By Annemarie Leipe and Georgia Walters

Edinburgh Napier University’s Merchiston campus hosted PPA Scotland’s latest Digital Meeting on 30th January 2014. Students and staff from the MSc Publishing and MSc Magazine Publishing courses were joined by a number of industry professionals for three discussions, and the chance to network afterwards. It was a brilliant opportunity to gain an in-depth insight into how different companies within the publishing industry deal with customers’ changing needs, the ongoing technical development and burgeoning social media communities.

Eric Campbell discussing magazine apps and discoverability
Eric Campbell discussing magazine apps and discoverability

Peter Houston, founder of Flipping Pages stated that before the internet, magazine publishers were like ‘big fish in a small pond’. There was a huge demand for their content because nothing or no-one else was able to provide it. Today the challenge for them is ‘trying to get found’. White Light Media’s Creative Director Eric Campbell shared that opinion. ‘Modern magazine publishers are looking for various ways to get their content out to the readers.’ This task is frequently being given the term ‘discoverability’ – something that Digital Book World has recently deemed to be ‘publishing’s next big challenge’.

This challenge is something Kirsten Morrison, Head of Digital at DC Thomson tackles. As 90% of their revenue is still from print content, it is ‘a constant battle of protecting print’ but as this is a declining sector, digital platforms need to be developed. Her strategy is to focus on priority titles to implement digital content as well as clear social media strategies and cross-promotional plans.

The meeting was a great inspiration and encouragement for the MSc students’ projects during the next trimester and we would like to thank Nikki Simpson of PPA Scotland for her introduction, and the speakers, Eric Campbell and Adam Wilson of White Light Media and Hot Rum Cow, Kirsten Morrison and Sam Miller of DC Thomson and Peter Houston of Flipping Pages.

Here follows some thoughts from a number of the students in attendance:

Kate Patrick, MSc Publishing:

“What I found interesting in the PPA Digital Meeting was the strategies that each presenting company are implementing in order to make a fundamental shift to produce digital content alongside print. Issues with this shift that were raised included accessibility, quality of the content and differentiating between content appropriate for print and for digital. Each presenter stressed the importance of embracing digital content, as this is without a doubt the direction in which the consumption of magazines is going. Magazines need to exist on different platforms that include engagement with consumers through social media, videos, competitions, polls, etc.

I also found Peter Houston’s discussion of what makes ‘good’ content interesting. He argued that the conception of what is ‘good’ is subjective, and also that good content is a constantly moving target. It must be informative, entertaining or actionable in order to be distinguishable from the mass of ‘bad’ content that exists online.”

Peter Houston from Flipping Pages: what makes good digital content?
Peter Houston from Flipping Pages: what makes good digital content?
 Maya Castille, MSc Publishing:

“One of the best parts about attending the PPA Scotland Digital Meeting was the true interactivity between the audience and the presenters. While listening to Eric Campbell and Adam Wilson from White Light Media, I tweeted about how their magazine, Hot Rum Cow, had the coolest name ever. Before the meeting had even concluded, Hot Rum Cow had replied to my tweet. Not even a few moments later, White Light Media had retweeted my and the Hot Rum Cow response!

It was an amazing feeling to have the companies who were presenting about being more involved with their audience actually show their dedication to social media. Before the night was over, even PPA Scotland, our programme leader Avril Gray, and a peer of mine had retweeted several other tweets I’d sent during the digital presentation. Social media is an integral part of our culture and I was very encouraged to see how dedicated all the companies are to embracing the future.”

Alisdair Dawson, MSc Magazine Publishing:

“Perhaps the most salient point that came across at Thursday’s meeting was how eager the industry is to embrace the new technology, which is the opposite to what the wider public thinks about the publishing industry: considering them to be nothing than Moaning Myrtles about the impending doom of paper. Yet as DC Thompson and White Light Media demonstrated by displaying their wares to us, they are becoming more savvy to the fact that their audience is progressively moving towards life on the tablet.

However they did stress that print sales are still higher than digital ones, and that there must be a culture-shift within the industry as a whole; that no longer does content have a shelf life. Rather it is now more than ever being dictated by the audience, and with this shift in content it has become important more than ever to make your content engaging both in terms of interactivity and stimulating intellectually.”

Anastasia Gorgan, MSc Publishing:

“I think the most important underlined points were how to share information with customers and simplify the processes of sharing. A website should be functional and also emotional users targeted. I will try to keep going in this way.”

Harriet Leslie, MSc Publishing:

“It is clear that more and more people are accessing digital content over print publications. With this changing demographic in mind, it is clear that publishers need to alter their business models accordingly. However, it is necessary to be aware of the volume of information available in the digital sphere; indeed, 90% of all data has been created in the last two years. With this in mind, publishers must find the most relevant way of reaching their consumers without diluting their message along the way. DC Thomson seem to be doing this well, most surprisingly with uptake of The People’s Friend on the iPad. What can we take from this? Create a product which people love and never underestimate your audience’s capacity for change.”

Flipping Pages: understanding the audience's needs is critical
Flipping Pages: understanding the audience’s needs is critical
Jack Evans, MSc Publishing:

“What was key from White Light Media‘s presentation is that there are so many variations of digital products; apps, web, emails for example. All of these platforms have completely different requirements.

DC Thompson was interesting – the need for balance between print and digital was highlighted. Print is still very much king – it is what pays, where the funding for digital comes from and therefore a balance needs to be struck, whilst also trying to increase digital output to make up for a decline in print.

What particularly engaged me from the Flipping Pages presentation was the concept that producing content can be made more credible and the content better through partnerships with others. It also taught a lesson that audiences and readers are completely different and subjective – what might be seen as brilliant to some markets can in fact be seen as terrible by others; as highlighted by Sturgeon’s Law.”

Kyra Jones, MSc Publishing:

“I find that most presentations dealing with digital media, particularly digital magazines as apps, tend to have an element of okay, you have done that, but now what? However, this meeting of the PPA Scotland, which featured several guest speakers talking about different aspects of digital media, managed to move beyond the typical flashy, one-hit-wonder aspect of magazine apps and deal with real questions of reader engagement and what determines the viability of apps.

Touching on questions of what the relationship between print and digital is and can be, the presentations focused on the importance of the right content for the right platform, the greater potential for innovation and risk-taking in digital publications, and the question of finding and retaining an audience. In particular, I was impressed with White Light Media‘s magazine, Hot Rum Cow, which discussed their subscription based email magazine, which placed the content directly into the email, rather than bombarding their audience with click-through stories, which I thought was a smart and impressive way to reach an obviously interested audience that would ensure their engagement.”

Laura Will, MSc Publishing:

“At PPA Scotland’s Digital Meeting we had the opportunity to listen to a series of very interesting talks. I would like to emphasise Eric Campbell’s (White Light Media) contribution about the advantages and disadvantages of content distribution via app, web or e-mail and the difficulties of adjusting content for different devices. Further highlights were Kirsten Morris’ (DC Thomson) explanation of the challenges inherent in the current commercial and editorial culture shift due to digitisation and Peter Houston’s very visual presentation about the subjectivity of good content and the importance of its shareability. Thank you very much for this enlightening afternoon!”

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