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29th Street Publishing and the Next Wave of Digital Publishing

It’s been quite a week for online publishing.

Craig Mod published a great, thinky piece on the state of digital publishing today, setting what is sure to be a baseline for anyone thinking of starting an online magazine (that baseline, Mod argues, very much resembles Marco Arment’s The Magazine). Which in turn inspired a few pithier murmurs, probably best summed up by Ryan Singer’s “tablets are waiting for their Movable Type“. And then The Daily announced they are closing, a surprise to almost no one; for the best postmortems, read Alexis Madrigal’s piece and John Gruber’s post. And just as I was about to hit publish, Benjamin Jackson asked what are we even talking about when we talk about “tablet-native journalism”.

There was a smaller, quieter release amongst all of this, though, that I believe is just as important and maybe even apocryphal. The Awl, a New York-based blog about news and culture1, introduced a Newsstand app for iOS devices they’re calling the Weekend Companion. Built in partnership with 29th Street Publishing, what struck me is that they are actually building these digital publishing tools that Mod and others are talking about.

So, I called David Jacobs, a founder of 29th Street Publishing, to talk about what they’re doing and a little about the state of online media in general.

‘As simple as blogging’

Jacobs has a very straightforward goal for what 29th Street is doing: they want to make it easy for writers and publishers to sell their work online. “It should be as simple as blogging,” he said.

Blogging is something Jacobs knows a little bit about. Before starting 29th Street, he helped companies like NBC and IBM figure out this whole blogging thing, eventually helping run Six Apart, home to one of the original and much loved (if now eclipsed) blogging platforms, Movable Type.

The way Jacobs sees it, while blogging has matured to a degree, the platforms to let writers sell their work or allow publishers to offer subscriptions are still nascent; so he’s going to build them. 29th Street’s collaboration with The Awl is an example of the kind of tools he wants to build.

The Awl’s Weekend Companion app is an interesting, if somewhat counterintuitive, idea. The content has all been published before, for free, on The Awl’s website. In fact, in the post introducing the app, Awl editor Choie Sicha insists there won’t be much (if any) exclusive content on the app. Instead, they’ll be trawling the archives, assembling collections of old and new articles around a theme, to create “a diverse, delightful bundle of reading to you every Friday”.

It’s a bold idea and frankly, I love it. While I personally enjoy the writing on The Awl and instapaper their articles whenever I come across them, I’ve never bothered adding their feeds to my already overflowing reader apps. But an edited collection of some of the web’s best writing, collected every Friday and automatically delivered to my iPad? You bet I’ll pay $4 a month for that.

And that’s what 29th Street is betting on — that if they can build the tools for publishers, publishers will come up with smart ways to hook subscribers beyond just ad-supported websites. It’s a way to diversify and, hopefully, thrive.

Trying to solve an impossible problem

When I asked Jacobs about the technical issues with building this publishing pipeline, he was actually quite charitable to those who have come before. Plenty of tweets have bemoaned how most iPad magazines suck and how the Newsstand app in iOS was a ghostland.

Jacobs says Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite, which is what many traditional publishers have been using to quickly put together iPad versions of their magazines, is trying to solve an impossible problem. Publishers don’t have the resources to build digital native versions of their print magazines (which still manage to be quite lucrative, btw) so they bolted some tools onto their existing workflow and shipped it. This has all happened before, of course, when these same publishers were trying to figure out how to make workflows built for printing presses talk to an FTP server.

By starting fresh, 29th Street (and other upstarts, like The Magazine) can build proper apps that readers actually enjoy, instead of just pushing out a bloated PDF of a magazine into the Newsstand app. The Awl, without a huge legacy infrastructure, is an ideal partner, someone who can quickly and easily transition from a website to an app, and diversify at the same time.

29th Street even went so far as to build their own analytics tools (for which they’ve released the source code) because they couldn’t find anything that gave them good, session-based data about how anonymous readers were using their apps.

Jacobs says there are still plenty of technical problems to overcome. Text rendering in native apps, for one, is very complicated, so they actually deliver serialized HTML that gets rendered in a webview inside the app. Fragmentation, particularly on Android, is more of a problem than browser inconsistencies ever were, which is why they are remaining iOS exclusive for now. And advertising, a huge source of revenue for free and subscription media, has still yet to prove itself on mobile, something Jacobs is convinced that someone will figure out some day.

So far, Jacobs says their assumptions that people are more willing to pay for good content in a native app are turning out to be true. In the end, said Jacobs, “We want to help readers and writers get together.”

Jim spent a decade in online news before Mule. He occasionally writes about the intersection of media, design, and code as a media outsider now.

  1. There’s really no way to quickly describe what The Awl is without sound like a hopeless square. I won’t do it the disservice of an inelegant metaphor, just spend some time on their site, it’s some of the best writing out there right now. 

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