Summary:

While Time Inc. vet John Squires spent the last few months imagining the digital business model for magazines — and we expect official word…

SI Tablet Cover

While Time Inc. vet John Squires spent the last few months imagining the digital business model for magazines — and we expect official word any day now that he will be leaving the company to head up a digital magazine consortium, Sports Illustrated Group Editor Terry McDonell has been tackling the editorial side using SI for the Time Inc. template. “We think this is the most important thing that’s happening in magazines, bar nothing,” McDonell told paidContent after a video demo (embedded below) of the work in progress today.

Developed with The Wonderfactory in intense work since September, version 1.5 is innovative, visually engaging with stunning SI photos and video, touch screen, and looks to be far from shovel ware. (Screengrabs here.) Unlike some of the projects I’ve seen, this isn’t a magazine of the future imagined for years from now. But it’s not the e-reader magazine of today. It can’t be. The current e-readers being sold lack the magic ingredient: full color. They don’t all have touch technology, either.

McDonell insists: “You need a certain level of color technology and touch technology to make it work the way it should to have a really solid, good interesting experience. … Time Inc. wants to be ready and that’s what we’re pointing towards.” But he and Wonderfactory founder David Link told me they don’t think that day is far away. Link’s “guess” is 2010. “We see a lot of devices hopefully launching by the end of summer.”

Even if that time line pans out, though, it won’t erase the hundreds of thousands of e-readers already out there that can’t provide the environment they think digitally delivered magazines need for success. Would Time Inc. need to subsidize devices? “We’re not looking at it that way,” McDonell said, despite the results from focus groups that responded well to paying for access but were worried most about how much the “appliance” would cost. Link says the cost is one reason they want to be device agnostic.

They didn’t dwell on that issue but when pushed, admitted they were also looking at interim options rather than simply wait for the right devices. “We’re looking into that right now,” Link said. McDonell, who isn’t thrilled the idea of waiting months to see at least some of this in use, added “We think about that all the time.” He points to Flyp, where former Time Inc. colleague Jim Gaines is editor, and its treatment of an SI “bonus” story — those are the novella-length in-depth pieces SI so prizes — on Joe Paterno as an example of how event coverage might be handled on a device.

They are designing with a tablet format in mind so what they’ve come up with could work on notebooks with touch capability. Demoed to those in person on an HP notebook using Smart Touch technology, the templates are being designed in three sizes — 6″, 9″ and 11″ — to be platform agnostic. The results are a blend of the full content of the iconic weekly magazine, 30 percent or so of the material produced for SI.com, and some produced just for the e-reader. They took the first version to focus groups after five weeks and say (no shock there) they had “very, very positive results.” The version I saw was the next step; the one after this will zero in on what they can do for advertisers. When I asked if they would consider a Smart Touch version, for instance, McDonell said, “We’re open to just about anything. We’re anxious to collaborate and move quickly.”

Would readers pay? They also asked the focus groups if they would pay for it. “Absolutely.” McDonell says they asked about different prices to get access with the print magazine and got a positive answer up to $50. “We realized we were not being scientific enough. We better think this through.” He added, “The good news for us, at least from the chair that I sit in, is there was no resistance here in the way there is resistance to subscriptions. Maybe it’s just that word. There was no resistance to paying for applications, even though there’s the resistance to paying for subscriptions even if you really like the magazine.”

Not just for SI: As I mentioned at the top, McDonell, Link and their teams are using SI as a testbed for Time Inc. Says McDonell: “Every editor at Time Inc. has seen what we’re doing here. I show it to them at every step. We’re framing the house, then we’ll pass it around for some finished carpentry.” As they work, they consider how what they are doing will play out in People, Time, Real Simple or the other Time Inc. titles. Link explains: “We’re looking at hopefully standardizing a lot of navigation. The look can change.”

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