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A media innovator on the future of storytelling

A media innovator on the future of storytelling

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During "the last heyday of print," Jim Gaines had the reins at some of the country's top magazines. Now, as print publications deal with a rapidly changing media market, Gaines answers with his own digital publishing company.

During "the last heyday of print," Jim Gaines held the reins at some of the country's top magazines, serving as editor of Time and People and as editor and publisher of Life. Now, as print publications deal with a rapidly changing media market, Gaines answers with Story River Media, his forthcoming digital publishing company.

We spoke by phone recently about the future of storytelling.

Why did you leave print media?

It wasn't because I thought there was anything wrong with print. I had run my course. I had been the editor of People, Life and Time and then the corporate editor at Time Inc. and another guy got the job as editor-in-chief. As these things go, the "also-rans" tend to leave. I left and wrote books for the better part of a decade and consulted to magazine companies abroad. We were living in Paris for six years. I worked mainly for Conde Nast International. Then I saw something called FLYP and thought, "This looks like the future of what I used to do." I had really thought there was nothing for me to come back to in the magazine world, in the periodical storytelling world, and then I saw FLYP. I signed on with them [as editor] and we moved back to the states. I worked with them for the next 18 months.

You left FLYP to launch Story River Media?

We moved to Washington and I had been commuting to New York because I loved the work. Finally it seemed like time to start by own thing. I started my own company here in Washington doing a different business model, but doing the same work of digital storytelling.

How will Story River Media work?

What we intend to do is publish digital narratives for all kinds of people, including print publications, but also governments and institutions of higher learning and NGOs and corporations -- anybody really with a story to tell that can be told better in all media at once than just paper and ink. I have learned from my years as a storyteller in print and working intensely in multimedia how to keep media from tripping over each other. That's the real problem in multimedia: How do you integrate audio, video, animation and info-graphics in a way that's not confusing, but actually synergistic? It's all those media working together in the service of a single story.

Do you think that if print media outlets figure that out they won't remain in the dire straits that they're said to be in now?

I honestly don't think anybody knows anything yet. We're in the middle of a revolution and it's very hard to see how things are going to come out. Print media are going to have a hard time whether they adapt to the iPad or not. Generally when a new medium happens, it's products that are indigenous to that medium that tend to prevail rather than products that are imported. One of the books I wrote in my time away from magazines was on the American and French Revolutions. One of the things you learn when you study revolutions is that large property owners don't make good revolutionaries. Print media are very large property holders in this space. It's not surprising that they're having a hard time adapting and I'm not sure the outlook is much better even given the iPad. The real job for this moment is to re-imagine the world of media for digital broadband, not to try to re-purpose what we're doing in a new space.

What's your advice for editors and publishers of print media?

Spend money you don't have doing things you don't know how to do with an absolute freedom from all of the experience and knowledge that you gained from doing what you do. Talk about a difficult proposition. That's the only way I think an established media company can catch up to a start-up. The start-up is starting without these preconceptions. Start a skunkworks far from your main office and let them be free from your culture. Allow them to think freely about this digital world because the products that are going to prevail are going to be created for it.

What do you think today's print media brands will look like in 10 years?

Some will survive in print. I don't think print is by any means dead. Some specialized publications will find a way to digital relatively unchanged, but I'm talking about narrow vertical kind of magazines. The future for general interest magazines is tough, particularly as digital broadband starts tracking rich media advertising, by which I mean something more like television advertising but interactive so you can click and buy and shop. That advertising hasn't really started to pour forth, but when it does the pressure on print advertising could be even worse.

What is your advice for journalists?

I do think that print journalists should study the multimedia universe: video, information graphics, graphic design, the changes in software. But I'm not one of those people who think that print journalists need to know how to shoot video. When this revolution is even semi-accomplished, there are going to be good jobs in journalism. In the meantime, there are new models emerging elsewhere. Revolutions are bloody and painful. There are a bunch of us out there who are trying to create jobs for journalists, but it's difficult. The skill sets have moved.

Having studied revolutions, when do you think this revolution, as you call it, will end?

It'll be years. I think 10 years from now we'll be in a completely different media universe. It's very difficult right now to know what it will look like, but the products that prevail will be products that maximize the use of broadband and the media that can be brought to bear there in ways that we can't even imagine right now.

Photo: Jim Gaines

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure