Why BTW Summer digital magazine?

The BTW Summer Magazine went live at the touch of a button — three months of calendar and stories about jazz and tap, gardens and songwriters, sculpture and space travel, all headed out into the world. I had come through deadline.

On a warm afternoon at the end of May I was sitting on a log by the river, listening to woodpeckers. It’s a broad log polished smooth by the weather, and I sat on sun-warm wood, listening to the river and thrumming with tiredness.

It had taken weeks. Writing to people and gathering June, July and August calendars from 500 places, going through 2,000 photographs with a generous local photographer, walking around the Shaker village on a blustery morning … since that unexpectedly warm April night when I stood on the porch and the Peepers filled the street with sound from half a mile away, I’d been half living in the summer.

In some ways, this was familiar ground. I used to put together a print summer guide in my time at the Eagle. But in many ways this is new, and I was about to learn one of them the hard way.

In the next few days, as responses came back, I realized some readers thought this website was the magazine. This website has been live since last fall, and I will update it with calendars and stories all summer and all year, but they are two separate publications.

BTW Summer is a 250-page digital book.

It’s put together a set of turnable pages, easy enough to read on a tablet or computer or smartphone. (On a computer it’s also searchable). I designed it and laid it out in Quark, the publishing software I used to use for print magazines.

And now you may be wondering why. The website is a 21st-century magazine, after all. It’s a collection of stories and calendars organized in a common digital form. Why was I hunting images of Wahconah Park at 3 a.m. while my room-mate (God bless her) proof-read the arts roundup? Why build a web magazine in a print-like form?

Well, for one thing, imagine reading 2,000 inches of calendar on this website in one go. This adapted-blog form works well for short posts and photo galleries, and it does a yeoman’s job at feature-length stories, but it isn’t built for longform.

The real answer is simple, though. I like design. I like shaping the look and feel of text and images together and movement through a digital space. And I have the background and tools to do that with layout software. I’m not going to say “print layout,” because layout software works in a digital space, and what I’ve made is a digital magazine.

But I am not a coder. I know about enough html to put in italics or fix a wonky line break. I know something about design in a digital space — fonts, colors, proportions, the way the eye travels, when and how to navigate from page to page. But I can’t translate directly to website design, because I don’t have the knowledge or the tools.

I’m standing in a gap, and I wonder how many people are in here with me. With all the clamor over the last 10 years about the media needing to adapt to a digital world, shouldn’t this have come up? Or is this arroyo hard to see unless you’re in it?

Last fall I was sitting at a coffee shop with Kate Barber, exhibition and program manager at the Williams College Museum of Art. She is a book artist and had recently come from a conference about digital publishing tools, and she told me she came away thinking there simply aren’t many of them. We have two or three limited options for layout software that can create a digital publication — and only one or two options for some way to put the digital publication online so the world can see it.

Some tools I’m intensely lucky to have. I’ve ended up freelancing when blogs are evolving exponentially, and I’ve been able to put together this website fairly simply thanks to wordpress.org (who created the software), C. Bavota (who created this beautiful design) and WPEngine (who hosts the website for me).

But I think if we-the-publishing-world want to get serious about bringing the media online, we have some work to do. Given all the shaking up and consolidating in the media world, I’ll predict with confidence that I’m not alone. There are media people out there with the skill to create in digital space if we had the tools to do it.

We have a model for it. A friend of mine in grad school told me that word processing software used to need the kind of coding knowledge that web design uses now — until someone built software that added another layer, that would let me hit a button to put words in italics instead of typing in <i>say what?</i>

I know websites have an intricate machinery to them, and the more interactive, the more intricate. But we are already automating a great deal. My digital summer magazine has hyperlinks and page links and a fluid navigation system, in .pdf form and online. And my website will allow me to change a few fonts, a few colors and a few configurations with one click. We’re on the edge here, right now.

Sitting by the river with the sun on my shoulders, I wonder how much will change in the media world in the next year, or even before the tadpoles lose their tails.


Photo at the top: A Tanglewood Music Center tuba Fellow rehearses on a sunny day. Photo by Marco Borggreve, courtesy of Tanglewood

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