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Building a Better Digital Magazine

Building a Better Digital Magazine

In building Creatavist, we’ve long been working to make immersive narrative storytelling feel at home on phones, tablets, and the web. The California Sunday Magazine took us in a challenging — but exciting — new direction.

Two Fridays ago, The California Sunday Magazine, an independent venture aiming to establish a West Coast outpost for quality magazine journalism, published its first issue online. It’s terrific — take a look. Editor Doug McGray had already built a novel editorial venture in San Francisco-based Pop-Up Magazine (co-founded with Atavist’s own Evan Ratliff), a series of live events in which contributors perform pieces rather than commit them to ink or pixels, and decided to draw on the same network of writers, photographers, artists, and designers for a publication with a wider lens on California and the West. But because California Sunday, unlike Pop-Up, was to be a magazine you read, and because this is the year 2014, it needed a way to publish a website and produce mobile apps. So, several months ago, Doug and his team made their way to Dumbo, Brooklyn — a subway ride away from the headquarters of Condé Nast and Hearst — to talk to us at Atavist.

Since 2011, The Atavist has been publishing rigorously reported and thoughtfully produced works of narrative nonfiction. “White Boy Rick,” by Evan Hughes, is the most recent story.

Atavist, since its beginning, has been wrestling with the question of how an idea that long predated the touchscreen — that of the thoughtfully crafted and produced piece of writing, be it journalism or fiction or something else entirely — could thrive in a new, digital context without being beholden to old ideas. Atavist, now as much technology company as editorial operation, began in 2011 as The Atavist, a magazine that took the form of stories delivered to iPhones and iPads, stories whose worlds readers could explore by tapping icons that revealed more about a place, or a character, or a moment in time. Since then, the craft of immersive digital storytelling has grown up some, and the company’s purview has broadened; the tech that once pushed stories just to The Atavist’s app is now Creatavist, a full-featured, web-friendly publishing platform that anyone can use. While our roots as a magazine remain central to who we are as a company — this year, as in years past, The Atavist was a multiple National Magazine Award finalist — the talk around the office had gravitated toward digital storytelling, not magazine-making. Sitting across the table from Doug, though, and hearing his pitch for California Sunday — that got us thinking.

If you’re a publisher and your goal is to make a magazine and get it on the web, on iPads, and on phones, there’s no shortage of tools out there to help you. But some Googling — try “make a digital magazine” or “magazine CMS” — reveals the tools hell publishers quickly find themselves wading into: a seemingly endless parade of platforms designed, apparently, with a stack of print magazines all too near. If reading your digital magazine consists of e-flipping through a series of glorified PDF layouts, you blew it.

That’s why the most sophisticated digital publishers, or at least the ones with the most resources, don’t use these tools, but build everything piece by piece: WordPress or similar for the web, a contracted agency — or a costly suite of software — for apps (if there’s room in the budget for apps at all). It’s an expensive mix, not just in dollars, but in time spent wrestling with the eccentricities of two or three content management systems (not to mention time spent pasting in text and pressing “Publish” twice, or thrice). A magazine whose production process is spread thin, across platforms or across departments, is a magazine that can’t look great, can’t feel great, in all the forms it takes. (That’s one reason creative directors at even the best magazines, perfectionists and sticklers for detail surely among them, still seem to me most comfortable, most capable of their best work, in the controlled, contained environment of print.)

At the time Doug reached out to us, Creatavist, our publishing platform, already presented an answer to the too-many-platforms dilemma; it could already take the same story — the same text, the same images, and the same design — and publish it to the web, to an iOS app, to an Android app. Doug wanted our help to tweak a few aspects of Creatavist to make it work for his magazine. But we soon realized we had an opportunity to rethink the fundamental principles behind what a digital magazine should be.

How a magazine should be structured

What is a magazine, anyway? The common nomenclature — “weeklies” and “monthlies,” the “cover,” the “issue,” the front and back sections of “the book” — hails in obvious ways from the artifact: a few leafs of glossy paper, printed, bound, and shipped, periodically, to newsstands and mailboxes.

Without the artifact, some think, the magazine is as good as dead. Writes blogger Andrew Sullivan:

When every page in a magazine can be detached from the others, when readers rarely absorb a coherent assemblage of writers in a bound paper publication, but pick and choose whom to read online where individual stories and posts overwhelm any single collective form of content, the magazine as we have long known it is effectively over.

There might be something to that. The most important “magazine” that exists today, some say, is the one that exists as links in your Facebook News Feed, or in your Twitter stream.

