“Black and his digital assault”

Eduardo Arriagada set up an interview with Alejandor Alaluf in Qué Paso, the weekly magazine of the newspaper La Tercera. There should be a digital replica of the story online.

The text is not in HTML, but here the questions Alaluf sent, and my unedited answers:

1. There seems to be a revolution in design and publications. All-things digital appear to be taking over more traditional media. Paper seems to be démodé. How do you think the new generations will aproach to a newspaper or magazine in the near future?

The change is caused by the proliferation of platforms for content. The iPad is the most famous of these, but the web, of course, is astronomically bigger. Print may be out of fashion now, but the real challenge for that old medium is the publishers’ ability to rethink their business models.

The next crop of publication designers will have to move away from “page design” and toward design systems, where pictures and text are arranged by a set of rules followed by computers, and adapting the layouts to fit a variety of platforms and screen sizes (and paper sizes). We’ll need a new breed of dynamic designers to create dynamic publications.

2. You have said that you “have designed more magazines than you’ll ever read”. Which one was the more challenging to work with?

Well, that was supposed to be a joke. The most challenging magazine is always the one in house. Once completed, success makes you forget any problems along the way. Right now I am enjoying the launch of the redesigned Scientific American (and it’s web site). I guess the hardest projects were the first ones that I tackled, and where I was given a free hand. Rolling Stone (1976-1978) was terrifying. And Newsweek (1985-1987) was certainly not easy. 

3. Your project at the Washington Post seems to be almost life-changing. How was that experience? Which were the major conclusions you got after it?

The Post is a great newspaper, filled with smart and talented people. Right now they are facing the stress of the change in the newspaper business model. They are working to adapt, but I am not certain they can do it fast enough. I found in the last year that as soon as you release a newspaper editor or designer from their old way of doing things, they take up the news platforms with alacrity. But the old environment traps the old media. They keep thinking that they can convert their  publications into digital forms. But these forms are not replicas of the old. The Washington Post must find a way to put their staff into a central structure, and offer high-quality, well-edited content out to readers in all directions.

4. On a piece that appeared on the New York magazine, the author says that, in the eighties, “art directors become as important as editors”. Do you agree with this nowadays?

There certainly was a hey day for art directors in the ‘80s. Remember that in the ‘70s few newspapers and even many magazines still did not have them. I would say that Walter Bernard shaped Time as much as the editor. The same with Robert Priest at Esquire, or Fred Woodward at Rolling Stone. Today, people may know the names of editors like David Remnick [The New Yorker]  or Adam Moss [New York]. But can they name their art directors?

5. In paper, which publications do you think are going along with the current times.

The Week comes to mind first. It gives people what they want in a weekly newsmagazine, a quick overview, with a lot of facts they might have missed, and a little spin. More intensely and for a narrower audience, The Economist does the same thing. But in the long run, its the story-telling, the narratives that will last. 

6. Do you think convergence is killing traditional media (re: iPad, tablets)

Their problem is not the competition so much as the decline of advertising. Some of that is due to competition from the web or tablets, and to change of reader  habits, or to  changes in society, or to changes in the way companies want to do advertising. Magazines and newspapers must find other revenue streams, such as subscriptions.

7. Rupert Murdoch recently gave his thumbs-up to the creation of an iPad-only newspaper called “Daily”. What do you think of this?

More power to him! Murdoch has some high-end dailies like The Times of London, the Wall Street Journal and The Australian, so I don’t jump to the conclusion that he just wants to do a tabloid on the iPad. If anyone can make the paid model work, he can. 

8. Your message is “We must produce stories that people are willing to pay for”. Why would people pay for a story if they can eventually find it for free on the web?

All things being equal, they won’t. But they might, if the format of the publication was more readable than a standard web site. I think Treesaver offers enough improvements in the experience that people will pay for it. A publisher has decide if he’s enough money through web advertising to pay for the content. Most cannot. 

And they have to ask, is what we are publishing valuable to readers as well as advertisers. That’s a hard question for some.

Worst case: If they charge for content and people don’t buy it, they go out of business. But if the content is truly valuable to people, a new publication can rise in its place that people will pay for. The industry has to communicate the value to readers, and make it worth the cost.

9. As you mention in your home page, you recently launched some new startups that will “illustrate the direction (you) see for the media”. Can you elaborate on this.

I’m a partner in three initiatives this year: Treesaver, Webtype and Ready Media. The first is is a platform for dynamic publications—well-designed digital magazines or newspapers that can be read on any device that has a browser—smart phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers. 

Webtype puts great typefaces on the web—including really readable text fonts. They allow digital publications to take on the same, individual identity that they have in print. 

These first two launches provide the platform for Nomad Editions, which has introduced three new weekly digital publications. 

Ready-Media provides pre-designed templates for magazines and newspapers. The key idea here is to transform the workflow of print publications to templated-based design, taking fewer resources, and making better designed prodcuts. 

Soon, there will be matching web site templates for Ready-Media. And we’re working on the first Treesaver templates, to allow entry-level to the new platform.

I came to Santiago to tell Chilean publishers and editors about these new platforms. Thanks for giving me this chance!

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