Are magazines doomed, too?

Condé Nast folds Portfolio even as it starts Wired in print in the U.K. So which are we to take as the harbinger for the future of magazines?

I hate to be calling doom for yet another medium, but I fear that Portfolio is the better indicator. We’ll see magazines fold and it’s going to be a lot riskier to start new ones to replace them — riskier because, just as on TV and in movies and music, it’s harder to create a blockbuster and consumer magazines depend on the blockbuster economy. Magazines don’t make money until they hit magic numbers of circulation (which comes only after renewals reduce marketing costs) and advertising (which is sold at heavy premiums and that market is bound to suffer both in a recession and against unlimited competition from online). In the U.S. market, subscriptions are so heavily discounted ($1 per issue for a product that can cost $5 or more to print and distribute) and marketing costs are so high (subscriber acquisition can hit $20 or $30) that the risk is only greater.

Entertainment Weekly, my baby, went through an astounding $200 million before becoming profitable. No one is going to invest that kind of money again. If anybody would, it was Condé. Oh, well, so much for that.

A few years ago, I was asked to speak on a panel at a magazine industry meeting. A few days before the event, the organizer called me and said, “Uh, Jeff, are you going to say that magazines are doomed? And if you are, could you not come?” So in a rare moment of preparing for a panel, I actually thought about what I thought and I concluded that magazines weren’t doomed. They have the unique value of slickness and focus that their publishers always brag about. And, I reasoned, magazines already were communities and so they should be perfectly positioned for the community-based internet. Magazines are collections of people who are interested in the same stuff. The challenge for an editor is to figure out ways to enable them to share with each other, to become a platform for that community.

Afraid I was wrong. Or at least, it’s hard to name a magazine that has done a good job becoming that community platform. The problem, as I said of newspapers in relation to GeoCities and MySpace the other day, is that magazines can’t stop thinking of themselves as content. They’re not communities.

If I proposed EW today, I’ve said here before, I wouldn’t make it a magazine, not for a second. It would be a community of criticism about all forms and tastes in entertainment, growing far, far bigger than its razor-thin page-count these days. But those communities already exist online; they’ve organized themselves. They don’t need EW. I hear that EW is suffering as a result. And it’s probably too late to rescue itself. It would pain me if EW followed Portfolio. But it wouldn’t shock me.

Can other magazines save themselves? I still think it’s possible. But then, I said that magazines weren’t doomed.

Mind you, I’m not saying that magazines are going to start dropping like flies and newspapers. When the economy comes back, many will still be able to sell their targeted, engaged audiences to advertisers for a premium … at least for awhile. Some may even manage to pull off a metamorphosis into community platforms and a few high-value titles — see: The Economist — can even grow. But when the weak ones die, there’ll be none to replace them.

And there are so many ready to die. Who needs newsmagazines? Business magazines are suffering the tragic irony of being at the same time more necessary and less supportable because of the financial crisis. Men’s magazines have been folding. Entertainment magazines are dicey. Trade magazines are dropping. And the list goes on and on.

So what about Wired? I don’t know, knowing what you know now about the state of the economy and magazines, would you have decided a year ago or so to start a new one?

The death of Portfolio doesn’t yet presage the doom of magazines. It marks the doom of magazine launches.

: Speaking of Wired.co.uk: Can anyone explain how this story is wired?

  • Aaron deOliveira

    one way that magazine’s are evolving. they’re becoming ultra niche / ultra local.

    http://magcloud.com/

  • Joe

    Portfolio folded because they forgot who bought the ads in their magazine. They railed against excess and for sustainability, yet took ads from luxury brands selling excess. They were never clear on their audience. I loved the first few issues (especially loved the stockbroker story in one of their first issues), but then the editor’s page started sounding high and whiny with no foundation. They bit the advertising hand that fed them.

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  • Steve

    Jeff,

    what is even more surprising, is the decision to fold the website as well. IMHO, this is even more relevant because it proves – one more time if necessary – that we cannot expect old Media Companies to embrace the Web despite all their claims, investments, and attempts. They are miles apart from the Web culture.