Maybe. But I’m more likely to respond to a link I see on Twitter if it’s from a magazine whose personality I’ve come to know and embrace — a personality that reveals itself only over time, as articles are read together as issues, and issues are absorbed from week to week, from month to month. (Some of the best articles, by the way, because of their subject matter or a momentary dip in a social media editor’s mojo, don’t end up on Twitter; you find them by starting on one page and flipping or clicking to another.) Magazine editors talk about and endlessly fine-tune their publication’s “mix” — that bundle of articles long and short, highbrow and low-, that make the magazine as a whole enjoyable to read.

In working with California Sunday and their talented designers, we re-approached the idea of editor as DJ. Clearly their articles should be accessible individually, to allow them to be thrive across social streams. But they also needed to exist together, making it possible to read an issue of a magazine from cover to cover — so to speak. The solution we enabled for them was a simple table of contents that binds the issue together online — and works exactly the same across the web and mobile apps. The goal is to collect articles into an issue without confining them there. For California Sunday, that means — for now — an experiment in sending the reader at the end of an article not to the next story chosen for them, or the “most popular” story on the site, but back to the table of contents to explore further.

Beyond California Sunday, we believe what magazines are looking for is a flexible approach to navigation — the ability to create issues and let readers move within and among them in a way that suits a publication’s style of storytelling. Creatavist’s open architecture enables that: A magazine is able to gently nudge its readers in whatever direction it sees fit.

How a magazine should make money

No one’s got a definitive answer, really. Some magazines want to build off subscribers, some want a hard paywall, some want an intentionally leaky one. But most publishing tools don’t allow the creator to experiment with, or even choose from, a variety of those business model options.

We wanted to hit all the established approaches while giving publishers the freedom to experiment. To do that, we built in a collection of tools for magazine-makers to turn on and off, and even combine:

  1. Set up as hard or as porous a paywall as you’d like. Ask readers to pay before being able to read articles, or allow them to read a certain number per month for free. (Maybe you want to try granting guaranteed access to inbound visitors sent from Facebook or Twitter — sure, give it a shot!) California Sunday, at least for now, is allowing people to read three free articles per month before asking them to subscribe, a porous paywall that — in a first for a magazine, as far as we can tell — operates both online and in mobile apps.
  2. Sell subscriptions and individual issues. With a paywall in place, sell access to your articles for a given period of time, and, if you’d like, sell your issues piecemeal, both on the web and as in-app purchases in your apps.
  3. Sell ads against free or paid stories. For ads to be effective, they should feel at home whether you’re viewing them on the desktop web, on your phone’s browser, or in an app. We’ve built in an integration with DoubleClick for Publishers, one of the most flexible and widely used ad servers out there, that will help.
  4. Create custom native ads. We worked with California Sunday to bring branded “story ads” to all platforms. While unmistakably advertisements, they’re as visually rich as the rest of the magazine’s articles. Creatavist lets you treat ads with the same care you use in designing digital stories.

How a magazine should look

So much of a magazine’s character, so much of its essential magazineness, stems from the way it arrests your attention visually. This is true of magazine covers, certainly, from the George Lois Esquire covers from the 60s to today’s Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s also true of how individual articles are styled, and how the connective tissue of a magazine’s design, in the form of typographic choices, and colors, and motifs, can make disparate articles together resonate in a magazine’s own distinct frequency. (I can’t speak Italian, but I return again and again to Fracesco Franchi’s incredible work for IL magazine.)

All that’s true, anyway, in magazine archives and on newsstands. Attractive digital magazines — on the web, especially — are tougher to come by. Too many publications throw stories into the same one-size-fits-all article template, or swamp them with widgets, sidebars, and pop-ups that distract readers. Too few magazines, big and small alike, have been able to establish a clear, cohesive, and consistent digital design voice.

In building out our vision of what a digital magazine should be, then, we aimed for two principles: simplicity and flexibility. We want publications to look beautiful with our standard designs, but also to be able to draw upon their own design talent and, like California Sunday, take things even further.

A clear, distinct visual character — a personality — pervades California Sunday, whether you read it in print, on the web, or in an app. 

For the out-of-the-box publication, we’ve put together some designs that we think combine an intuitive interface with an elegant visual approach. For example: An issue cover that, when scrolled, gracefully becomes its table of contents. A selection of article layouts that stand apart while still feeling of a piece. Publishers can take advantage of them as is, or have us tailor the designs to fit them. We know from the design work we’ve done for Esquire, Longform, and many others — not to mention the work we do every month for The Atavist itself – that attention to small details makes stories beautiful.

Ultimately, our idea is to create a structure that frees you to make the magazine you want to make. You can pop open the hood and tinker with the designs we’ve made. You can throw them out entirely. The California Sunday Magazine’s team, which had clear and clever ideas from the start about the form their publication should take, opted to go it mostly alone, design-wise. The result, I think, is beautiful, and what it communicates is as clear to new readers as it is to me: it’s a magazine, equally at home in print and in pixels, and it’s theirs.

Thomas Rhiel is the director of reader experience at Atavist.

