|Digital composite image from issue 1, by Gary Campbell|
There is an allure in the unexpected; it is one of the reasons why one can invest hours following links and conversational threads online. And it is that proposition -- getting its readers caught up in a topic they didn't realize they were interested in that makes good magazines work so well.
Yet when they go online, magazines seem to suffer from a creative inertia -- continuing to do what they have done and, as a result, not taking maximum advantage of what the web has to offer.
That's certainly the view of Gary Campbell, who has launched a monthly online magazine called Aggregation that is a sort of laboratory for what he thinks the ideal online magazine should be. There is a certain evangelistic quality to it. Campbell, as some of you will know, oversees the digital operations for Toronto Life magazine, Fashion magazine, Quill & Quire and Ottawa magazine. But Aggregation has nothing to do with his day job(s). It is entirely self-funded and not particularly concerned with making money right now (though it may, later). He has relied on the help of family and friends who are mentioned on the initial contents page.
"I'd like to see web magazines become a refinement in the way we view, catalogue and respond to the web," says Campbell. "Magazines of tomorrow won't have tightly controlled, fixed boundaries. They'll need to embrace the larger Internet and at the same time provide a more curated experience than Twitter or Google."
Every issue of what is characterized as "the first wayfinding magazine for the internet" has five contributors, each of them introducing five links on any topic they choose, resulting in that web of serendipitous connections I mentioned earlier. Campbell says it's optimized for the iPad but looks good on any desktop browser.
"The current crop of web magazines seem to just be trading paper for pixels," he said. "More often than not, it's just a print publication squeezed onto the iPad screen, with a couple of videos thrown in."
This "DVD extras" model isn't very innovative, he says and he clearly feels that there is a better way.
"One of my favourite pages in any magazine is the contributors' page. So I enlisted the help of of friends and acquaintances and tried to create something where the contributors page was the magazine, where you learn something about the personality of the people whose work you're reading. It's as much about the mix of people as it is about the mix of stories. An issue of Aggregation works if the mix leaves you feeling like you were at a great dinner party."
Campbell's views of what most online magazines are doing now are synchronous with recent criticisms that magazine publishers are too focussed on building apps that are much like their magazines, ignoring how people use mobile devices and the web generally. An article in Techdirt was entitled Why iPad magazines suck: They're defined by the past, not the future. It quoted Khoi Vin, until recently the design director of NYTimes.com:
"The fact of the matter is that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in, that is making less and less sense as we forge further into this century, and that makes almost no sense on a tablet. As usual, these publishers require users to dive into environments that only negligibly acknowledge the world outside of their brand, if at all -- a problem that's abetted and exacerbated by the full-screen, single-window posture of all iPad software. In a media world that looks increasingly like the busy downtown heart of a city -- with innumerable activities, events and alternative sources of distraction around you -- these apps demand that you confine yourself to a remote, suburban cul-de-sac."Comments on this will, as always, be welcome.