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Summary:

In an interview with GigaOM, the editor of MIT’s venerable Technology Review talks about why he has decided to take a “digital first” approach to publishing the magazine, why he doesn’t plan to implement a paywall — and what he sees as an alternative.

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Magazines and newspapers of all kinds have been experimenting with paywalls, iPad apps and other methods of handling the ongoing disruption that the web and digital media have produced, but very few have taken a fully “digital first” approach. MIT’s well-respected Technology Review magazine has become the latest to embrace that principle, and editor Jason Pontin says that while he isn’t turning his back on print, it is no longer the most important medium for the brand of journalism his magazine practices. I talked with Pontin on Monday about the decision, as well as several related questions — including his dislike of paywalls and what he wants to implement instead.

In a note to readers published on the site, Pontin said that everything the magazine produces will be published free-of-charge on the website and will appear there first — in other words, nothing will be “saved” for the printed version of the magazine, as some publications do in order to give the print version some sense of exclusivity. Some stories and content will be published first online and later in print, and others will be published simultaneously in a number of different media. And print will be just one of many forms, he said:

For us, print will be just another platform [and] by no means the most important. I began as a traditional print journalist, and I still delight in what print does well. But there’s almost nothing… that print now does best.

The web is better partly because it has links

When I asked Pontin why he decided the magazine needed to go digital first, and what that transformation meant to him as an editor, he said that focusing on digital above all else is important because it “promotes innovation and excellence” and that Technology Review is doing it because “we want to be a better publisher, we want to publish smarter and more link-y journalism, we want to create more beautiful and interactive designs, and want to better serve our advertising partners in more innovative ways.”

One thing Pontin said he doesn’t mean by digital first is the kind of open-door, “user-generated content” approach taken by some digital-native publications such as The Huffington Post, as well as by at least one long-standing traditional outlet — namely, Forbes magazine, where chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin is pursuing that exact strategy. Pontin said he doesn’t agree with the idea that “digital-first publishers should throw open their editorial pages to so-called content from a ragbag of constituents, including non-writers and marketers.”

Jason Pontin

The Technology Review editor, whose publication has been around since 1899 (although until 1998 it was primarily aimed at alumni) said that he had been experimenting with a number of different paywall approaches, including the all-or-nothing model that publications such as the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal use, as well as the “porous” or metered model that the New York Times and the Financial Times have in place, which shuts down free access after a certain number of articles per month. As he put it in his note to readers:

Paywalls, no matter how elegantly devised, have for me the smell of paper and ink, as if publishers were trying to revive a subscription business irremediably tied to the distribution of physical products.

Membership benefits are better than paywalls

All of the different variations of paywall that the magazine tried had drawbacks, Pontin said in his interview with me, and “the all-or-nothing was the most disastrously bad of all options.” As a result, Technology Review will be rolling out some form of membership-based model over the next few months, which will ask readers to pay for specific features or methods of distribution — the site has a survey that asks what things readers might be willing to pay for, such as freedom from advertising or customized content.

Whatever the magazine decides to implement as far as a membership layer goes — something that other publishers including the Chicago Tribune are also said to be considering, as opposed to a blanket paywall — Pontin says that access to a majority of the magazine’s content will always be free. Providing this kind of access and the links and other features that go along with it isn’t just part of what makes a truly digital-media entity, he said, but also part of what makes Technology Review what it is:

We’d like to have a free-for-use site, because there’s an essential linkiness that seems to demand an entirely free site — and also because MIT is an institution committed to openness — and then we want to experiment with what we think people will pay for, such as membership models, and different forms of distribution and platforms.

Pontin also noted that at least some of what he has been able to do with Technology Review was made possible because the magazine is a not-for-profit corporation controlled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although he still has to pay for things out of a fixed budget, Pontin said this public mandate did make it somewhat easier to take risks or experiment with different models (in the same way that British newspaper The Guardian was able to take a “digital first” approach thanks in part to being owned by a charitable trust rather than a for-profit or publicly-traded corporation).

“I have enormous sympathy for established media companies,” Pontin said. “There are smart editors out there and smart publishers, and at a high level the lineaments of what the future of publishing will look like are more broadly understood than new media critics sometimes allow. But in many cases those smart publishers and editors are constrained by the actual economic demands of publishing companies.” Unless some of those constraints are removed, Pontin suggests, those entities could face a very bleak future indeed.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Zert Sonstige

  1. Jason Pontin Monday, June 4, 2012

    Great piece, Mathew. One point of clarification. We are a not-for-profit, but we’re still a commercial entity: everything we earn we pour back into our enterprise in order to publish the kinds of journalism we do. Still it’s absolutely true, as I said, that it’s much harder for media organizations owned by publicly-traded companies or investors to take the kinds of risks you describe.

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    1. Thanks, Jason — I should have made that clear, since you pointed that out in the interview. Appreciate the clarification.

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    2. BUT you also said that unless the economic demands of publishing companies are removed, those entities could face a very bleak future indeed. They’ve been warned.

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      1. Jason Pontin Tuesday, June 5, 2012

        Yes, I think asking publicly-traded media companies to return profits of 15% to 18% a year (for instance) means asking for a wearying round of cost-cutting that a). cannot continue indefinitely (or even for very long) and b). is the enemy of innovation.

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  2. Bravo MIT Technology Review!!!

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  3. I like the distinction made between “digital-first” and “open-door” – a point that deserves continued attention.

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