September 28, 2016 Last Updated 10:04 am

Institutions as a market for digital magazines

Guest column: Adam Hodgkin, chairman of Exact Editions, discusses producing searchable and referenceable archives for universities and corporate libraries

Consumer magazines are a primary form of social history. For much of the 19th century, and especially the 20th century, consumer magazines became the most widespread and the most vivid form of popular culture. From the high end elite magazines Scientific American, Vogue, Punch to the merely but gloriously popular mass market Ladies Home Journal, Hello or Readers Digest, these titles — and many more — are continuing resources of great interest to scholars and students. Apart from the intrinsic importance of their content (eg Vogue for fashion, Gramophone for recorded classical music, and Scientific American for science) their historical and social value comes from the depth and continuity of publication.


The earliest issues of the magazine Geographical available here

When produced in the form of a properly searchable and referenceable archive they become resources for which universities have a strong and continuing demand. This is an area for profitable exploitation and brand development which big brand magazines should seize. There are many magazines that will have a profitable and ongoing market if they are offered to universities and corporate libraries as a properly packaged archival resource. This may be especially important for magazines that decide that their future lies in e-commerce, events or branded content. Anchoring the quality of the heritage, which we do by building a complete and accurate archive,  is important as the marketeers turn over a new leaf.

Exact Editions has been developing this revenue stream in conjunction with our publishing partners and it may be useful to summarise some of the key factors that generate demand and value. In the last 6 months we have launched complete archives with:

In the case of all these projects, we established at an early stage, with the publisher, that their consumer magazines are of deep interest to university and public libraries. The publishers already knew this as the current subscription lists were well populated with institutional subscribers. What the publishers did not already know was that these subscribers would in some cases value a digital version much more highly. Big libraries will have substantial back runs, in some cases complete archives of many popular magazines in print form. The universities and public libraries bought these magazines and carry on subscribing to them because they are great information sources for the fields they cover. For example, nearly 1700 libraries of the OCLC library consortium have subscriptions or back issues of Geographical on their shelves. So establishing that there really will be a demand for a digital archive is an important step before investing perhaps $10,000-50,000 in developing the full product.

The second point to note is that these print issues, and especially print back-runs with fraying paper and perhaps some gaps in coverage (issues get mislaid even in the best run library) are almost useless in today’s research environment. Libraries are looking to replace their print repositories with digital assets. A big magazine archive with 1000-10,000 back issues has to be searchable if it is to be useful. And it has to be searchable and usable across campus by as many researchers of students who have need of it. Magazine publishers are used to the idea of selling digital access to individuals (eg with a password and a user name), but this highly rationed form of access is practically useless for the library networks. Digital consumer magazines have to be sold on a site-license basis if they are to be bought by modern research universities. There is a compensating advantage: librarians are thoroughly used to the idea that a resource for 25,000+ end users is going to cost more than one licensed for use by one individual subscriber. A digital magazine with its archive sold on a site license basis to a large university can easily command a annual price 40 or 50 times the cost of an individual subscription. And it will be good value if it is relevant.

A third requirement which may not be obvious to the publisher of a consumer magazine, is that everything in the magazine counts for the scholarly researcher. For some titles the advertisements are even more important than the editorial contents! One of the key requirements for resources which are to be used in teaching or research is that all the content should be easily and consistently citable. It is also essential that students who may be working with diverse devices (computer, tablet, mobile phone) can be sure that they are ‘seeing the same thing’, exactly as it was published, and it is essential that their teachers be able to point them to exactly the right thing.

Teaching, referencing and citations become very murky if there is no way of checking or confirming that users are working from the same content. This is perhaps an obvious requirement, but it is surprising how poorly many digital magazines formats fail at this hurdle. A Flash implementation is certainly no good (many devices not supporting Flash) even responsive designs or re-flowable magazine apps fail on this test. Libraries will also be very reluctant to subscribe to content packages which miss out key elements of the publication. Many magazines have built web sites that capture all the articles that have appeared in the magazine over a period of time, but these web solutions are usually non-standard, give no reliable guidance as to the exact place of the original article (date, name, byline, page, context etc) and worst of all these home-grown databases usually omit the original advertisements that were in the print magazine. For many research purposes, the advertisements that appear in magazines over the years are of fundamental interest.

ee-2-9-28-16These are some of the key requirements that we have noticed at Exact Editions as we sell magazine subscriptions to universities and research libraries, but it is also important that the publisher or the aggregator with which the publisher collaborates, makes sure that the delivered service meets the demands of the library market: off-campus access, user statistics, meta-data, support and above all reliable delivery to all the IP addresses on the campus network. The library market has strong expectations of its suppliers, and the most brilliant content will be ignored if it fails to meet these demands.

Adam Hodgkin is the Chairman and one of the founders of London-based Exact Editions. He has written a book on Twitter and philosophy which is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.

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