Interview with Douglas Hebbard
I am a huge fan of Talking New Media and I follow it on a daily basis. There is really no better way to be in touch with everything that is happening on the digital side of publishing. Douglas has been so kind as to ask me to write for his website.
Because of, not only Douglas’ previous professional expertise in the publishing business, but also because of his knowledge on the leading edge of tablet news media applications, I wanted to have his view of the market so far and share it with you.
Here is what Douglas Hebbard, from Talking New Media, had to say
Digital Distribution: We are big fans of your website Talking New Media. Can you please tell us a bit about the site, what you focus on it and the audience response to it?
Douglas Hebbard: TNM is written for the media professional making the transition to new digital publishing platforms. It is written specifically for newspaper, magazine and book publishing professionals, though a large percentage of readers are actually those solely involved in New Media already: tablet-only publishers like Chris English of Hoodgrown Magazine, app developers, digital publishing solution vendors.
DD: You’ve been testing applications ever since the iPad was launched. What are the biggest improvements you’ve witnessed during this time?
DH: I think that those products that are being released that have been developed specifically for the iPad, that is, native apps, have improved somewhat over the last year. Whether they are using tools from Adobe, WoodWing, or creating the product from scratch, these publications are improving gradually. Less effort is being spent trying to “wow” readers, and more effort is spent making their products easier to read and a more enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately, the same can not be said for the “replica” editions being produced. Far too many publishers continue to take the easy, less expensive route of outsourcing their products to companies that promise easy, quick and cheap tablet publishing, while forgetting that these products still have to be enjoyable to read, and, importantly, have some sort of sound business model supporting them.
DH: Yes and no. First, it is important to remember that we are still early in this game. While those of us who live and breathe digital publishing are very familiar with Flipboard and Zite, media names like the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais or Le Figaro have better brand recognition than does a digital start-up. The key might be figuring out how to work with these new companies while incorporating some of their features into their own digital publishing products. But, it is also true, that far too many publishers are still trying to adapt to the web – adapting to mobile and tablet platforms may be beyond their abilities and imaginations.
DD: Talking New Media tests media apps from across the world. Do you see big differences between apps developed from the USA and from other markets?
DH: Honestly, I love looking at the apps coming from Europe, especially non-English language app. They are easier to look at with a fresh perspective. I also like to go into the different national App Stores to read what users of these apps feel about them. Americans are very cynical right now, and are quick to criticize anything.
I tend to only write about the best media apps I see from Europe and show them off to my readers. I don’t think a B2B publisher would normally download an app like “Odd Magazine” to look at what the developer is doing unless prompted by something they have read. Therefore, I almost never write about a simple RSS reader app from, say, Italy, because there are so many available for US publishers.
Because of the size of the American market, the number of media properties, combined with the large number of smartphones and tablets being sold in the U.S., I think the new platforms may develop a bit quicker here. Large publisher’s like Condé Nast or the New York Times have tremendous resources at their disposal, after all. No surprise then that it was here that News Corp. decided to launch The Daily as a $30 million experiment. For Rupert Murdoch, spending $30 million is insignificant when looking at the overall size of his US media holdings.
I am most optimistic and excited, however, about the work of independent publishers and developers, as well as new digital publishing companies being formed. That is where the really interesting work is being done.
DD: With the launch of new tablet platforms, like Android and RIM’s OS, some news application have been developed for those markets. What’s your opinion on the quality of the apps and how do you foresee the evolution of the tablet markets for media publishers?
DH: I am surprised that Google has messed up the launch of its Honeycomb version of the Android operating system. Right now there are few news apps available for Android that have been built specifically for Android driven tablets. Motorola (who launched the Android XOOM tablet) and RIM (who built the Blackberry PlayBook) made a mistake by not partnering with media companies to make sure that there would be media apps available to their tablets on the day these products launched. It goes to show you that technology companies can be as bad at partnering with media companies as media companies are at partnering with tech companies!
Long term, however, publishers will want to be developing products for Android tablets and other platforms, as well. The good news for publishers is that they can continue to concentrate their efforts right now on iOS devices and on mobile phones running Android.
DD: Given your experience, not only in testing news media apps since 2009, but most importantly inside the publishing business, both commercially and editorially, how do you think the business will be like in five years?
DH: No idea, seriously. I don’t do predictions because I don’t want John Gruber (publisher of Daring Fireball) pointing to one of my posts and pointing out how silly my prediction was.
But some things are always true: new media platforms are always being developed, and some of those involved in the old platforms adapt and become successful on the new platforms, while some can not make the adjustment. You have to remember that the vast majority of publishers are still having trouble learning how to make money online; for them, mobile and tablets are only another way to lose money.
Because of this, it would be safe to say that five years from now we will be talking about new companies the same way we today talk about FaceBook or Twitter. New companies will have arisen producing wonderful new products for readers, but some of the names that are important to us today will also be doing fine because they will have seen where their readers were heading and will have moved in that direction, as well.
DD: If you were to launch today a publication just for digital distribution, what would be your choices in terms of platform, business plan and editorial guidelines (would you enable social networks article sharing, would you have a ‘every minute’ content updated app, etc)
DH: Well, I would very much like to do that! I think that there are many different models that can work – and I am still a big believer in print, despite writing almost exclusively about digital. But I would launch a web-tablet-mobile product that can take advantage of a unified brand, but which would deliver to readers different experiences depending on what device you are using to access the product. The web has immediacy, but tablet publications can have both immediacy and “shelf life” like a print product. Tablets can deliver long-form journalism, but mobile products can utilize geo-location and communications features that are unique to the platform.
In any case, if anyone wants to fund a media start-up, I’m here and ready to go!
DD: Douglas, thank you so much for your time and insight. Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
DH: Yes, best of luck to Digital Distribution!