In an earlier age, we learned new skills as apprentices to master craftspeople, absorbing expertise by working side by side. Today, though, you might be more likely to learn a new craft or skill from a website or through a social media buddy — or even from a digital magazine.

Traditional print magazines that teach hands-on skills are extending their content and brands into new digital applications that make developing your abilities more like working alongside a pro instead of a static, one-way experience. These digital products present text, audio, video, slideshows and social components of these skills in ways print can’t. Yet as these magazines experiment with new products, they also demonstrate all the challenges magazines face as they develop complex multimedia products that are more than just digital copies of print content.

Virtually Hands-On

Interweave Press, publisher of a variety of art and crafting magazines, launched what it calls an “eMag” in June. The eMag, affiliated with its magazine Quilting Arts, is titled Quilting Arts in Stitches, and covers advanced quilting techniques. The eMag is actually a 320-megabyte application that the user downloads and installs. The download costs $14.97, while a print copy of a typical issue of Quilting Arts is $7.99 on the newsstand.

Once installed, the application runs on the Adobe AIR platform. The clean, colorful design, created with Flash and InDesign, offers multiple ways of navigating and viewing the eMag’s content.

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A page from the Quilting Arts in Stitches eMag includes a photo slideshow

Significantly, this product is not a digital replica of the Quilting Arts magazine. Instead, it combines a custom-designed interface with some magazine-like features, such as a “cover,” an editor’s letter, a table of contents in a sidebar, and numbered articles instead of page numbers. Inside the stories, however, embedded audio, video and slideshows bring the topics to life and give users a close-up view of the quilting skills described.

“When someone is working at their sewing machine, they can have the magazine there, but it’s still a little bit static,” said Pokey Bolton, editorial director of Quilting Arts magazine and for the eMag. “They can’t see hands moving, or their sewing machine working,”

With digital, though, the boundaries are diminished, according to Bolton. “You get this intimate hands-on experience watching someone work in their studio, a master quilter at work.”

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This article includes an embedded video and photo slideshow

In developing the eMag, Bolton says the staff first considered which topics would be the best fit for more “kinesthetic” multimedia presentations. “As an editor, I had to think about it differently,” she said. “This is the deliverable. How am I going to tailor the editorial accordingly? We really wanted to use all the tools, not just make something that was showy just for the sake of having it in digital.”

The quilting techniques covered in the eMag are both technical and artistic, and not easily communicated in print, Bolton explained. In print, the story “would have just been a static experience — some exercises with a caption. But with a video, you see it as a whole. There are certain things you can explore as an editor in a digital format that go above and beyond a printed format.”

The eMag also includes a social component, though it’s not integrated with the usual online social networks. Instead, it provides instructions for a small project that readers are encouraged to make and then trade with other quilters through a “swap” run through the Quilting Arts office. Bolton said this project created “a sense of community” among eMag readers.

Planning for the Future

Though advertising wasn’t included in the first issue, Interweave will offer sponsorship and advertising opportunities in future eMags, and plans to encourage advertisers to create ads that use the unique advantages of the eMag format. The positive feedback on the eMag from the magazine’s existing audience will likely help bring in those advertisers. The print magazine has a circulation of about 80,000, and the eMag sold “a few thousand” downloads in its first few weeks on sale, according to Interweave. However, Bolton reported that, along with the magazine industry, the audience is also trying to adapt to new digital formats.

“Our audience too is trying to wrap their heads around a digital product such as this,” she said. “People love the print magazine, and they love the eMag, and they want to be able to print aspects of the eMag.”

Printing isn’t an option in this eMag, though project materials lists can be saved as PDFs and then printed.

The eMag may also relieve some quilters’ frustrations by offering a nearly hands-on experience of their craft. “If you go to a quilt show, you’re so tempted to touch a quilt, but it’s kind of a rule to keep your hands off,” Bolton said. “But you want to feel that texture. We can replicate that experience and [let users] see that stitch up close.”

Interweave plans to release eMags associated with some of its other print products in the coming year.

Gourmet Live(s)

Another magazine brand to take on a new digital form is Gourmet. Last incarnated in print in November 2009, the legendary magazine will be reborn in fall 2010 as Gourmet Live, an interactive HTML5 application that will offer food-related multimedia with added social features. (I covered the death of the print magazine in a previous MediaShift story.)

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The ‘cover’ of the Gourmet Live application

Though the Gourmet Live demo video on the web shows the application on an iPad and demonstrates its touch-based interface, the application will work on other platforms as well, according to Juliana Stock, creative marketing director for Condé Nast Consumer Marketing. “We intentionally developed it so we’d be able to proliferate it as quickly as we can across a variety of platforms,” Stock said.

The application will include the same kinds of content that Gourmet did in print, including articles and recipes, but will also feature video and photo slideshows. Like the Interweave eMag, the application doesn’t resemble a magazine with “pages” that turn, but instead allows the user to touch and swipe photos and icons to operate the application. Some content will be drawn from Gourmet’s archives, complemented by new content developed for the application.

The application will use readers’ individual food and cooking interests to shape their experience. A novel component of Gourmet Live will be its “gameplay” approach of selecting and pushing content to the user. The application features real-time curation, meaning that it will constantly modify its content in response to the user’s preferences, information, current location, past experience in the application, and so on.

“Based on a variety of variables, we can serve the user a different experience every time,” said Stock, noting that this makes the application feel more game-like to its users, rather than simply a fixed document.

Another unique aspect of Gourmet Live will be its social features, Stock said, which will permit users to share content with their existing networks. Users will sign on using Facebook or Twitter. This social component, according to Stock, is intended to “parallel the social aspects of a meal.”

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A still from the Gourmet Live demo video shows its planned integration with Facebook

Gourmet Live is also planning to incorporate sponsored content from advertisers into the application that ideally will feel like “part of the experience,” Stock said.

Parallel Projects, Same Challenges

Craft and cooking magazines seem to be perfect genres for experimenting with shaping formerly print content into compelling, useful digital products. The Interweave eMag and Gourmet Live projects reveal some of the difficult decisions magazine publishers are having to make as they create innovative digital products.

Those challenges include the choice of platform (for example, Adobe versus HTML5), the selection of the best content for the chosen format, the integration of dynamic and interesting advertising, and the development of social features to maximize readers’ desire to interact around the magazine’s content. Because there isn’t an established path to success in any of these areas yet, publishers have to stay flexible and explore alternative routes.

“I come from a print background, and I’m learning alongside every other editor and publisher in this business who’s adjusting to this digital age – to the iPad, to having all kinds of readers, to what people want,” said Bolton of Quilting Arts. “It’s a paradigm shift in thinking, to really understanding all the things you can do in digital. We’re trying to articulate something that really hasn’t been done yet.”