In this overhyped digital age, we were promised a revolution in model railroad magazines. I’m still waiting. Digital publishing tools have opened doors once sealed tight to all but a few, yet the promise of these new tools has yet to be fully realized.

I’m not here to bash on the legacy publications. I’ve loudly, and foolishly, done my share of that and I was wrong to do so. They serve a portion of the hobby population that needs the content they offer. As an experienced modeler, if I no longer find any value in them, it’s irrelevant. My long-term experience gives me other options and resources less experienced folks aren’t aware of or ready for yet.

What I will do is challenge the convention of what a hobby publication is supposed to be. You can look at the limitations and think there is nothing you can do, or you can look at the possibilities and just get to work.*

Much of what we now see online looks a lot like the old paradigms long established by the requirements and conventions of printed media. With the tools of publishing so democratized now, it should be a time for boldness, of trying new ideas with abandon; yet, this hobby has never been characterized as bold. It is hide-bound by tradition and conventions, both good and time-worn.

Are we squandering this opportunity?

The digital versions of many, if not most hobby publications, are simply copies of the printed magazine rendered in pixels and bits in place of paper and ink; published on the same monthly schedule as the print edition, in the same format, with the same content. Why? If all we’re getting is the same content in a different wrapper, beyond less physical bulk, what additional value are we actually receiving?

Oh yes, there are the much touted bells and whistles of linked articles, linked ads, embedded video, 360 spin arounds and so on. Yet some of these gimmicks have grown stale quickly, while greatly increasing file sizes and hence download times. Are they adding value or just getting in the way?

The back end technology needed to make all this work is ever evolving, leaving many fledgling publishers, myself included, shaking our heads trying to keep up with it all. Further, the device itself makes a huge difference in the quality of the experience for the reader.

The reading experience on a screen is fundamentally different from a physical magazine; yet the design of many online publications fails to take this into account. Pages are too crowded, fonts are often too small and text jumps from pillar to post, making it hard to follow the narrative.

Musing over the alleged demise of the printed page, as many love to do, is a waste of time. Print isn’t going anywhere. The economics of print have certainly changed, as will the business models needed to keep it viable for the future. Print is dead? Don’t hold your breath.

However, the infrastructure that supports a print magazine is huge and quickly becoming the unwelcome 500 pound economic gorilla in the room. To produce and distribute a magazine like Model RailroaderRMC and all the rest, requires funds in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars per issue. They have always had to seek as wide an audience as possible to make these numbers work. That was, and still is, a fact of life they ignore to their own peril.

The value proposition is shifting as we speak.

As in many other industries, digital technology is systematically destroying the old power structures in publishing. In the age of print, you had to rely on a magazine or book for any and all hobby information. They were the gatekeepers. You took what they offered, when they offered it and made do until the next issue came out.

Today, general interest hobby information is quickly becoming a commodity. Plug “How to lay flex track” or a similar topic into a search engine and you’ll be flooded with links both relevant and worthless. We are now adrift in a sea of information. Blogs, forums, Yahoo groups, chat rooms, videos, podcasts and more keep churning out noise at deafening rates. Most of us are simply becoming overwhelmed.

The value proposition in publishing is shifting under our feet. If basic how-to information is becoming a commodity, where is the value to readers going then? I agree with the thinking of a lot of smart people in the industry, that it’s moving toward providing context and greater understanding of all this mass. Why or how is this relevant? Help me understand the meaning and implications to me.

Model railroading doesn’t need more information, just fresh thinking.

Last August, I started a publication called The Missing Conversation, a digital only micro-mag that covers one topic or theme per volume. My purpose is to cover topics I’m intensely curious about in a manner that wouldn’t be feasible with print and, to see if people will support the idea of a different format. The individual volumes are more than a magazine article but less than a book. I refer to it as a micro-mag because it falls outside of both categories.

From the outset I made a series of choices that fly in the face of conventional publishing. There are no ads to subsidize production costs and I currently have no plans to include advertising in the future. That may change but ads bring a layer of complexity I just don’t want to deal with. As a result, I charge for each volume with the full knowledge that this is a deal breaker for people conditioned to the online culture of free everything. My premise is that people who find value in the works would be wiling to pay for that value. With each volume, a growing number of you are doing just that. Being one hundred percent reader supported, The Missing Conversation is just as much your magazine as it is mine.

I want to be inspired

Maybe the biggest gamble was to focus on a specific, and in my view an underserved, segment of hobbyists: those who’ve outgrown the skill level represented in the general interest publications. These folks are now largely ignored by the legacy pubs, yet they were once the backbone of those very same publications.

Seeing the quality of their work provided the inspiration and motivation to improve my own. I suspect that each of us, in our own way, seeks to recreate something intangible that meaningfully speaks to us through the images of trains. In today’s modeling environment, that inspiration is often missing; having been crowded out by empty marketing ploys that promise more than they deliver. As in Volume 04 of The Missing Conversation, I want to bring examples of such work back as a way to inspire other modelers and, to show what this hobby truly has to offer.

It’s a different era

The website and TMC landing page make it clear that this work won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes. Old school thinking says this is suicide; while everything I’ve read about newer forms of digital publishing encourages a tight focus as the way to go. Only time will tell.

The economics of digital technology make tightly focused, niche publications imminently feasible now. Distribution costs are essentially zero. My biggest production costs revolve around paying guest authors for their work.

Over many years of working in the fine arts, I’ve seen how the system is stacked against creators. Therefore, I’m implementing generous terms regarding the use of other’s work. The reality of the Internet is that material is going to be found and shared in a number of places. I couldn’t lock something down completely even if I wanted to. I feel strongly against the idea of buying lifetime exclusivity to another’s creative work and then using it any way I choose forever. Therefore, authors retain the rights to their work. I pay for the use of said work because it’s only fair to compensate a creator if I’m going to benefit from the work too. If this makes me a fool in the eyes of some, well, so what?

Go deep.

Despite all the clamor that short, bite-sized work is all the rage now, the Internet is also becoming a vehicle for long form work. While it enables depth, just because I can run a hundred photos for virtually the same cost as one, doesn’t mean I should. In an age of information overload, the principles of crafting a good narrative are more important than ever, regardless of the medium of delivery.

This work is some of the most satisfying I’ve done. I have the opportunity to explore aspects of this hobby in depth and to meet and work with some of the most forward thinking people in model railroading. Most importantly, I get to share it with you.

My initial steps were clumsy and filled with ego driven hubris, which is stating it kindly. I made plenty of mistakes and missteps with the first couple of volumes and their marketing. I’ll make lots more in the future. However, in spite of this, people are responding to the work.

The work is mine to do and I control the degree of commitment I bring to it. However, the outcome belongs to those who will take the content and build a hobby experience that enhances their lives.

2013 will mark the first anniversary of The Missing Conversation at which time I will evaluate how things are going. We can continue to prop up old forms in new wrappers or take the tools available and draw a new map, one that reflects the changing landscape before us. Your continued support is the key. Will you be bold and go with me on this journey?

Regards,
Mike

*My thanks to fellow digital publisher Jarkko Laine for that inspiring thought.