By Erin Erickson
ASBPE Chicago Chapter Vice President
I recently spoke with Sara Zailskas, Assistant Managing Editor of Housing Giants. The digital magazine recently won a National Gold Digital Azbee award for General Excellence in the digital magazine category.
Sara was able to speak about the process of converting a print magazine into a digital-only magazine. She spoke honestly about overcoming hurdles and the current status of the magazine:
How did you decide which magazine to convert to a digital-only magazine?
Our publisher and editorial director looked at what our audiences wanted and how those wants worked within our needs as a magazine. Going digital also allowed Reed Business Information to test new ways of working with digital publications, which we’d been using for some time in their simplest forms (converting PDFs to a flipbook, for example). It was a natural and exciting step, and other magazines within RBI have made the switch since.
What were the initial steps you took when preparing to convert the print magazine into digital?
We looked at all aspects of the magazine, from the production schedule to design, and asked a lot of questions: how much would our editorial production process have to change to publish a digital magazine? What needed to change about our design to make it reader-friendly on a computer screen? What type of content would we need to make the most of digital journalism capabilities?
And of course, none of this would have been addressed without examining the cost factor, too. If publishing a digital magazine were more expensive than a print publication, we likely wouldn’t have even considered it given the state of the economy at the time and our audience’s wants and needs. The benefits of digital capabilities extended to our advertisers, too. We heard that agencies were thrilled to be able to create multimedia ads.
What were the biggest roadblocks you faced during the conversion process?
Surprisingly, the things we thought would be a huge challenge weren’t: we successfully took our editorial production schedule from six publications a year to 23, and preparing our product for digital production was much easier than we anticipated. We knew the adjustment for our audience would be significant, but our feedback from readers told us we were doing the right thing. Don’t get me wrong; some people hated the conversion, but the majority contacted us in support.
The challenges came when silly, simple technology things wouldn’t work; for example, we’d submit a file in the right format but it wouldn’t play correctly. Those situations always worked out, but it sometimes took a lot more time than we would have liked.
The other main challenge – and I expected this – was to get writers to wrap their heads around digital storytelling. Considering audio and visuals – and Flash illustration possibilities and such – truly is a new approach to planning an article that doesn’t always come naturally if you’ve been doing journalism a certain way for years. My advice would be to help writers brainstorm audio/visual opportunities, then follow up with them to make sure they come in with the final submission. And if they don’t, send ’em back out until audio/visual components are included.
Which processes needed to be changed and how when it came to acquiring and using the digital media?
On the editorial side, we budgeted extra time for planning multimedia components with our writers as well as preparing those components for inclusion. We have an editing department, but it still takes time to select how you want something edited, write up supporting text to accompany it for the publication, etc.
We also had a couple days built into our production schedule to test and review the final product. We essentially had a traditional “to printer” deadline, which is when our files were due to our digital publication vendor, and a “blast” deadline, which is when all the wrinkles had to be worked out of the digital magazine after it was put together by our vendor and then made live.
What is the status of the magazine now?
I like to think of our status as taking Gold in the first Digital Azbees, which our staff is really proud of. But unfortunately we published our last issue in April. Housing Giants, which is for home-building industry executives, launched right when not only builders began going out of business, but a wave of manufacturers – our advertisers – began shuttering. The goal is to relaunch it in better economic conditions.