    • J

      no business model? Maybe that’s why.

  • http://www.grip.nl/ Willem Buising

    Magazines being doomed? That might depend on the way we look at them. Magazines that aim at small niches might become very succesfull, especially if the also create an online readers- and collectors platform. The makes it possible to reach large amounts of people within the target group through services like Twitter, Blogger, etc.

  • Oliver Greune

    “And there are so many ready to die.” Perhaps first of all those who simply where invented to solve the needs of media buyers and not so much the needs of a focused and interested readership. The relative shelf space will surely be bigger for less mags – even on the web.
    If an ex cathedra concept like publisher driven websites was a good plattform for communities? Who knows by now? But still Tom Glocer seems to be right that magazine publishers still are able to be seeder of clouds, provider of tools and filter of facts – if, yes if, they were relevant and visible (in social and serach) for their audience.

  • http://hemartin.blogspot.com Hugo E. Martin

    I don’t think the Magazine business is over, just the opposite. But the way publishers should create, launch and run them must change radically. See for example what the Publishers do in the Nordic countries, or what smaller but wittier publisher achieve … (e.g. Landlust)

    Large publisher here (in Germany) and certainly the mindset of larger publishers in the US have to adapt …

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  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    What the folding of Portfolio shows is that someone at Conde is wildly out of touch with the realities of budgeting. Folding it has made 85 staff redundant. 85 staff on a magazine that size is insane, and will have made the cost of producing it huge.

    Back when I worked on MacUser UK, we ran a magazine which had about the same pagination as Portfolio, but was published every fortnight. Our total staff, including editorial, adsales, publishing and production, was 20. And in terms of quality, I think we actually did better work than Portfolio – we regularly won our fair share of awards for design, for example.

    I don’t know what US magazine publishing is really like these days, but back in the late 90′s it was notorious on this side of the pond for being over-staffed, flabby and far, far too complacent. The staffing levels of Portfolio make me think that little has changed, at least at Conde.

    • http://www.onemanandhisblog.com Adam Tinworth

      I agree with that – only the closure of our biggest magazines would cause that level of redundancy here, and those titles are producing significantly more pagination weekly than Portfolio was.

  • http://LetsKnit2gether.com eric susch

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this magazine:

    http://magazine.creativecow.net/

    …which started two years ago around an established online community.

  • http://estherarmstrong.wordpress.com Esther Armstrong

    I agree with the comments above. This could just be the beginning of a specialisation period. I think the time for general lifestyle mags (especially in the men’s sector) is over but then again, it is not neccessarily a bad thing.

    More than ever, knowing your reader is a must for successful magazines. I recently did work experience at Men’s Health and I think they are doing a great job at identifying their audience and engaging them.

    Their circulation continues to improve in the ABCs, and they have a thriving community online as seen in their forums. I have written a blog post on the matter here: http://tinyurl.com/c32fvc

    Let me know what you think.

  • http://writerandeditor.co.uk Richard

    Magazines still have two advantages: paper and serendipity. I’m finding that I get more unexpected stuff in my RSS reader as I expand my subscriptions, so I’m concerned that magazines’ ability to surprise their communities of readers is becoming less of a differentiator. Paper remains highly portable, robust, easy on the eye and flexible. But its disadvantages – time from origination to publishing, the fact it’s a static medium, no options for multimedia – are starting to outweigh its advantages.

    I’m a former editor and publisher of magazines. I tried to create a community feel on my last publication. It kind of worked, not least because the audience was basically antithetical to reading stuff online or joining digital communities. But we still went out of business. Advertisers are a fickle bunch and the sheer cost of production, print and distribution made it uneconomical. And you know what? It’s just evolution. If good editorial and design can reach communities in ever more interesting ways, perhaps we shouldn’t mourn mags any more than we grieve over the disappearance of vinyl albums.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    One other thought:

    “But when the weak ones die, there’ll be none to replace them. ”

    From mainstream publishers, perhaps not – but systems like MagCloud mean that micro-niche print publishing will boom.

