What’s Next For Digital Publishing

This morning, PCMag.com executive editor Dan Costa hosted a panel at Mediabistro Circus where he discussed the future of digital journalism with Anil Dash from Six Apart, Blurb founder Eileen Gittins and Rob Samuels, the director of mobile product development for the The New York Times.

Costa opened the discussion with a story about a freelance writer who pitched him recently. The writer said his rate was 15 cents per word. Is this this future of journalism?

Both Dash and Gittins agreed that measuring the rate a writer is paid based on number of words is outdated. Today, it’s all about being entrepreneurial, creating a brand and building a following. “If you can go to Dan and show that you have 10,000 avid followers, your rate per word will go up,” Gittins said.

From left to right: Costa, Dash, Gittins and Samuels

Gittins’ company allows anyone to self publish a book — including bloggers who can upload their blogs into book format using Blurb’s “slurping” tool. So Costa asked her, “Do bloggers make good authors?”

“Just because you have content doesn’t mean you have a good book,” she said. She advised bloggers to write posts that are durable, meaning they can be relevant for months and years to come.

Dash pointed out that we write things every day that we consider disposable without actually thinking about it. “I don’t ever write an update on Twitter where I think, ‘Man, that was great work,'” he said. His solution? Concentrate on putting out “evergreen” content.

But traditional media companies are struggling to find a way to make money off online content. First, Dash said they have to prioritize the presentation of content sent to mobile devices. Although some print publications still view their digital content as less important than the print material, they need to change their model, he said, urging publications not to treat their most accessible form of information as a “second class citizen.”

Samuels pointed to the recently launched Times Reader as a place where the Times is listening to reader feedback and creating a digital product that is easy to navigate and fits the needs and wants of the paper’s readership. Right now this content is available for free, but Samuels told us after the panel that the Times is always looking at models that might eventually lead to effective pay structures. (Update: A NYT publicist clarifies: There are only four sections available for free through Times Reader, and only for a limited time. Times Reader 2.0 is available for $3.45 per week and free for New York Times home delivery subscribers.)

All of the panelists agreed that if the content is worthwhile, then people will be willing to pay for it. “Not everything is McDonald’s, not everything is fast food,” Gittins said, equating content to food. “People are willing to pay for a good meal. How do we enable that?”

That question haunts everyone involved in digital content. But panelists agreed that the model used by Paste magazine last month, when they asked for readers to donate to help them stay alive, could not be sustainable.

Some other thoughts from the panel:

– Dash: Sometime in the future, bloggers might hit the talk show circuit like authors do now. But instead of promoting a new book, they will be promoting a new blog.

– Gittins: Every author needs a blog in order to promote the book, find the audience and get feedback. Self publishers like Blurb allow authors to update books and publish second, third and fourth editions effortlessly. With this technology, books are becoming the starting point of a conversation, not the end point.

– Times Select, a pay-for-premium-content section that was once a part of the Times‘ Web site, was abandoned by the paper because it “outgrew its business model,” not because it wasn’t profitable, Samuels said.

– When asked what advice she would give a journalism school graduate looking to get into publishing, Gittins said, “Marry well.” Has it come to that?