conference. (MediaBistro is a division of JupiterMedia, the parent company of InternetNews.com.)

Don't cave in to trends, he told the audience, and ask whether a social media feature is the right fit before slapping some user-generated content (UGC) forums on your site simply because others are doing it.

That's not to say you should ignore how the Web is changing the way that journalists tell stories, Daily added. "I suggest that this is actually a new form of journalism that will emerge in the next few years," he said. "We as editors are now party hosts."

The comments that readers submit become an effective barometer of user engagement, a metric of great concern to online advertisers. While The Economist is not likely to become a UGC site anytime soon -- Rossi said his powerful and affluent readership patently rejects most content designated as a "blog" -- the thoughtful comments readers leave about stories are proof of how engaged they are.

Of course, UGC is a more natural fit for some publications. Take the example of Paul Cloutier, CEO of 8020 Publishing, a company that publishes print magazines drawn from content that users submit to its Web site.

Publishers deeply involved with UGC are dealing with a different type of contributor. The people who submit photos and stories to sites like Cloutier's are not used to receiving tersely worded rejection letters, or watching a grouchy editor gut their articles, he said.

Though the contribution of content to 8020's Web site is the backbone of his company's business, Cloutier argued that the Internet will never replace unique elements of the magazine experience. The images in glossy print magazines convey a "serendipity of discovery" you only get when turning a page.

Then, too, Cloutier offered some general advice that can serve as a warning to publishers who fail to see the Web as a unique medium. The editor who treats the Internet as a static placeholder for the digital version of the print publication is writing his own epitaph, he cautioned.

"The Web isn't going to make magazines go away," Cloutier said. "But apathy will."