Over the last three decades Jim Gaines has served as editor in chief of Time, Life and People magazines, as well as the corporate editor of Time, Inc. Today, August 11, is his sixty-second birthday—but unlike many of the print veterans that are his peers, Gaines has not stuck his head in the pulp and ignored the event horizon of print journalism. Nor has he retired. He has instead grafted his experience to a Web magazine startup called Flyp.
It is easy to forget that before the Web came along, magazines were the original timesuck. No matter how pressing your workload or how ruthless your schedule, if you dared crack open an issue of Cosmo or Newsweek or GQ, you were lured in by their immediacy, their relevance, their dripping cool. With the social news sites like Digg that now constitute our procrastinatory diet, it would be reasonable to assume that nowadays it takes the entire berth of the Internet to keep us distracted, but Flyp proves in a matter of minutes that this isn't the case.
That pull you feel, that must-turn-page zombieism? That's called narrative. "A story is a story is a story," Gaines says. "I do know a good story when I see one." That's why he was hired on at Flyp; while plenty of Web mags have Flash intros and sparse slideshows, they are often short on story. "We focus on storytelling method and form," he says, "but we use all the media that the Internet can carry."
Go ahead: open it up. Within a few pages, you'll find interactive graphs, music and sound, embedded video and gorgeous photography. This isn't entirely new; plenty of publications have limped into the multimedia space, but they've done so piecemeal. What makes Flyp different is that it uses all the tools the Web has to offer, and still presents the reader with absolutely minimal cognitive load. There is barely any load time, no lag, no byzantine interface. Some Web sites have gorgeous visual design, but you wouldn't know the first place to click to make something move. A site that has truly thought about interaction design is a rarity.
"I've always been interested in storytelling, and that's why I loved editing Life magazine," Gaines says. "When I looked at Flyp for the first time, I thought: this is what Life would be if it existed today." At its incipience, Life too was technologically ground-breaking in its reliance of photography. "Flyp is about having more arrows in the quiver," he says, while staying self-critical about usability.
Of course, you may well navigate to Flyp and find that its content—a story on space travel, another on urban acrobatics—isn't exactly your bag. That's fine, because the point of Flyp isn't actually the content—it's the medium. "Flyp is a content model for the future of digital publishing," Gaines explains, and he and his 12-person team are hoping that magazines will turn to their model instead of throwing in the towel. "People are reluctant to fold titles even when they're gasping for air," he says, "but they don't want to make the digital jump either." He compares the scenario in today's magazine newsrooms to a rope bridge: too far from the digital side of the ravine, they cower until the bridge collapses. "To me, it's a no brainer," he says.
Flyp's business model is still being hammered out: so far they've been shopping around their model and doing contract projects for magazines like Fortune, for whom they built an interactive story on the Bernie Madoff story. Ultimately, Gaines says, magazines may buy the entire model and convert wholesale. But the success of Flyp is largely contingent on whether Gaines can convince magazine publishers that a valuable advertising landscape does indeed exist online. "The problem with online advertising is about supply and demand," he says. "On the Web there's an infinite supply, so it becomes a commodity and the cost goes way down." As a result, the company is planning elaborate rich-media ads that is insinuated alongside editorial content, and don't feel tacked-on or gimmicky.
Flyp's only downfall is its reliance on Flash video and imagery, which isn't easily cataloged by Web crawlers like Bing, Google and Yahoo. Though a workaround is probably feasible, Flyp will have to convince magazines that the priority is making their site a destination, and filling in the discovery process later. Luckily, the gods of post-print seem to be on their side; blog network The Business Insider received its third round of funding in May, and there is word that the decline of newspaper readership in the U.S. may stem. Should Americans warm again to the printed word, it may bring Flyp a reinvigorated readership.