Building a Better Digital Magazine

Building a Better Digital Magazine

In building Creatavist, we’ve long been working to make immersive narrative storytelling feel at home on phones, tablets, and the web. The California Sunday Magazine took us in a challenging — but exciting — new direction.

Two Fridays ago, The California Sunday Magazine, an independent venture aiming to establish a West Coast outpost for quality magazine journalism, published its first issue online. It’s terrific — take a look. Editor Doug McGray had already built a novel editorial venture in San Francisco-based Pop-Up Magazine (co-founded with Atavist’s own Evan Ratliff), a series of live events in which contributors perform pieces rather than commit them to ink or pixels, and decided to draw on the same network of writers, photographers, artists, and designers for a publication with a wider lens on California and the West. But because California Sunday, unlike Pop-Up, was to be a magazine you read, and because this is the year 2014, it needed a way to publish a website and produce mobile apps. So, several months ago, Doug and his team made their way to Dumbo, Brooklyn — a subway ride away from the headquarters of Condé Nast and Hearst — to talk to us at Atavist.

Since 2011, The Atavist has been publishing rigorously reported and thoughtfully produced works of narrative nonfiction. “White Boy Rick,” by Evan Hughes, is the most recent story.

Atavist, since its beginning, has been wrestling with the question of how an idea that long predated the touchscreen — that of the thoughtfully crafted and produced piece of writing, be it journalism or fiction or something else entirely — could thrive in a new, digital context without being beholden to old ideas. Atavist, now as much technology company as editorial operation, began in 2011 as The Atavist, a magazine that took the form of stories delivered to iPhones and iPads, stories whose worlds readers could explore by tapping icons that revealed more about a place, or a character, or a moment in time. Since then, the craft of immersive digital storytelling has grown up some, and the company’s purview has broadened; the tech that once pushed stories just to The Atavist’s app is now Creatavist, a full-featured, web-friendly publishing platform that anyone can use. While our roots as a magazine remain central to who we are as a company — this year, as in years past, The Atavist was a multiple National Magazine Award finalist — the talk around the office had gravitated toward digital storytelling, not magazine-making. Sitting across the table from Doug, though, and hearing his pitch for California Sunday — that got us thinking.

If you’re a publisher and your goal is to make a magazine and get it on the web, on iPads, and on phones, there’s no shortage of tools out there to help you. But some Googling — try “make a digital magazine” or “magazine CMS” — reveals the tools hell publishers quickly find themselves wading into: a seemingly endless parade of platforms designed, apparently, with a stack of print magazines all too near. If reading your digital magazine consists of e-flipping through a series of glorified PDF layouts, you blew it.

That’s why the most sophisticated digital publishers, or at least the ones with the most resources, don’t use these tools, but build everything piece by piece: WordPress or similar for the web, a contracted agency — or a costly suite of software — for apps (if there’s room in the budget for apps at all). It’s an expensive mix, not just in dollars, but in time spent wrestling with the eccentricities of two or three content management systems (not to mention time spent pasting in text and pressing “Publish” twice, or thrice). A magazine whose production process is spread thin, across platforms or across departments, is a magazine that can’t look great, can’t feel great, in all the forms it takes. (That’s one reason creative directors at even the best magazines, perfectionists and sticklers for detail surely among them, still seem to me most comfortable, most capable of their best work, in the controlled, contained environment of print.)

At the time Doug reached out to us, Creatavist, our publishing platform, already presented an answer to the too-many-platforms dilemma; it could already take the same story — the same text, the same images, and the same design — and publish it to the web, to an iOS app, to an Android app. Doug wanted our help to tweak a few aspects of Creatavist to make it work for his magazine. But we soon realized we had an opportunity to rethink the fundamental principles behind what a digital magazine should be.

How a magazine should be structured

What is a magazine, anyway? The common nomenclature — “weeklies” and “monthlies,” the “cover,” the “issue,” the front and back sections of “the book” — hails in obvious ways from the artifact: a few leafs of glossy paper, printed, bound, and shipped, periodically, to newsstands and mailboxes.

Without the artifact, some think, the magazine is as good as dead. Writes blogger Andrew Sullivan:

When every page in a magazine can be detached from the others, when readers rarely absorb a coherent assemblage of writers in a bound paper publication, but pick and choose whom to read online where individual stories and posts overwhelm any single collective form of content, the magazine as we have long known it is effectively over.

There might be something to that. The most important “magazine” that exists today, some say, is the one that exists as links in your Facebook News Feed, or in your Twitter stream.