  • Andrew Windle

    Jeff,

    What about magazines embraced by a similar type of community to the one you mention in WWGD? For example, fast company. Printed on post-consumer paper, and with amounts of online-only content that easily doubles, even triples what is published in the issue. Will they simply be forced to go web-only, or will the strength of the community they’ve builly combined with the user’s ability to influence content (i.e. Fast Cities 2009) be enough to justify those costs?

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  • http://www.rosenblumtv.com Rosenblum

    Ironically, and sadly, I had a meeting with Joanne Lipman a year before Portfolio was launched and just as they were staffing up. It was about creating an online/video version of the magazine in parallel with the print version. Lipman said that they were going to concentrate on the print side and that the online/video, while interesting, was many years in the future. Too bad.

    • J

      how would they ahve made any substantial money out of an online video of the magazine? Is that not the problem?

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  • Brian O’Connell

    The one magazine sector that I know will survive is those bridal magazines. They’re practically a universe unto themselves. Also, maybe arty interior decorating mags. They both have a very high correlation between content and ads- not a coincidence, I think. Most of the rest are doomed.

    Of course, real general interest mags, like Life or the Saturday Evening Post, died long ago. Magazines have been ahead of the curve- compared to other media- on specialization. So it’s not that most of them didn’t know who their audience was. Which suggests that the problem they’re facing really does boil down to paper distribution. Nearly any community of interest that can support a magazine can support a handful of websites, and those websites will be more engaging. It’s the medium.

    • Mike G

      Both of the genres you think will survive have a REASON to be in print. The pictures are better to look at in big spreads than on a screen. Too many magazines work worse than their online equivalents; the ones that survive will be ones that use print. The very first issue of Wired had a great essay on why they were choosing print over, say, CD-ROM. It’s still true– if you use print well, it’s sensual. But very few do.

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  • http://www.ianwaring.com Ian Waring

    I was always bemused by the (relative?) failure of VerticalNet, which tried to build communities around specific business verticals back around 1999-2001. Indeed attempting to follow a magazine business model but without a magazine.

    Any ideas what ever became of them?

    fwiw, i’ve bought Wired most months since Issue 2 in 1993, including the last foray of a Wired UK (which shut down) as well as the current incarnation. The signal to noise ratio is much lower these days that it was in the original’s first year; almost like the Well in print. O’reilly should take it over and mix in a lot of their work on Radar (as well as serialising a lot of the good content on the IT Conversations Podcasts). And trim the signal:advertising ratio a bit also… then you’d have my reading panacea.

    Ian W.

  • http://www.ianwaring.com Ian Waring

    … and Wired should serialise your book also :-)

  • http://www.publishedprinter.wordpress.com Christopher

    Are magazines doomed, too?
    Absolutely…if publishers don’t stop giving everything away for free and start specializing the action/interaction of every medium that they utilize.

    Here is the real problem: publishers can’t seem to understand what other mediums should be used for. Magazines are able to perform many tasks based on content: disseminate written opinion, cover news, interact with readers via Q&A, teach skills, and evoke emotion. This kitchen sink approach is mirrored in their online offerings.

    What magazines fail to realize is that internet users want to do something specific on every site/page. Its how they got to your website in the first place. They sat down at their computer, thought about what they wanted, and told the computer where to go. Internet users are purpose driven. Magazine readers enjoy the experience, which came to them without forethought.

    Now why not provide a specific ability online, something that magazines aren’t able to do well? Don’t give me everything on your website, give me a website that has purpose. And don’t cannibalize what you already do well. You can successfully monetize solutions…as long as the solutions aren’t found everywhere for free.

    See my post on magazines delivered via iPhone.
    http://publishedprinter.wordpress.com/2009/04/28/magazines-on-my-iphone-3g/

  • http://spalpeen.co.uk Conrad

    To be honest, I think the case with Wired UK is that there was always an adequate audience for it over here. If it can work in the US, it can certainly work over here. At a minimum, the UK should have had better distribution of Wired US years ago.

