Jason Pontin has a daunting task at hand. The editor in chief and publisher of MIT’s Technology Review is the man charged with recalibrating the 112-year-old thought-leading publication, a duty he described to Adweek as an "on some level unwelcome, but intellectually interesting task, which is the result of living in difficult times.”
Make no mistake though, Pontin and Technology Review are not bemoaning their situation, and while the digital-first shift may be swayed by market forces, Pontin and Technology Review are ultimately guided by passion and belief in innovation.
Yesterday, Pontin published an eloquent overview of Technology Review’s next five months as the company begins a transition to a late October overhaul that will see a brand-new print publication, site design and even a new name. The efforts are designed to give the prestigious technology publication a digital-first mentality, and Pontin has tasked his devoted readers to help with their input.
“It is absolutely fair to say that I began my journey from a space that hoped traditional print journalism and publishing would be salvageable in some form and that digital would be built alongside, but those hopes are long past for me,” Pontin said.
“The principal reason I want to do this other than the business realities,” Pontin said, “is that I think it will allow us to do smarter, more beautiful journalism to better serve our readers. I’m not willing to negotiate the essential value of Technology Review," he told Adweek.
Pontin’s hope after experimenting for two years—with full pay walls, porous pay walls, and the "free site, subscription magazine" model—is that Technology Review can task its readers with an idea for a membership model. “I think some of a media company’s readers ought to be really intimately involved,” Pontin argued. Yet, while he wants an active and participatory readership, he is wary of opening the publication too much.
“For some a digital-first mentality is sometimes called ‘opening the newsroom,’” Pontin said of sites like The Huffington Post and Forbes.com, who have opened their publishing platforms to nontraditional writers and advertisers—a strategy that Pontin will not apply to Technology Review. “I do believe that using digital platforms as a service to one’s marketing partners and agencies is part of going digital first, but I think it needs to be done in a transparent and clear way. Our experience is that readers welcome such things as long as they’re clearly marked as advertorial. Especially for a thought-leading publication, our readers resent it when the lines are blurred.”
For Pontin, the idea of a brand acting as a publisher works for publications that gear more toward the purposes of entertainment than thought leadership. “People do not go to The Huffington Post looking for insights of clarity and importance; people go there as drivers-by to be ephemerally entertained,” he said.
Going forward, Pontin plans to innovate with a digital format and suggested that when it comes to embedding digital media into longform content, most publications only scratch the surface with superficial video or audio embeds. “You can do many things in the format,” Pontin said. “You can tell stories with many voices using different journalists, you can utilize the tools of data visualization. Conceivably, you could do some kind of gamification even, where continuing the story may depend on an understanding of what you’ve just read. There are many possibilities.”