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The Economist Paints a Bold and Daring Future for Digital Publishing

By Wesley Fenlon

According to The Economist, reading is thriving thanks to tablets and e-readers. Now media companies must adapt the way they publish content on the web for this entirely new medium.

As a high-brow publication often associated with executives, governments, and giant corporations, The Economist seems like an improbable source for forward-thinking web publication philosophy. While big TV and music media companies struggle to understand the Internet, The Economist is already miles ahead with one very important realization: e-readers, and especially tablets, are very, very different devices than computers that require totally different publication strategies.

A presentation from The Economist titled "Lean Back 2.0" begins with this thesis: "The rebirth of lean-back media is seemingly a gentle, reassuring change for media businesses. It is actually a tsunami that demands urgent re-examination of everything that constitutes a media business."

The Economist presentation breaks the evolution of reading into three phases: lean-back print, lean-forward web and lean-back digital. We've now entered into the third age, where reading as an activity is migrating away from the web to specialized devices like tablets and e-readers. The web on computers is specifically for short bursts of reading, performing research, and sharing information with others.

Lean-back digital represents a rebirth of pleasure reading, according to The Economist. But here's the exciting part: the publication thinks tablets and e-readers have the potential to increase how much we read, cutting down on the ADD-nature of reading on the web thanks to the distractions of the Information Age. And those distractions apply to normal reading, too: a survey of Conde Nast publications like GQ and Wired found readers dedicated 45 minutes to a magazine every month but spent an average of 160 minutes reading on iPhones and iPads.

65 percent of people surveyed for 2011's World Book Conference said they were reading more thanks to e-readers. That's great news, if only because it gives us hope that the next generation of kids will dedicate as much time to leisure reading as they do gaming. But more interesting from a technology perspective is The Economist's publication strategy for lean-back digital:

No one ever asked for The Economist to be longer. Our lean-back digital strategy is radical simplicity. It was a conscious editorial decision to strip out our web innovations--in many ways this was harder than keeping them.
  • Tablet users are twice as likely to read magazines daily than web users.
  • Over 20 percent of respondents to an Economist study predicted they'd be getting their news from a tablet app in two years.
  • 15 percent of surveyed adults in 2011 owned e-readers.

The Economist considers lean-back digital reading part of the mass intelligence category. That's a large group of the world population that are not members of the elite media but are more open to forward-thinking, creative ideas than the mass media group. The mass intelligent consists of the 26 million NPR listeners and 28 million HBO subscribers who value quality content.

71 percent of polled tablet owners prefer to read rather than watch video. Despite the difficulty of running long-form feature content on the web, The Economist thinks readers will be more likely to pay attention to word-heavy features with lean-back digital.

Now comes the big point on the creation of content for lean-back digital: moving beyond the paywall debate.

Advertising revenue will never support the commissioning model for high-end journalism. Ad revenue from building scale will not keep pace with the cost of creating distinctive content to build audience. Readers will not pay for commoditised content in sufficient numbers. Generic content does not provide enough value to compete with free.

The key lies in creating valuable paid content; working out how to create value for readers and extract value from them. The Economist found that tablets users are more likely to pay for news content than browser users. Almost 70 percent of their polled subscribers considered the Economist iPad app a value addition for their money. more importantly, 70 percent also desired to be able to purchase apps and services from within editorial content. That's a huge, huge opportunity for advertising in lean-back digital.

Here's the bottom line: lean-back digital isn't enormous yet, but it's getting there. As it becomes the predominant form of content consumption for print and other aspects of media, content creators will have to adapt their content and presentation style to better fit the new medium. What works on the web doesn't necessarily work on a tablet. As more companies realize that, the presentation of tablet and e-reader content's only going to get better.