Maybe. But I’m more likely to respond to a link I see on Twitter if it’s from a magazine whose personality I’ve come to know and embrace — a personality that reveals itself only over time, as articles are read together as issues, and issues are absorbed from week to week, from month to month. (Some of the best articles, by the way, because of their subject matter or a momentary dip in a social media editor’s mojo, don’t end up on Twitter; you find them by starting on one page and flipping or clicking to another.) Magazine editors talk about and endlessly fine-tune their publication’s “mix” — that bundle of articles long and short, highbrow and low-, that make the magazine as a whole enjoyable to read.

In working with California Sunday and their talented designers, we re-approached the idea of editor as DJ. Clearly their articles should be accessible individually, to allow them to be thrive across social streams. But they also needed to exist together, making it possible to read an issue of a magazine from cover to cover — so to speak. The solution we enabled for them was a simple table of contents that binds the issue together online — and works exactly the same across the web and mobile apps. The goal is to collect articles into an issue without confining them there. For California Sunday, that means — for now — an experiment in sending the reader at the end of an article not to the next story chosen for them, or the “most popular” story on the site, but back to the table of contents to explore further.

Beyond California Sunday, we believe what magazines are looking for is a flexible approach to navigation — the ability to create issues and let readers move within and among them in a way that suits a publication’s style of storytelling. Creatavist’s open architecture enables that: A magazine is able to gently nudge its readers in whatever direction it sees fit.

How a magazine should make money

No one’s got a definitive answer, really. Some magazines want to build off subscribers, some want a hard paywall, some want an intentionally leaky one. But most publishing tools don’t allow the creator to experiment with, or even choose from, a variety of those business model options.

We wanted to hit all the established approaches while giving publishers the freedom to experiment. To do that, we built in a collection of tools for magazine-makers to turn on and off, and even combine:

  1. Set up as hard or as porous a paywall as you’d like. Ask readers to pay before being able to read articles, or allow them to read a certain number per month for free. (Maybe you want to try granting guaranteed access to inbound visitors sent from Facebook or Twitter — sure, give it a shot!) California Sunday, at least for now, is allowing people to read three free articles per month before asking them to subscribe, a porous paywall that — in a first for a magazine, as far as we can tell — operates both online and in mobile apps.
  2. Sell subscriptions and individual issues. With a paywall in place, sell access to your articles for a given period of time, and, if you’d like, sell your issues piecemeal, both on the web and as in-app purchases in your apps.
  3. Sell ads against free or paid stories. For ads to be effective, they should feel at home whether you’re viewing them on the desktop web, on your phone’s browser, or in an app. We’ve built in an integration with DoubleClick for Publishers, one of the most flexible and widely used ad servers out there, that will help.
  4. Create custom native ads. We worked with California Sunday to bring branded “story ads” to all platforms. While unmistakably advertisements, they’re as visually rich as the rest of the magazine’s articles. Creatavist lets you treat ads with the same care you use in designing digital stories.

How a magazine should look

So much of a magazine’s character, so much of its essential magazineness, stems from the way it arrests your attention visually. This is true of magazine covers, certainly, from the George Lois Esquire covers from the 60s to today’s Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s also true of how individual articles are styled, and how the connective tissue of a magazine’s design, in the form of typographic choices, and colors, and motifs, can make disparate articles together resonate in a magazine’s own distinct frequency. (I can’t speak Italian, but I return again and again to Fracesco Franchi’s incredible work for IL magazine.)

All that’s true, anyway, in magazine archives and on newsstands. Attractive digital magazines — on the web, especially — are tougher to come by. Too many publications throw stories into the same one-size-fits-all article template, or swamp them with widgets, sidebars, and pop-ups that distract readers. Too few magazines, big and small alike, have been able to establish a clear, cohesive, and consistent digital design voice.

In building out our vision of what a digital magazine should be, then, we aimed for two principles: simplicity and flexibility. We want publications to look beautiful with our standard designs, but also to be able to draw upon their own design talent and, like California Sunday, take things even further.

A clear, distinct visual character — a personality — pervades California Sunday, whether you read it in print, on the web, or in an app. 

For the out-of-the-box publication, we’ve put together some designs that we think combine an intuitive interface with an elegant visual approach. For example: An issue cover that, when scrolled, gracefully becomes its table of contents. A selection of article layouts that stand apart while still feeling of a piece. Publishers can take advantage of them as is, or have us tailor the designs to fit them. We know from the design work we’ve done for Esquire, Longform, and many others — not to mention the work we do every month for The Atavist itself – that attention to small details makes stories beautiful.

Ultimately, our idea is to create a structure that frees you to make the magazine you want to make. You can pop open the hood and tinker with the designs we’ve made. You can throw them out entirely. The California Sunday Magazine’s team, which had clear and clever ideas from the start about the form their publication should take, opted to go it mostly alone, design-wise. The result, I think, is beautiful, and what it communicates is as clear to new readers as it is to me: it’s a magazine, equally at home in print and in pixels, and it’s theirs.

Thomas Rhiel is the director of reader experience at Atavist.