    (Funnily enough, I personally asked Chris Anderson about the dire state of stock for Wired in the UK, several months before the title was announced. He gave me a pretty hard shoulder, which I thought was odd at the time. Now I guess he just thought I knew something I shouldn’t have!)

  • http://www.applemacosx.net Mac OS X

    Doom is is a hard word – I would say the “classic golden days” come to an end. It is only a question of time till printed newspaper and magazines will only survive in niches. Online newspaper and magazines have the chance to get bigger then they were ever. People still want to know what is going on and so they deserve for online news and online magazines.

    PS: the photo of your blog shows a 4 color newspaper offset printing machine – this will be a piece of technic museum – even if it has a computer to plate technology

  • http://www.WithoutWarningCoach.com Rodney Johnson

    Doomed No. Scared Yes…

  • http://www.singularcity.com Marva Marrow

    I think that a magazine needs to reflect their community – not the other way round. I don’t think that magazines (print) are doomed for all time, but for now, definitely they need to go into the trenches and figure out how they can really reflect that community that is their particular audience. I think that local publications will have a better potential to truly reflect these niches — unless it is a magazine directed to people who are dedicated (read: quite fanatical) about a hobby — those will also have a loyal following.

    I think that it is also best if a potential magazine grows their community through a web presence, until the grassroots aspect is strong. Then, when the economy shoots back, they can also venture into print. The key is to have that loyal grassroots community. And the only way to really grow that is online – or if local, with more emphasis, through having face-to-face meetups or events where the community can meet. This is particularly true in a city with urban sprawl like Los Angeles, where it is very hard to meet people, since we are all isolated in our homes or automobile bubbles.

  • Stevenstevo

    I disagree completely with the whole sky-is-falling sentiment towards the magazine industry that apparently is all the rage on the weblogs these days. In reality, Portfolio magazine was never a successful magazine, and it was most certainly not a leader in the industry. It was not even one of the top business magazines. Portfolio’s competition was simply too tough, especially among the other business publications: magazines like BusinessWeek and The Economist, both of which are able to deliver more current content as they were weekly magazines and thus put out 4 times as many issues as did the monthly Portfolio. The semi-monthly Fortune magazine is also very successful. The list goes on: Forbes, Kiplinger’s, Fast Company, Inc., etc. Portfolio also had to go up against some high quality newspapers, like the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and its weekly newsletter, Barron’s. And don’t forget about magazines outside the business segment. Competition is just as strong among luxury magazines, which I would think also compete heavily for advertiser dollars with female magazines like Glamour. As for the entire industry, if you think about magazines like People magazine, EW, Time, Wired, Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated, etc., it becomes pretty obvious that Portfolio was not an industry leader by any stretch of the imagination. I would not even put it in the top 30.

    The loss of Portfolio magazine is simply not a big deal. Even if an industry giant like People magazine went under, there are still 30 other great magazines out there. I guess if three or four went down, then that could mean that another 10+ will collapse as well. Still though, I find a worst-case scenario like this to be highly unlikely. As for the claim that there will not be many new magazines coming out, big deal. You can say the same about any other industry. Almost all companies rise and fall with the economy, and companies also require significant capital to get going.

    As for the online community stuff, that is all hype. Granted, the millions of users on these sites is an impressive feat. However, neither MySpace nor Facebook has even come close to generating significant revenue. In fact, both have actually lost money from day one. I am not sure why, but there are some people that assume MySpace and Facebook will eventually make billions–all in due time of course. I guess I can wait another 5 years to see if their earnings all of the sudden skyrocket like some say. Kind of hard to do though when MySpace’s owner, Rupert Murdock, says he expects things to get worse for MySpace in the immediate future. The magazine industry is struggling just like any other industry. Newspapers are doing far worse, and the television industry has been hurting pretty badly as well. The sad fact is that that everyone is struggling these days.

  • http://siulagi.com itsthelaw

    The natural fit of a magazine’s built-in community affords their continued existence *as long* as they serve said community on the web. One magazine I worked for saw the importance of posting their “Best” lists up on web. Smart move (and this was in 1999). The magazine’s credibility grew stronger improving ad sales in the magazine (and not the web product) since this was an added value for their audience and clients alike.

