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Interactive Publishing Maxims

By Jack Powers | Published: January 26, 1996 | Revised: February 12, 2002

Interactive publishing refers to all the new media formats that use the tools of computing, communications and imaging to tune themselves uniquely to the needs of each reader. Synonyms include new media, interactive media, ITV, multimedia, cybermedia, hypermedia, computer-mediated communications and electronic publishing. Listed here are some basic maxims about the development of interactive content and their place in the media landscape.

Interactive publishing takes three forms.

Publishers apply new technologies in computing, communications and imaging to deliver more effective pages in three basic formats:

PAPER-BASED NEW MEDIA include selectively bound magazines and catalogs, ink jet-customized pages, demand printed technical documentation and books, and both broadcast and interactive fax publications.

DISK-BASED NEW MEDIA include text, audio and video databases on diskettes and CD-ROMs, DVDs, music CDs and compact flash and PCMCIA cards.

TELECOM-BASED NEW MEDIA include Internet and World Wide Web publications, commercial on-line services, network and groupware products, and interactive television and wireless communications systems.

Publishing means more than just "re-purposing" content.


Publishers caught up in the Content Cliché imagine that they simply need to re-format their text files, re-package their databases, "re-purpose" their content, and the world will beat a path to their doors. (No doubt revealing a pent-up demand for stale copy.) Purpose, of course, is not a verb; re-purpose is even less a verb.

Publishing is not just content. Many publishers, in fact, don't even create their content in-house. They employ outside authors, freelances and contributors to write the basic text. It's only when the manuscript gets turned into a product that publishing happens, and that requires a whole roster of people with different sorts of skills:

  • An assignment editor decides what gets created.

  • An author creates the content.

  • A copy editor makes sure the manuscript is publishable.

  • A lawyer checks for trouble.

  • An art director designs the content.

  • An artist illustrates it.

  • A photo editor finds the right images.

  • A photographer takes the pictures.

  • A production editor honchos the work through to final form.

  • A marketing manager packages the product and puts a price on it.

  • An advertising manager gets the word out.

  • A sales rep pitches the product or sells the ads.

  • A distribution staff gets the work to the newsstands, book shelves and broadcast outlets.

  • And an accountant sends the invoice and collects the money.

New media is like old media in five important ways.


The fundamentals of publishing don't change just because the final product is digital. Every new media project should start with these basic questions, in this order:

MARKET IMPACT: Does anyone want this product in electronic form? Can we sell it or distribute it through our existing channels? What's the right price and are there enough people who'll pay it?

EDITORIAL IMPACT: Will the publication communicate better using the tools of multimedia? Are there significant advantages of customization, timeliness, comprehensiveness, searchability, economy or transaction? Will the new version be better enough to make the electronic form worthwhile? Do we have--or can we get--people who can edit for interactivity?

ADVERTISING OPPORTUNITIES: Will our advertisers profit from the direct response features of interactive media? Can they handle it, and will we get new advertisers in the interactive environment? If we don't sell advertising in conventional media. should we start once we go digital? Do we have--or can we get--people who can sell interactivity?

DESIGN IMPACT: Will the design elements of multimedia enhance the graphic presentation of the material? Is electronic access appropriate to our audience? Do we have--or can we get--people who can design for interactivity?

PRODUCTION ISSUES: Do we have the data in ready-to-go electronic form, or can we afford to get it digital? Can we easily convert the production work we're doing for our conventional product? Can we adapt to an electronic production schedule? Do we have--or can we get--people who can design, program and produce for interactivity?

Too many "No" answers -- especially near the top of the list -- could mean that there's no reason to go interactive with this content. Very often new media projects start at the bottom of the list: we've got everything digital, the advertisers want it, and the art director just took a course in multimedia.

New media has six advantages over old media.


It's not enough to say that new media is "interactive." How does interactivity improve the communications process? What makes a CD-ROM, a Flash web site or a demand-printed publication better than ink-on-paper lithography or broadcast television?

CUSTOMIZATION: The principal editorial advantage of new media, customization tools like hyperlinks, reader profile filters, information agents and database marketing help fine-tune a publication to the "audience of one."

TIMELINESS: New media is always faster than old media, collapsing the closing schedules for both editorial and advertising and closing the gap "from brain to mouse to screen."

COMPREHENSIVENESS: No physical library can compare to the mountains of information available on a stack of CD-ROMs, on the Internet or on digital satellite systems. Of course, comprehensiveness goes hand in hand with the next advantage.

SEARCHABILITY: Commanding an intelligent computer to search through a comprehensive database is a major editorial advantage over print, useful for retrieving a nugget of data but more importantly helping the reader sift and filter raw data into useful knowledge.

ECONOMY: Except for way-out-off-hand multimedia projects with too much new video and overly-complex programming, new media is always cheaper to produce than old media. Unfortunately for subscription publications, audiences expect new media to be more economical to purchase in pay-per-view configurations by the episode, by the article or by the paragraph.

TRANSACTION: The most important new media advantage, the transaction feature lets the reader talk back through a newsgroup, order directly from an on-line catalog or buy books, software and music at the click of a mouse.\\


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