Time Magazine just made a rash of brash decisions: cutting its rate base from 4 to 3.25 million (now barely ahead of Newsweek’s 3.1) by getting rid of junk circulation; raising its cover price by a buck to a rather ballsy $4.95; cutting five of its eight special demographic editions; and trying to convince advertisers to buy based on the alleged count of readers vs. the actual count of magazines sold. It’s looking bad for the old beast.
Just before I read the Time press release announcing this yesterday (on my Treo, not in print), I ran into my former colleague, Conde Nast Editorial Director Tom Wallace, at FourSquare, and I was downright optimistic about his magazines.
The difference? I think that general-interest magazines may well be fated to fade away. General-interest anything is probably cursed. For the truth is that interest never was as general editors and publishers thought it was, back in the mass-media age. Old media just assumed we were interested in what they told us to be interested in. But we weren’t. We’re proving that with every new choice the internet enables.
Yet special-interest magazines — community magazines, to put it another way — have a brighter prospect — if they understand how to enable that community.
When I spoke on a panel at the American Society of Magazine Editors sometime ago, the guy who invited me asked a favor: “If you’re going to say that magazines are doomed, Jeff, could you not come?” So I thought about it and decided that magazines aren’t doomed, not necessarily.
And mind you, this comes from someone who buys a fraction the number of the magazines I used to. That’s partly because I no longer have an expense account from a magazine-publishing employer, but also because I just found the issues piling up, unread, as only The New Yorker once did, a mountain of guilt in the corner. I love magazines. Hell, I started one. But I’m just too busy reading — or listening or watching — fresher, more focused, more personal, higher interest content on the internet. But some of that is still from or around magazines (see Business Week’s Blogspotting, for example). I still have a relationship with these brands, only not always in print anymore. And even when I do still read the magazine in print, I want a relationship with the magazine — and, more important, my fellow readers — online.
Magazines aren’t doomed if they can figure out that relationship. And it starts here: The editor of a magazine finds the good stuff and the people who make it. That attracts the rest of us, who like the same good stuff they like. That has always been the essence of the magazine value and brand. But now the internet makes it possible for me to find the good stuff my fellow readers have found. In that sense, magazines were the original collaborative filtering algorithm — only I couldn’t see the stuff my fellow readers liked. Now we can, thanks to the internet — if, that is, the magazine in the middle allows it.
The wise magazine will enable its community to speak among themselves. And it will also find ways to extract and share the wisdom of its crowd. This is true not just of magazines but of other, similar brands in other media (The New York Times, The Guardian, 60 Minutes, the Food Network, and most any trade publication. . .). I don’t want to know what the nation’s best-sellers are — the top books in the general-interest mass market. I want to know the best-selling and best-reviewed books among New Yorker or Times or Economist or Guardian readers. I want to know what EW’s community thinks of Borat. I want to see what Advertising Age’s crowd thinks of Time Magazine’s moves.
To gather a community together today and then not enable them to be a community is a waste or worse: It could be fatal to the brand.
I ran into a magazine circulation exec I respect not long ago and he lamented that too many magazines don’t update online nearly often enough with nearly enough good stuff. Others in his job would — and often do — say the opposite; they would fear that a robust internet site would cannibalize circulation. Not this guy; he’s smart. He said that without a strong online relationship with a magazine’s public, he has no opportunity to sell to them, to maintain and build the relationship and thus the brand and the business. Are the economics different online? Of course, they are. But so are the opportunities. At FourSquare, I heard Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg talk about ways they’ve exploded the usage of the service among the same people. Magazines should think that way.
Some magazines — like fashion and design books — will continue in print. Some — like trade publications — will morph entirely online. But in all cases, they must enable their communities to join together online.
So what about Time? Does it have a community? I don’t think so, no more than NBC does or Warner Brothers. Well, somewhat more. But you get the point. What would I do with Time? Man, that’s a tough one. I hear the new boss, Rick Stengel, is a helluva good editor and when I met him at a panel, I was impressed. But it’s one tough job. Can Time become a collection of communities? Can it become a new kind of news service? Can it invent new, broad forms of networked journalism? Can it survive? We’ll see.
What Time did this week is just what TV Guide did more than a year ago when it cut its rate base and junk circulation and reduced its editions and changed its focus to online with new community enabling features like blogs. They can only hope it’s not too late.
: LATER: See friend Rex Hammock on b-to-b magazines’ lead over the masses:
As I’ve blogged here many times, the consumer magazine arena often claims “community” but rarely actually hosts or facilitates or even recognizes it. However, in the business-to-business media, you often find the leading publisher in a vertical will be the same company that puts on the largest seminars, conferences and conventions; collects and analyzes and packages the data; and, yes, even hosts the dominant space on the web in that category.
While B2B media companies may not “be there” yet, they are far ahead of consumer (mass) media companies in understanding community — or, as I’d refer to it in the business context — the marketplace of human beings who are buyers and human beings who are sellers.
Yes, and why shouldn’t there be New Yorker Meetups?
: Michael Parekh adds:
I have the same problem…love the magazines, but am seemingly unable to MAKE the time to attack the increasing pile in the corner on a regular basis.
Much in the same way that by RSS feeds pile up in the hundreds everyday in my blog reader, as do dozens upon dozens of podcasts in my iTunes and on my iPod.
Too much good stuff, way too little time.
Not necessarily an old media vs. new media problem.
Just a new problem for ALL media.
And one of the solutions to that is the link: taking in what your friends and editors tell you is the good stuff. That is a key value of the content community.