Today I begin an occasional series on how the magazine industry insists on decanting its Evian into lead goblets. Because isn’t it obvious these people are just getting stupider?

Remember Magazines Canada?

This shadowy organization somehow secured a six-figure grant from an Ontario government agency, the OMDC, to launch some kind of digital newsstand. How well do you think that was gonna turn out? As I warned:

As in other fields, when print publications move to online distribution, they make the same mistakes over and over again. A “provider of digital services” becomes “seasoned” in Canada by recapitulating the same mistakes, not by learning from them and trying something else. In this case, the mistakes are much worse than those to which we’ve become inured in the Web domain – tables for layout, “font tags,” Flash.

The only reason to run up a six-figure consulting bill is to reinvent the wheel. To justify that kind of budget, you have to write a custom software platform and/or reader application. While this is exactly the wrong thing to do, Magazines Canada and the Ontario government don’t understand that. But it is the only outcome that justifies the grant money.

And lo has it come to pass. Magazines Canada handed an undisclosed amount of money to Americans. Zinio now runs two digital newsstands, magazinescanada and magazinescanadafr (for the obviously marginal Francophone “market”).

Now, what’s a digital magazine in this context? An image of each page of the print magazine rendered in a proprietary format. The idiocy of this measure is apparent to everyone who actually uses the Web and doesn’t work in the magazine industry, where people can barely run their computers. Let me put it to you this way: Nobody wants to fly their avatar through a virtual West Edmonton Mall to shop online, and nobody wants move a loupe around a tiny picture of a magazine page.

Magazine people understand “publishing” to mean “export to PDF.” They don’t understand their own product – a tactile object that offers both graphic design (the arm’s-length view) and typography (the up-close view). As far as these people are concerned, a PDF export is a digital magazine even though it gives you none of the features of a print magazine, with the rare exception of viewing a double-page spread on a very large monitor. (And even then, what does the paper feel like?)

It should come as no surprise that these people fail to understand that a “digital magazine” is actually a set of Web pages. It is a scandal that Magazines Canada handed over more than a hundred grand of public money to Americans to carry out a doomed project. Except it doesn’t seem doomed to them, because the Zinio “product” looks more or less like a PDF export, until you try to use it, which, it seems, none of them have. (I haven’t, either.)

I asked Magazines Canada CEO Mark Jamison the following questions for attribution.

  1. After Magazines Canada was awarded the OMDC grant, the claim was that a vendor would be chosen after an open RFP process. I subscribe to your RSS and never saw such a thing. Where is the link to that RFP process, and what were the terms of the RFP?

  2. Why was an American company chosen as the vendor? Doesn’t this create an unfavourable appearance given that you’re spending Ontario government money?

  3. Why is the English version of the site obviously the real one, while the French version is an afterthought? (Compare hostnames: magazinescanada vs. magazinescanadafr.)

  4. I have previously explained that the only way to justify an expenditure of $172,500 on digital magazines is to invent a horrendously expensive proprietary digital facsimile of a print magazine, something nobody wants. (“Digital magazines” are supposed to be Web sites, a fact nobody in the magazine business, including the Canadian magazine business, wants to accept.)

    Apart from the fact that Canadian magazine editors are afraid of their computers and don’t understand the Internet, where is the market research or usability testing that proved that actual magazine readers want a large tactile paper medium converted into a tiny picture of one side of that medium using a special reader they have to download?

  5. Where is your market research or other evidence that magazine readers are willing to spend e.g. $4.99 for a tiny picture of a magazine that they can use solely in a proprietary device?

  6. On what specific research basis did Magazines Canada decide against simply investing the OMDC money in the creation of standards-compliant Web sites for Canadian magazines, possibly with the aid of custom export filters from DTP programs also created with that funding?

  7. If selling digital magazines as tiny pictures of the real thing is genuinely the way to go, why didn’t Magazines Canada save its money and just sell PDFs of magazines?

  8. What are the gross and net revenues from the Zinio “partnership” at present? Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me each individual magazine’s digital revenues, but when you’re using public money to launch a platform like this, you’re accountable for results.

  9. What legal advice did Magazines Canada rely on in turning a medium inaccessible to some people with disabilities (print magazines, which blind people can’t read) into a new medium inaccessible to those same people plus a whole new set of people with disabilities, like people who cannot run the proprietary reader application via keyboard?

    Where was the legal advice that Magazines Canada, Zinio, and magazine titles would not be subject to human-rights complaints or lawsuits alleging discrimination on the basis of disability?

  10. Just in general, how can you assure me that you people know what you’re doing?

He ignored the questions.

Again: Your tax dollars at work.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.12.21 14:28. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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