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Friday, February 04, 2011

Beer West's Cool New Tech: the Salvation or Death of Magazines?

I will say this about the new technology Beer West employs in their debut issue: it's really cool. Last night at a gala fete, Megan Flynn (editor/publisher of Beer West) and Bruce Davis (CEO of Digimarc) celebrated the dawn of a new age in publishing. And while there may be fits and starts, I think this is more than just boasting: the presentation showed a glimpse of our near future--if perhaps not the final stage of content consumption.

The Tech
I hope Bill Night, who is technically-inclined and who also saw the presentation, explains the technical aspects better than I will here. But in short: Digimarc, a company in Beaverton, has developed a way to embed a digital watermark in any printed document--newspapers, magazines, decals, temporary tattoos. Newer smart phones (not antique 3G iPhones) and read these watermarks, which are linked to other content. We tend to think of the cyber world as purely online, but phones will explode that sense of things. With this technology, the links (or the crass shorthand, "payoff") can take you to a website, but they can do a lot more, like linking straight to videos, Google maps, coupons, phone apps. Whatever, in short, you can already access on your phone. (The link isn't a URL, but a number that a server somehow recognizes.) Digimarc charges the content provider for the link at a flat rate, whether fifty or a million people access it. It's also possible to embed the watermarks--which are invisible to the eye, by the way--in webpages.

It's fairly straightforward to see how a magazine might harness the technology. After reviews of brewpubs and restaurants, you might find a link to a Google map for directions. Story excerpts or interviews could lead to longer versions online. Businesses could offer special coupons or deals through advertisements. Content might lead to short videos. And so on.

But more broadly, the Digimarc technology has manifold applications. We're slowly going to move away from content that gets published or printed, placing this information instead on back-end servers accessible mobily through smart phones and computers. Imagine brew fests where the beer descriptions are accessed via phone where you can get extras like brewery videos. I could imagine advertisements becoming suddenly relevant again. A brewery could offer specials to readers of certain publications, for example. Beer West may be pioneering the technology, but its applications go way beyond print media.

Future of Publishing and Writing
I do feel a bit like a Brontosaurus from the late Cretaceous period though, suffering through his first bad winter. Magazines are are dying technology, and Megan is making a bid to take them into the 21st century. I can imagine scenarios in which the technology either makes magazines relevant again, or hastens their decline. And I can also imagine scenarios in which the act of creating content becomes more valuable or a whole lot less. In the past decade, we've gone from a world where all articles were in mags and newspapers to one where they came from blogs, and now from Twitter and Tumblr. The interest in long-form journalism (or long form anything) is changing. The ability to put nearly the entire wealth of human information in the palm of one's hand is super cool--but does tend to devalue the need for yet more jabbering from writers. So while I find all of this fascinating and interesting as a consumer/reader, as a writer ... hey, does anyone feel that draft?

In Which I Praise Megan Flynn
Starting a magazine is gutsy work. I admire Megan for working so hard to make Beer Northwest a success, and I really admire her for trailblazing this new technology. Oregonians are shameless in the way we promote Beervana, and yet, people like Megan keep giving us reasons. Perhaps one day she will be the Ted Turner of beer media--and no one will be surprised that Portland was where it all started. Cheers, Megan, and good luck--

(And keep hiring writers to do nice, loooooong pieces.)


  1. And I thought it was cool when I could write my weekly beer column and send it, via dial-up modem, from the hospital to the newspaper when my son was born in 1988.

  2. This tech has been around for a year or two. It's being used in different ad campaigns here and there, but it really hasn't caught on at all. As more and more users get higher tech phones, it might, but it will definitely take a while if and when it does.

  3. Ah, I knew you looked familiar last night!

  4. Not a bad magazine. Good toilet reading material :)

  5. You forgot to mention the part about no Oregon beer being poured at the Beer West kickoff party. LAME, whatever the excuse.