Matt Gemmell

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Content as Medium

Design 5 min read

Before turning the page of a magazine, my mother licks her finger. I assume she does it to make it easier to separate the next page from the rest. She even does it with newspapers. I always found the habit disgusting, and when I was about twelve years old, I told her so. She still does it, but now with the gleeful knowledge that she’s annoying me.

The early days of digital publications provoked a similarly visceral response in me. Periodicals would proudly launch their electronic counterparts with lengthy explanations of the available gestures and interactions. I remember watching promotional videos where effervescent, well-dressed people sat “reading” their iPads - cheerfully pinching, swiping, flicking and tap-holding, as if they were giving the device a chiropractic massage.

The industry seemed to assume that it was the very physicality of books, newspapers and magazines that we craved - or that we required in order to comprehend the idea of a digital equivalent. The industry was wrong. Digital newspapers that were actually much more like TV news-channel tickers have now all but disappeared. Page-turning animations are becoming similarly endangered. So what was the problem?

A focus on the medium. Consider your favourite print publications (of yesteryear, if you no longer buy any). What did you enjoy about them? Was it the tactility of the paper? The smooth, responsive transition as you turned the page? An appreciation of the ads? Or did you perhaps never think about the paper, and find page-turning a minor if rarely-thought-about inconvenience, and automatically skip the ads without really seeing them?

Similarly, what did you dislike about your favourite mag? Did you long for the content to update before your eyes, to be able to spin images around with your fingers, to change the layout on-the-fly, and to actually hear an interview as well as read it? Probably not.

What you liked was the content. That was the make-or-break aspect. If the content was good, you kept buying. Now we jump forward to the second decade of the 21st Century, and find publishers oddly focused on the delivery mechanism instead - to the detriment of what’s actually being delivered.

We’ve become lost whilst trying to work out how to add value to this new medium, and we’ve forgotten to ask where the value actually was originally. The publishing industry seems to regard that question as a great mystery, to be unraveled only by trial and error (and at great expense), but the answer is deceptively simple: just like before, we want the medium to be invisible. Get it out of our way, and spend your time and money on the content.

Digital text provides enough advantages on its own, and by all means take advantage of those - make it easy to obtain new issues, and change the text size, and follow links, and don’t constrain me to preconceived pagination - but know when to say “this is enough, because ultimately people don’t buy publications: they buy content.”

We want the words. We want words that have been lovingly prepared, and agonised over. We want them when they’re ready, not served up haphazardly with artificial deadlines and incomplete information. Our interconnected world changes so rapidly, and there’s a corresponding glut of disposable publishing, and writing, and even thinking. That might not be a bad thing in itself, but it’s not what fires the imagination (and opens the wallet) of the discerning reader.

If a publisher forgets that fact, well, you get the situation we’re currently in. News on the web that updates a hundred times a day, regurgitating, contradicting and correcting itself in an endless and pointless cycle. Articles that are light on content, heavy in headline hyperbole, and devoid of insight or analysis. It’s always been this way to some extent, but the mistakes are being exacerbated by the accelerated pace of information flow in our digital world.

Technology is seductive; we’re no strangers to that. There are so many possibilities for how we can obtain and share information. But that attractive sheen can make us lose sight of the downside. Constant publication only encourages hasty, throwaway updates. Gratuitous decorations and ill-thought-out interactivity only frustrate, because they act as a barrier to what matters. An obsessive focus on ‘social’ integration wilfully ignores the “Quiet, Please” signs hanging in all the libraries of the world: we assimilate information best when left in peace to do so, without the chatter of the crowd.

Thankfully, we’re starting to see something of a Renaissance. Comment-forms are dropping off blogs like vestigial tails. Text sizes are increasing yearly, and sites are being stripped and whitewashed, with most of their old cruft gone without a trace. The medium is starting to disappear again.

Publications like the already-venerable The Magazine, and The Loop Magazine, have boldly declared that curation is very much back in fashion, and they’re making a promise familiar to connoisseurs of fine products: you will get what you pay for, and we will remember why you’re here.

The faddish buzzwords of interactivity (for its own sake) and “digital experiences” are fading in the rear-view mirror, hopefully for good. In their place, we find much more comfortable words: simplicity, focus, and quality. Writing that’s meant for readers, written by those who are passionate readers themselves.

A return to the quietness and cleanliness of the page as an unnoticed backdrop, with the single spotlight falling squarely on well-considered words. They were there all along, however obscured they might temporarily have seemed.

We were sidetracked, but not for long. Our collective quest to explore this new frontier has been an interesting one, but it has predictably ended up right back at our own doorstep. Our dissatisfaction with a monsoon of material, but a drought of truth and insight, is coming to an end. Digital publishing has started to grow up.

We’ve finally had our moment of clarity, and realised that the changing nature of the page isn’t important. The real task, as ever, is ensuring that the words come first.

When you respect the reader, the content itself is the only relevant medium.


This article originally appeared in issue 2 of The Loop Magazine. I’m grateful for Jim Dalrymple’s enlightened policy of only requiring a month’s exclusivity. I also have an article (on reputation and social media) in issue 9, out today.