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MIT Technology Review Relaunches 'Digital-First'

113-year-old publication could create the road map for legacy media's transition to digital

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Some 20 weeks before Newsweek set the media into a frenzy with its announcement of a digital-first publishing strategy, Jason Pontin was already grappling with how to move his 113-year-old publication toward a digital future. Pontin announced in June that MIT's Technology Review magazine would rebrand and eschew its print focus in favor of the Web and mobile platforms—a move that many in legacy media fear will soon become common practice.

Starting this afternoon, the publication will officially adopt the MIT name into its title (similar to university publications like Harvard Business Review), and launch a completely retooled website. Pontin hasn't yet ditched the print publication, which has undergone a design overhaul as well, though print's role as a revenue generator will be reduced for the new MIT Technology Review and Pontin notes that publication frequency will be low and circulation will be small. "Print needs to support digital rather than vice-versa now," he told Adweek, noting that Technology Review's site is growing each month (104 percent growth in unique visitors year-over-year) and is approaching 4.5 million monthly readers.

Pontin, a self-professed print guy whose work has appeared in everything from The Economist to Wired, has no reservations about decreasing the role of the time-honored print medium. "Our most important stories were always behind a paywall, so really, it's liberating," he said. Pontin believes the reboot will draw a larger audience to the thought leadership publication. "As we become more broadly read, the language we used to describe ourselves was too academic. We don't talk about 'emerging technologies,' we want to write about 'the new technologies that matter.'" Pontin hopes to use this larger readership to elevate tech coverage on the Web. "Tech journalism now is an endless fire hose. Much of it is inaccurate, badly written, and obscured by hype, where everything is the next big thing," he said.

Like almost all things coming out of MIT, the publication's transformation was largely data-driven—the result of monitoring user site behavior, as well as simply surveying the magazine's readers to see how they'd like Technology Review to evolve. The result is a completely open and free website, with revenues made up through a tiered membership plan to be implemented over the coming months as well as a set of new branded content ad opportunities. The membership plans are forthcoming, but Pontin noted that they'll vary from the standard access to the print and digital replicas of the magazine to opportunities to join MIT's Enterprise Forum of entrepreneurs.

On the ad side, the publication will have an advertiser content section embedded into the website, titled, Views From the Marketplace—similar in ideology to that of Forbes' AdVoice. The section will launch in a few weeks and while a launch partner is yet to be revealed, Pontin rattled off a list of brands such as Salesforce and Microsoft, which have advertised with the site before and could become integrated as branded voices into the platform. Though he is taking a page from Forbes' book, Pontin took pains to note that Technology Review would be "a more economical and targeted choice than Forbes," which he believes has "muddied the waters between the quality editorial of staff content and the sponsored material." Though Forbes clearly denotes its AdVoice and contributor content, Pontin hopes to include smaller, brand-aligned thought leaders in its Marketplace and completely separate advertorial and original content.

As print fights for its life, Pontin and MIT Technology Review could set the standard for the transition to a digital future for legacy media and, at the very least could provide future publishers with a set of dos and don'ts in the event the transition is unsuccessful. Though Technology Review is unique in its backing from a major university (MIT Technology Review is a non-profit company wholly owned by the university) and niche loyal readership, Pontin maintains that quality and reader data above all else will keep the publication prominent during the change. "This was a deliberative process and I'm absolutely convinced that digital-first is the only sustainable approach for modern media," Pontin said. "We can do better and we absolutely must do better going forward."