In case you missed it, we recently redesigned 99U. And by “we” I really mean Jocelyn GleiJackie BalzerEric Snowden, and John Refeno. Besides a beautiful aesthetic upgrade, the redesign added a blog to 99U named Workbook, bringing us up to speed on a trend that I haven’t seen discussed much: the publication as universe.

When planning the redesign we realized that our features are great for readers looking for “lean back” reading, but what about when they were on the subway killing time? Or just looking for a tiny five-minute break between tasks? Instead, we thought of each reader as multiple people all with difference needs and “reading states.” As more devices are created, the “reading states” of readers will multiply and savvy publishers will rush and meet them with different types of content.

Some of these content types, like events, result in revenue. Others, like email newsletters, result in reader retention which assure the reader visits your universe often. Each part of your universe should cater to the reader depending on their available reading time or attention span. Some common components of a publication universe, in order from least attention to most attention:

  • Killing time: social media, Twitter curation
  • Passive consumption: podcast
  • The morning commute: blog content
  • Lunch break reading: features
  • Lean back reading: long form content, ebooks, “bespoke” content, Kindle singles, subcompact publishing
  • Time shifted: email newsletters, long form content (w/ Pocket or Instapaper)
  • Multi-day commitment: classes, lectures, educational materials, article packages
  • In person: events

The goal of the modern editor is to pull a reader somewhere into the “universe” of options and then facilitate the frequent browsing between each format. As editors we need to make our readers comfortable, whether they are killing time in an elevator or sitting down for some Sunday evening reading on their iPad.

Think of how A List Apart recently added a blog to its long form features. Think of Daring Fireball’s podcastlink posts, and columns. Think of the Atlantic’s short form Atlantic Wirefeature stories, and events. Think of Fast Company’s Co.Create blogmagazine features, and conferences. Each of these meets a reader in several “reading states” and then shepherds them through the entire universe.

Writers and reporters don’t need to be experts in all parts of the universe but they need to be able to produce content for each component. They need to keep a watchful eye on analytics and adjust the editorial offerings according to the changing habits of readers.

On the editorial side, it’s fun to flex writing muscles for each aspect of the universe. From a business perspective, sponsors love packages that include every aspect of the reader experience.

The most successful publications, both independent and corporate-owned, race to own several reader states with quality content. At 99U, our goal is to offer insights to creatives no matter the medium. We chose to focus on a given mission, and are building tools and platforms around that mission to give our readers quality experiences.

Carve out a niche, then build a universe.