Building a Better Digital Magazine

Building a Better Digital Magazine

In building Creatavist, we’ve long been working to make immersive narrative storytelling feel at home on phones, tablets, and the web. The California Sunday Magazine took us in a challenging — but exciting — new direction.

Two Fridays ago, The California Sunday Magazine, an independent venture aiming to establish a West Coast outpost for quality magazine journalism, published its first issue online. It’s terrific — take a look. Editor Doug McGray had already built a novel editorial venture in San Francisco-based Pop-Up Magazine (co-founded with Atavist’s own Evan Ratliff), a series of live events in which contributors perform pieces rather than commit them to ink or pixels, and decided to draw on the same network of writers, photographers, artists, and designers for a publication with a wider lens on California and the West. But because California Sunday, unlike Pop-Up, was to be a magazine you read, and because this is the year 2014, it needed a way to publish a website and produce mobile apps. So, several months ago, Doug and his team made their way to Dumbo, Brooklyn — a subway ride away from the headquarters of Condé Nast and Hearst — to talk to us at Atavist.

Since 2011, The Atavist has been publishing rigorously reported and thoughtfully produced works of narrative nonfiction. “White Boy Rick,” by Evan Hughes, is the most recent story.

Atavist, since its beginning, has been wrestling with the question of how an idea that long predated the touchscreen — that of the thoughtfully crafted and produced piece of writing, be it journalism or fiction or something else entirely — could thrive in a new, digital context without being beholden to old ideas. Atavist, now as much technology company as editorial operation, began in 2011 as The Atavist, a magazine that took the form of stories delivered to iPhones and iPads, stories whose worlds readers could explore by tapping icons that revealed more about a place, or a character, or a moment in time. Since then, the craft of immersive digital storytelling has grown up some, and the company’s purview has broadened; the tech that once pushed stories just to The Atavist’s app is now Creatavist, a full-featured, web-friendly publishing platform that anyone can use. While our roots as a magazine remain central to who we are as a company — this year, as in years past, The Atavist was a multiple National Magazine Award finalist — the talk around the office had gravitated toward digital storytelling, not magazine-making. Sitting across the table from Doug, though, and hearing his pitch for California Sunday — that got us thinking.

If you’re a publisher and your goal is to make a magazine and get it on the web, on iPads, and on phones, there’s no shortage of tools out there to help you. But some Googling — try “make a digital magazine” or “magazine CMS” — reveals the tools hell publishers quickly find themselves wading into: a seemingly endless parade of platforms designed, apparently, with a stack of print magazines all too near. If reading your digital magazine consists of e-flipping through a series of glorified PDF layouts, you blew it.

That’s why the most sophisticated digital publishers, or at least the ones with the most resources, don’t use these tools, but build everything piece by piece: WordPress or similar for the web, a contracted agency — or a costly suite of software — for apps (if there’s room in the budget for apps at all). It’s an expensive mix, not just in dollars, but in time spent wrestling with the eccentricities of two or three content management systems (not to mention time spent pasting in text and pressing “Publish” twice, or thrice). A magazine whose production process is spread thin, across platforms or across departments, is a magazine that can’t look great, can’t feel great, in all the forms it takes. (That’s one reason creative directors at even the best magazines, perfectionists and sticklers for detail surely among them, still seem to me most comfortable, most capable of their best work, in the controlled, contained environment of print.)

At the time Doug reached out to us, Creatavist, our publishing platform, already presented an answer to the too-many-platforms dilemma; it could already take the same story — the same text, the same images, and the same design — and publish it to the web, to an iOS app, to an Android app. Doug wanted our help to tweak a few aspects of Creatavist to make it work for his magazine. But we soon realized we had an opportunity to rethink the fundamental principles behind what a digital magazine should be.

How a magazine should be structured

What is a magazine, anyway? The common nomenclature — “weeklies” and “monthlies,” the “cover,” the “issue,” the front and back sections of “the book” — hails in obvious ways from the artifact: a few leafs of glossy paper, printed, bound, and shipped, periodically, to newsstands and mailboxes.

Without the artifact, some think, the magazine is as good as dead. Writes blogger Andrew Sullivan:

When every page in a magazine can be detached from the others, when readers rarely absorb a coherent assemblage of writers in a bound paper publication, but pick and choose whom to read online where individual stories and posts overwhelm any single collective form of content, the magazine as we have long known it is effectively over.

There might be something to that. The most important “magazine” that exists today, some say, is the one that exists as links in your Facebook News Feed, or in your Twitter stream.

