Creativity, Innovation, and Evolution in Publications

I’m not among those who feels compelled to worry about the future of magazines and newspapers. The way we share information in print and online is evolving so quickly that discussions of the future can’t possibly keep up with the reality of current innovations.

Attending the semi-annual meeting of the American Libraries magazine Advisory Committee while I was in Washington, D.C. for the 2010 American Library Association (ALA) Conference last week helped bring a lot of the picture into focus for me. Editor and Publisher Leonard Kniffel and his colleagues provided an intriguing summary of what they’ve been sharing with the magazine’s readers over the past year: a print publication which has been seamlessly interwoven with an online presence including featured videos, a photo gallery, and archives of the print editions and digital supplements; a readership that is responding well to a variety of information resources including the print and online versions of American Libraries; a weekly online publication—American Libraries (AL) Direct—which provides dozens of summaries and links to articles of interest to the more than 60,000 members of the American Library Association; an editor’s blog that is an integral part of the mix; and a growing appreciation for print articles which tackle larger themes rather than focusing on the sort of breaking news items which are more effectively disseminated via the online resources.

The result is a family—in the best sense of the word—of offerings that serve as a focal point for Association members and others interested in the state of libraries. It’s an early 21st-century version of the old local newspaper as center of a community, but serving a much larger and geography dispersed population than small-town papers ever imagined reaching.

I think Kniffel and his colleagues are doing a great job of drawing from the publication’s best traditions while taking advantage of opportunities offered by online resources. Articles which begin online can find their way—in revised versions—onto the pages of the print publication which, in turn, is posted online to reach an even larger audience than would have been possible a few years ago. Thematic publications, in the form of magazine-length digital supplements, give readers even more opportunities to explore issues of interest to them. And the creative use of eye-catching and easy-to-read design makes the offerings visually as well as intellectually appealing—an aspect of publication that is all too often ignored in a world where thoughts and imagery are extremely ephemeral.

While members of the American Libraries Advisory Committee spent little time during their meeting discussing articles and presentations on the state of magazines and publishing, their conversations implicitly acknowledged many of the innovations receiving attention in a variety of venues. The 2009 TED talk about a Polish newspaper designer’s innovative efforts to make each issue of his publication an event for readers is not far from what American Libraries accomplishes through its digital supplements and its annual print edition dedicated to innovations and achievements in library architecture. James Fallow’s article in the June 2010 issue of The Atlantic magazine“How to Save the News”—about how Google is supporting the evolution of newspapers is consistent with the moves American Libraries has already made to be present where readers are congregating rather than bemoaning the loss of print-publication readers to online sources. And Clay Shirky’s thoughtful presentation and discussion on “Internet Issues Facing Newspapers” explores new models for publications which American Libraries appears to be embracing.

Because our newspapers and magazines have—far longer than any of us have been alive—served as centers of the communities they serve, we have a vested interest in being sure that they continue to meet our needs and that we continue to support them through our patronage. It’s clear to me that their evolving onsite-online formats connected to print counterparts are continuing to reflect, support, nourish, and even help create new communities of interest, and those who are mourning their loss are simply not paying attention to the underlying health that print and online entities like American Libraries are displaying as they continue to evolve to meet their readers’ needs.

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