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  • Monkeying with the Magazine Business

    In the future, as depicted in the 2002 film Minority Report, our periodicals will create interactive, hybrid reading/viewing experiences—with built-in sound and motion-based commercials rather than static advertisements, incorporating news footage with pages that dissolve and re-form to reflect breaking stories. Despite minute gestures in that direction, such as the Amazon Kindle and G24, The Guardian's PDF newspaper that's updated throughout the day, that vision of media—if there's really a market for it—is a long way off. Finding a clear signal for a humble cell phone call in a crowded city or subway car (or one of many other places people expect to read their daily paper) can be challenging enough. Terabytes of streaming media in real time over the ether still seem a distant possibility at best.

    A Monkey issue “cover.”

    Nevertheless, something very much like that Minority Report newspaper—in form, if not content—is now available weekly from Dennis Publishing, the company that gave the world The Week, Maxim and several other British “lad magazines” as well as launched their American spin-offs. Monkey is proportioned like a glossy, has an interface that mimics the turning of pages and even has a magazine-like layout: margins, a basic two-column grid, images combined with text and print-like pacing. The difference is that Monkey's text sparkles (literally, if not figuratively), dances and slides onto the page. Many of the photos will turn into movies or slideshows (some rather naughty) when clicked, and on some spreads users can shuffle page elements, substituting one image for another. The format also changes to serve its content. A small mini-magazine with short reviews is digitally “stitched” into the “middle” of each issue. Additionally, most advertisements come alive, thanks either to Flash, streaming video or some combination, showing previews of movies or commercials for products framed by the equivalent of a full-page ad.

    To be sure, Monkey does nothing that isn't done on other websites, and it has formal predecessors for its page interface—the arty This Is a Magazine, for one, and the webified versions of print glossies from Zinio for another. But unlike the wider web—which has evolved its own vocabulary and conventions for storytelling—and other web magazine predecessors—for which the turn-the-page interface seems a formal conceit—Monkey truly blends old and new media design conventions in a way that is both appalling and appealing.

     

    A front-of-book spread from Monkey featuring ad content on the left, editorial on the right.

    It isn't surprising that this hybrid came from Dennis rather than another publisher. Dennis has always built magazines—even the news-oriented The Week—around the conviction that less text is more good. The Week's longest stories—including the cover feature—are less than a page of text; most are only 50 or 60 words. Maxim and its sibling men's magazines function like book-length briefs sections. While the lad mags include articles that resemble long-form feature stories, these spread 300 or so words of text over a five-page pictorial (usually a profile of a comely minor actress).

    Monkey's viral content.

    Predictably, the first casualty in Monkey is the body (although heds, deks and captions remain), giving the publication the look of a frenetic First for Women. But, what Monkey does do successfully is use magazine conventions to gracefully manage the overload of information that is distracting at best, upsetting at worst, on many interactive websites. It does this by following and thoughtfully extending the rules all publication designers depend on, such as consistent placement of ads on the left-hand page and editorial content on the right. While some ads “start” automatically, all can be halted by the user (unlike many Flash-based banner ads), giving the reader reassuring control and the advertiser ample space for a static message that frames each movie. More importantly, the reinforcement of ingrained expectations for the magazine-reading experience—in which the reader is in the driver's seat—is much more comfortable than websites that use annoying blinking ads, pop-ups and other excesses of e-design.

    The danger in creating something like Monkey is that it can be as overwhelming as a walk through Times Square at night, in which dozens of video screens of various shapes and sizes along with news feeds and other animated and static ads compete for attention. Monkey's pages are carefully staged, however. Flash ads clearly conform to strict rules; they may assemble before the reader's eyes upon “turning the page” or run once but do not become a continuing annoyance.

     

    It's a sheep, it's pig, it's a...nother busy Monkey page, peppered with chimp heads.

    None of this is to suggest that Monkey doesn't have a learning curve. It takes a while to learn how to turn a page, how to zoom in on content and what clicking on the animated chimp heads that pepper every page does and does not accomplish. The magazine has not formalized all of its conventions yet. Sometimes the page itself animates, other times you're whisked off-site. Too often the brief captions don't do enough to contextualize the multimedia elements. But these are minor annoyances that will likely diminish over time. In the most important ways, Monkey seems familiar and comfortable.

    Games entice readers into contests and promos.

    While Monkey balances the needs of reader and advertiser more gracefully than many sites, the potential of the format for visual storytelling cannot be overstated. A conventional magazine's columnar structure makes the complex juxtaposition of ideas and images possible. A print designer can juggle multiple components on a spread—several images and a variety of words at various sizes and in different typefaces and arrangements. This is ingrained for print designers, but it shouldn't be taken for granted. The bandwidth of a spread in a print magazine is larger than a web page by orders of magnitude.

    Most web pages (like the one you're currently reading) conform to a linear presentation style in which a single column of text with images interspersed can be followed through scrolling down the screen. This approach, necessary when you measure pages in hundreds of kilobytes rather than tens or hundreds of megabytes, may be practical but the visual poetry that a good designer can achieve through layering elements is almost always a casualty in web design. Most websites are also part machine—the mechanics of navigation place limitations on design. Monkey's soft-core content is hardly poetic—and bandwidth is a challenge, as it is for any webzine. Pictures are often crude and videos sometimes jam up, but page flipping is quick and seamless. The essential act of mainstream magazine consumption is grazing, and here Monkey works as well as its print counterparts. While sharper pictures would be a benefit, one can see the potential of the hybrid vocabulary Dennis has pioneered.

    The Monkey approach could be applicable to a wide range of non-puerile content—with a few caveats. Watching may be an inherently shallower experience than reading, but much translates effectively to video, even the small, embedded screens of streaming video that make up much of Monkey's content. However, the question of whether serious long-form journalism could be integrated into this model is less certain and isn't one Monkey's publisher is likely to answer.

    A spread with video from the “Motors” department.

    The conventional magazine, like the book, is remarkable for, among other things, the neutrality of the format. There can be satisfying publications on topics as diverse as Medieval French literature, cooking, fashion and news analysis. The modern XHTML/CSS-driven website is also a tabula rasa, but television is much less so. The linearity and comparatively slow pace of time-based media makes it inappropriate for many kinds of information-rich experiences. It would be absurd to attempt either The Economist or the Yellow Pages as a television program or YouTube video, but either could be and are text or PHP-based websites.

    I would guess that while an Economist with a Monkey on its back is possible, it could not be done elegantly. Multimedia content would disrupt and trivialize the deliberative process of reading truly serious content. On the other hand, the Monkey method would lend itself beautifully to a variety of other topics: say, a multimedia-cooking magazine that incorporated steps and demonstrations into recipes. Women's and men's magazines do not always vary greatly in the kinds of stories they tell (if you don't believe me, compare the cover images and teasers on Cosmo and Maxim sometime). A Monkey-like Glamour or O seems an obvious possibility—with the same sorts of interactive quizzes and pictorials that Monkey uses, but centered around “women's” interests. Travel, science, even literature—in which book excerpts are combined with live interviews—might be effective. Inevitably, someone will try these tricks and more. After all, Monkey incorporates products, entertainment, sports, sex and humor—the glut of mass-market magazine content. It will be interesting to see who apes this formula next.

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