Maybe. But I’m more likely to respond to a link I see on Twitter if it’s from a magazine whose personality I’ve come to know and embrace — a personality that reveals itself only over time, as articles are read together as issues, and issues are absorbed from week to week, from month to month. (Some of the best articles, by the way, because of their subject matter or a momentary dip in a social media editor’s mojo, don’t end up on Twitter; you find them by starting on one page and flipping or clicking to another.) Magazine editors talk about and endlessly fine-tune their publication’s “mix” — that bundle of articles long and short, highbrow and low-, that make the magazine as a whole enjoyable to read.

In working with California Sunday and their talented designers, we re-approached the idea of editor as DJ. Clearly their articles should be accessible individually, to allow them to be thrive across social streams. But they also needed to exist together, making it possible to read an issue of a magazine from cover to cover — so to speak. The solution we enabled for them was a simple table of contents that binds the issue together online — and works exactly the same across the web and mobile apps. The goal is to collect articles into an issue without confining them there. For California Sunday, that means — for now — an experiment in sending the reader at the end of an article not to the next story chosen for them, or the “most popular” story on the site, but back to the table of contents to explore further.

Beyond California Sunday, we believe what magazines are looking for is a flexible approach to navigation — the ability to create issues and let readers move within and among them in a way that suits a publication’s style of storytelling. Creatavist’s open architecture enables that: A magazine is able to gently nudge its readers in whatever direction it sees fit.

How a magazine should make money

No one’s got a definitive answer, really. Some magazines want to build off subscribers, some want a hard paywall, some want an intentionally leaky one. But most publishing tools don’t allow the creator to experiment with, or even choose from, a variety of those business model options.

We wanted to hit all the established approaches while giving publishers the freedom to experiment. To do that, we built in a collection of tools for magazine-makers to turn on and off, and even combine:

  1. Set up as hard or as porous a paywall as you’d like. Ask readers to pay before being able to read articles, or allow them to read a certain number per month for free. (Maybe you want to try granting guaranteed access to inbound visitors sent from Facebook or Twitter — sure, give it a shot!) California Sunday, at least for now, is allowing people to read three free articles per month before asking them to subscribe, a porous paywall that — in a first for a magazine, as far as we can tell — operates both online and in mobile apps.
  2. Sell subscriptions and individual issues. With a paywall in place, sell access to your articles for a given period of time, and, if you’d like, sell your issues piecemeal, both on the web and as in-app purchases in your apps.
  3. Sell ads against free or paid stories. For ads to be effective, they should feel at home whether you’re viewing them on the desktop web, on your phone’s browser, or in an app. We’ve built in an integration with DoubleClick for Publishers, one of the most flexible and widely used ad servers out there, that will help.
  4. Create custom native ads. We worked with California Sunday to bring branded “story ads” to all platforms. While unmistakably advertisements, they’re as visually rich as the rest of the magazine’s articles. Creatavist lets you treat ads with the same care you use in designing digital stories.

How a magazine should look

So much of a magazine’s character, so much of its essential magazineness, stems from the way it arrests your attention visually. This is true of magazine covers, certainly, from the George Lois Esquire covers from the 60s to today’s Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s also true of how individual articles are styled, and how the connective tissue of a magazine’s design, in the form of typographic choices, and colors, and motifs, can make disparate articles together resonate in a magazine’s own distinct frequency. (I can’t speak Italian, but I return again and again to Fracesco Franchi’s incredible work for IL magazine.)

All that’s true, anyway, in magazine archives and on newsstands. Attractive digital magazines — on the web, especially — are tougher to come by. Too many publications throw stories into the same one-size-fits-all article template, or swamp them with widgets, sidebars, and pop-ups that distract readers. Too few magazines, big and small alike, have been able to establish a clear, cohesive, and consistent digital design voice.

In building out our vision of what a digital magazine should be, then, we aimed for two principles: simplicity and flexibility. We want publications to look beautiful with our standard designs, but also to be able to draw upon their own design talent and, like California Sunday, take things even further.

A clear, distinct visual character — a personality — pervades California Sunday, whether you read it in print, on the web, or in an app. 

For the out-of-the-box publication, we’ve put together some designs that we think combine an intuitive interface with an elegant visual approach. For example: An issue cover that, when scrolled, gracefully becomes its table of contents. A selection of article layouts that stand apart while still feeling of a piece. Publishers can take advantage of them as is, or have us tailor the designs to fit them. We know from the design work we’ve done for Esquire, Longform, and many others — not to mention the work we do every month for The Atavist itself – that attention to small details makes stories beautiful.

Ultimately, our idea is to create a structure that frees you to make the magazine you want to make. You can pop open the hood and tinker with the designs we’ve made. You can throw them out entirely. The California Sunday Magazine’s team, which had clear and clever ideas from the start about the form their publication should take, opted to go it mostly alone, design-wise. The result, I think, is beautiful, and what it communicates is as clear to new readers as it is to me: it’s a magazine, equally at home in print and in pixels, and it’s theirs.

Thomas Rhiel is the director of reader experience at Atavist.

