Journey Group recently launched a new version of its magazine Story Matters with an issue that explores how constraints affect the creative process. The magazine was produced in our new publishing platform WebEdition that was built with intentional constraints—packaging stories into curated, bound issues. Our strategy director Zack Bryant and developer Justin Schroeder share their thoughts about the new magazine format and the importance of curated content in digital publishing.
The team at Journey Group is constantly thinking about how to improve storytelling and publishing on the web. What was the impetus for creating this new version of Story Matters?
Our impetus was two-fold. For our internal team, it’s difficult to create space in-house for our own publication when we’re constantly focusing on client work. There was a feeling that we needed to put a fence around it—that we would publish a certain number of stories a few times a year. We had drifted to a place in the past few years of “we’ll get to it when we get to it” and, if that’s your model, it often doesn’t happen. We needed to create a defined space [for our own publishing.]
We also saw that same problem for other organizations – communications and curated stories are always competing for space. We realized that was probably also true for the recipients [of this content]. They have the rest of their lives going on and there’s something really nice about an editor letting you off the hook on all the mediocre stuff and saying, “I know you well enough to give you the seven things you really ought to look at today.” I think we all appreciate that, whether it’s a SportsCenter highlight reel or a Reader’s Digest “best of” list. It becomes kind of counter-cultural in a world where most people are talking all the time, trying to get attention all the time. It’s funny that talking less, if you do it well, can be more effective. We’re excited about that idea.
There’s also a certain amount of trust that is built with a periodical structure. This is why Apple is so successful. Any product they put out, I trust. And they’re not putting products out in the stream everyday like their competitors. They release a “periodical of products” and when it comes, I know that it’s curated and valuable and speaks to the brand that I've subscribed to. In an editorial context, that is ever-more important for the little guy. Because if you don’t have a voice worth listening to, what are you but a little guy? So to have people begin to identify with a voice might only be possible in a periodical format.
A common user behavior on the web is to find an individual story through a news feed and then to move on to another unrelated piece of content. Why do you think packaged content is a good idea in this environment?
We built our WebEdition with a bias toward packaging content together so that there is a relationship between multiple pieces of content. There’s a growing school of thought that in the future of communications, the two most valuable types of content will be up-to-the-second streams of information and the slow-cooked, percolated, deeply-researched content. The idea is that everything between those two is becoming less valuable to us. I think it’s why newspapers are struggling, because they’re not really doing either.
People have gotten pretty good at determining if a print piece is high quality or junk mail by the implicit cues of the paper, the design, the packaging. We’re not quite as good at making this distinction in the digital space. Our idea with WebEdition is that there are three aspects that should communicate value to the reader: 1. It is packaged, 2. It is packaged by a human (versus an algorithm) and 3. the design should immediately connote that we put effort into this; it’s not just another throw-away thing. I think we’re still just at the front edge of that idea.
You’re seeing major news organizations like The New York Times beginning to create long-form content on the internet and it has started to grow really quickly. There is an entire marketplace on Amazon now for medium-format stories that are not blog-posts but also aren’t books. They are one-offs, so they aren’t exactly magazines, but they are in the same type of format. It’s something you sit down with, spend time with, and is curated. LinkedIn recently started creating articles from experts in different areas and they're being curated toward professions that you’re interested in, again trying to open a channel that you trust. It’s effective and growing, but I don’t think it’s solidified. It’s an open field right now, where people can get out there and shape what magazine and longform looks like online.
What do you anticipate may be the resistance to using packaged, long-form digital content to build a following?
As a strategy, organizations will be challenged when they don’t see the numbers that they saw with link bait. Link bait works. It generates a large number of people clinking on your links, a lot of impressions. But it doesn’t generate anything meaningful in the end. I cannot remember a single link bait title, but I’ll remember the books, the magazines, the things that I’ve read that were actually meaningful to me for the rest of my life.
In addition to that, it’s the investment that’s required. You have to pay someone to package it, you have to pay someone to travel to take pictures, or to actually write the stories. And that’s expensive. What we’re talking about is the most expensive, most scarce type of content in the universe. And that’s the single biggest objection: “you want my brand to foot the bill for that?”
I don’t think it makes sense to go to the chamber of commerce in every small town in America and try to get them to do this. You have to be a brand that is trying to really engage in publishing. You have to understand your own story and mission and role in the world well enough to know how your customers are looking at you. When you ask someone to go through all the hoops of clicking a link, signing up and logging in, all of that investment on the part of the reader should be rewarded. And the hope is that if you read this [type of content] for a few years, your life will be different. You will know more about your vocation, or about a religion, or about a trade or a craft—any number of things. And if it’s not doing that—if it’s not making people’s lives better—you shouldn’t do it.