    And yeah… what was up with that Wired article (and tagged with “Cars”!?). My guess: Conde Nast paid leftovers.

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  • http://www.linuxblog.info Linux Blog

    It is true that content is king and it decides who will survive and who will vanish. Newspaper should review their position and check out what others make better and adapt it. Classical news printing on paper will be past and only survive in niches. People uses the internet more often and so it is normal that they consume and find news also in internet.

  • http://www.worldplenty.com John Banfill

    I started reading magazines years before my parents could afford their first black and white TV. In those days, it was easy to see many examples of what magazines offered that I could not find elsewhere.

    I really do not know what a magazine offers that can’t be found faster, better and cheaper online. At the current time what does a magazine offer that is unique and valuable that cannot be found elsewhere?

  • http://publishingcentral.com michael brooke

    Mr Magazine said it best: newspapers are timely, magazines are timeless.

    If you are into a specific thing, a magazine, like a book is a reflection of you. As Seth Godin says, his books are momentos. They are keepsakes. This is how I structure my magazine. It’s for a small niche. We keep our readers stoked and surprised and we work with a number of established online communities. That’s right folks, we let OTHER online communities be a part of what we’re doing in print and they let me a part of them on line. It’s a win win. After all, no niche publisher has the time to be doing BOTH print and online. If you try, you usually get both wrong.

    The future of magazines is as follows:

    small circulation – 10-50,000 max
    connected with a specific audience
    concentrated – maybe 100 pages max…
    ads and content are 100% focused on the subject
    very small staffs – maybe 1 to 10 people

    or

    huge circulation – 200,000 +
    connected with many audiences
    somewhat larger than 100 pages
    ads and content are wide ranging
    much smaller staff than today

    in short, you are either a ball bearing (small, leaving a huge impression) or a beach ball, (big, seen everywhere, but pretty much bouncing off people’s conscience)

    Ball bearing or beachball…there is no room for something in between…and this is why I am writing a book on this very subject.

  • frankwolftown

    Here’s one reason magazines are failing.

  • frankwolftown
  • Guy Love

    Paper distribution is over. This has nothing to do with content and everything to do with the future generations getting all their information feeds electronically. As older generations fade away, no one is lining up to replace them. This causes advertisers to jump ship which leads to revenue collapse and the downward spiral of cutbacks. Have you looked at the magazine rack in airports recently? They are all paper thin with very few ads. I am suprised they are still surviving at this point and expect most of them to consolidate or throw in the towel (along with newspapers) in the next few years.

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  • http://woip.blogspot.com Patrizia Broghammer

    Well, I thought exactly the opposite.
    Magazines are in my opinion the best product to go online.
    The one that could profit most .
    Why?
    Because they are mostly, or at least a lot, made with images, beautiful images, and, since we are regressing to be a visual society, this was, is and will be the best way to communicate.
    People prefer magazines to books, because reading an article takes a few minutes and that is something you can do always.
    You can also just look and then read.
    Online or on a reader , a virtual product, means cost highly reduced (no expensive paper, no expensive ink, no distribution or at least low distribution cost).
    All of this could be covered by commercials, so that a magazine could be delivered at cost zero and what is cost zero easily finds millions, providing it is a good product.
    Of course good means good for the targeted audience…
    It is not a matter of what, but a matter of how much (it costs).
    I always wondered why NOBODY thought to make a good online magazine…of course free…
    And also a good magazine reader…

  • http://www.thisnewzealandlife.com William Knight

    Given that I spend my working day writing for magazines this article can be somewhat depressing – what will my career be like in 5 years? A common worry for journalists, I guess.

    But I loved this line, and, I can’t agree more.

    “The challenge for an editor is to figure out ways to enable them to share with each other, to become a platform for that community.”

    I might add a corollary, however: it has to be done without utterly changing your focus on your target readership. It’s far too easy to be sidetracked by marginal concerns.

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