Building a Better Digital Magazine

Building a Better Digital Magazine

In building Creatavist, we’ve long been working to make immersive narrative storytelling feel at home on phones, tablets, and the web. The California Sunday Magazine took us in a challenging — but exciting — new direction.

Two Fridays ago, The California Sunday Magazine, an independent venture aiming to establish a West Coast outpost for quality magazine journalism, published its first issue online. It’s terrific — take a look. Editor Doug McGray had already built a novel editorial venture in San Francisco-based Pop-Up Magazine (co-founded with Atavist’s own Evan Ratliff), a series of live events in which contributors perform pieces rather than commit them to ink or pixels, and decided to draw on the same network of writers, photographers, artists, and designers for a publication with a wider lens on California and the West. But because California Sunday, unlike Pop-Up, was to be a magazine you read, and because this is the year 2014, it needed a way to publish a website and produce mobile apps. So, several months ago, Doug and his team made their way to Dumbo, Brooklyn — a subway ride away from the headquarters of Condé Nast and Hearst — to talk to us at Atavist.

Since 2011, The Atavist has been publishing rigorously reported and thoughtfully produced works of narrative nonfiction. “White Boy Rick,” by Evan Hughes, is the most recent story.

Atavist, since its beginning, has been wrestling with the question of how an idea that long predated the touchscreen — that of the thoughtfully crafted and produced piece of writing, be it journalism or fiction or something else entirely — could thrive in a new, digital context without being beholden to old ideas. Atavist, now as much technology company as editorial operation, began in 2011 as The Atavist, a magazine that took the form of stories delivered to iPhones and iPads, stories whose worlds readers could explore by tapping icons that revealed more about a place, or a character, or a moment in time. Since then, the craft of immersive digital storytelling has grown up some, and the company’s purview has broadened; the tech that once pushed stories just to The Atavist’s app is now Creatavist, a full-featured, web-friendly publishing platform that anyone can use. While our roots as a magazine remain central to who we are as a company — this year, as in years past, The Atavist was a multiple National Magazine Award finalist — the talk around the office had gravitated toward digital storytelling, not magazine-making. Sitting across the table from Doug, though, and hearing his pitch for California Sunday — that got us thinking.

If you’re a publisher and your goal is to make a magazine and get it on the web, on iPads, and on phones, there’s no shortage of tools out there to help you. But some Googling — try “make a digital magazine” or “magazine CMS” — reveals the tools hell publishers quickly find themselves wading into: a seemingly endless parade of platforms designed, apparently, with a stack of print magazines all too near. If reading your digital magazine consists of e-flipping through a series of glorified PDF layouts, you blew it.

That’s why the most sophisticated digital publishers, or at least the ones with the most resources, don’t use these tools, but build everything piece by piece: WordPress or similar for the web, a contracted agency — or a costly suite of software — for apps (if there’s room in the budget for apps at all). It’s an expensive mix, not just in dollars, but in time spent wrestling with the eccentricities of two or three content management systems (not to mention time spent pasting in text and pressing “Publish” twice, or thrice). A magazine whose production process is spread thin, across platforms or across departments, is a magazine that can’t look great, can’t feel great, in all the forms it takes. (That’s one reason creative directors at even the best magazines, perfectionists and sticklers for detail surely among them, still seem to me most comfortable, most capable of their best work, in the controlled, contained environment of print.)

At the time Doug reached out to us, Creatavist, our publishing platform, already presented an answer to the too-many-platforms dilemma; it could already take the same story — the same text, the same images, and the same design — and publish it to the web, to an iOS app, to an Android app. Doug wanted our help to tweak a few aspects of Creatavist to make it work for his magazine. But we soon realized we had an opportunity to rethink the fundamental principles behind what a digital magazine should be.

How a magazine should be structured

What is a magazine, anyway? The common nomenclature — “weeklies” and “monthlies,” the “cover,” the “issue,” the front and back sections of “the book” — hails in obvious ways from the artifact: a few leafs of glossy paper, printed, bound, and shipped, periodically, to newsstands and mailboxes.

Without the artifact, some think, the magazine is as good as dead. Writes blogger Andrew Sullivan:

When every page in a magazine can be detached from the others, when readers rarely absorb a coherent assemblage of writers in a bound paper publication, but pick and choose whom to read online where individual stories and posts overwhelm any single collective form of content, the magazine as we have long known it is effectively over.

There might be something to that. The most important “magazine” that exists today, some say, is the one that exists as links in your Facebook News Feed, or in your Twitter stream.

Maybe. But I’m more likely to respond to a link I see on Twitter if it’s from a magazine whose personality I’ve come to know and embrace — a personality that reveals itself only over time, as articles are read together as issues, and issues are absorbed from week to week, from month to month. (Some of the best articles, by the way, because of their subject matter or a momentary dip in a social media editor’s mojo, don’t end up on Twitter; you find them by starting on one page and flipping or clicking to another.) Magazine editors talk about and endlessly fine-tune their publication’s “mix” — that bundle of articles long and short, highbrow and low-, that make the magazine as a whole enjoyable to read.

In working with California Sunday and their talented designers, we re-approached the idea of editor as DJ. Clearly their articles should be accessible individually, to allow them to be thrive across social streams. But they also needed to exist together, making it possible to read an issue of a magazine from cover to cover — so to speak. The solution we enabled for them was a simple table of contents that binds the issue together online — and works exactly the same across the web and mobile apps. The goal is to collect articles into an issue without confining them there. For California Sunday, that means — for now — an experiment in sending the reader at the end of an article not to the next story chosen for them, or the “most popular” story on the site, but back to the table of contents to explore further.

Beyond California Sunday, we believe what magazines are looking for is a flexible approach to navigation — the ability to create issues and let readers move within and among them in a way that suits a publication’s style of storytelling. Creatavist’s open architecture enables that: A magazine is able to gently nudge its readers in whatever direction it sees fit.

How a magazine should make money

No one’s got a definitive answer, really. Some magazines want to build off subscribers, some want a hard paywall, some want an intentionally leaky one. But most publishing tools don’t allow the creator to experiment with, or even choose from, a variety of those business model options.

We wanted to hit all the established approaches while giving publishers the freedom to experiment. To do that, we built in a collection of tools for magazine-makers to turn on and off, and even combine:

  1. Set up as hard or as porous a paywall as you’d like. Ask readers to pay before being able to read articles, or allow them to read a certain number per month for free. (Maybe you want to try granting guaranteed access to inbound visitors sent from Facebook or Twitter — sure, give it a shot!) California Sunday, at least for now, is allowing people to read three free articles per month before asking them to subscribe, a porous paywall that — in a first for a magazine, as far as we can tell — operates both online and in mobile apps.
  2. Sell subscriptions and individual issues. With a paywall in place, sell access to your articles for a given period of time, and, if you’d like, sell your issues piecemeal, both on the web and as in-app purchases in your apps.
  3. Sell ads against free or paid stories. For ads to be effective, they should feel at home whether you’re viewing them on the desktop web, on your phone’s browser, or in an app. We’ve built in an integration with DoubleClick for Publishers, one of the most flexible and widely used ad servers out there, that will help.
  4. Create custom native ads. We worked with California Sunday to bring branded “story ads” to all platforms. While unmistakably advertisements, they’re as visually rich as the rest of the magazine’s articles. Creatavist lets you treat ads with the same care you use in designing digital stories.

How a magazine should look

So much of a magazine’s character, so much of its essential magazineness, stems from the way it arrests your attention visually. This is true of magazine covers, certainly, from the George Lois Esquire covers from the 60s to today’s Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s also true of how individual articles are styled, and how the connective tissue of a magazine’s design, in the form of typographic choices, and colors, and motifs, can make disparate articles together resonate in a magazine’s own distinct frequency. (I can’t speak Italian, but I return again and again to Fracesco Franchi’s incredible work for IL magazine.)

All that’s true, anyway, in magazine archives and on newsstands. Attractive digital magazines — on the web, especially — are tougher to come by. Too many publications throw stories into the same one-size-fits-all article template, or swamp them with widgets, sidebars, and pop-ups that distract readers. Too few magazines, big and small alike, have been able to establish a clear, cohesive, and consistent digital design voice.

In building out our vision of what a digital magazine should be, then, we aimed for two principles: simplicity and flexibility. We want publications to look beautiful with our standard designs, but also to be able to draw upon their own design talent and, like California Sunday, take things even further.

A clear, distinct visual character — a personality — pervades California Sunday, whether you read it in print, on the web, or in an app. 

For the out-of-the-box publication, we’ve put together some designs that we think combine an intuitive interface with an elegant visual approach. For example: An issue cover that, when scrolled, gracefully becomes its table of contents. A selection of article layouts that stand apart while still feeling of a piece. Publishers can take advantage of them as is, or have us tailor the designs to fit them. We know from the design work we’ve done for Esquire, Longform, and many others — not to mention the work we do every month for The Atavist itself – that attention to small details makes stories beautiful.

Ultimately, our idea is to create a structure that frees you to make the magazine you want to make. You can pop open the hood and tinker with the designs we’ve made. You can throw them out entirely. The California Sunday Magazine’s team, which had clear and clever ideas from the start about the form their publication should take, opted to go it mostly alone, design-wise. The result, I think, is beautiful, and what it communicates is as clear to new readers as it is to me: it’s a magazine, equally at home in print and in pixels, and it’s theirs.

Thomas Rhiel is the director of reader experience at Atavist.

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