I see that my baby, Entertainment Weekly, has a new editor, its fourth: Jess Cagle, who was part of the launch team at EW (when he was known as “young Jess”). My congratulations to him.
Posts about magazines
John Koblin writes a v good piece in this week’s Observer on the state of magazines online post-crash and it’s a mixed totebag with some magazines – The New Yorker seems to be the poster child – getting it at last but its parent company not getting it – indeed throwing ‘it’ on the ground and stomping on it:
“We work in the high-end market,” said our Condé Nast source. “We’re going to stick to it and we might be the last one standing, but that’s our philosophy. The Web isn’t really a priority.”
Ouch. My emphasis. Having worked on their online sites in the earliest days – and then suffering through no shortage of the infamous Conde Nast politics, taking my share of spike heels in soft tissue – I think this is a pity.
I’ve long believed that magazines should have great potential online because they already have communities of shared interest. And though magazines still – today – have franchises and value in print, it would be foolish, even suicidal to ignore other media already overtaken by the internet tidal wave. Music drowned. TV learned from that and started streaming online. Newspapers are going down for the third and last time. Magazines haven’t learned from that. The glossy monthlies may think they’re safe because they’re glossy but Time Magazine used to be huge and now it’s so thin I could use it to cut cheese. The weeklies, with their high costs and general interests, are dying just behind newspapers. Will the monthlies be next? I wouldn’t gamble against it, as some magazine publishers are doing.
That’s the provocative headline I saw in Folio’s report from its conference and a speech by Meredith president Jack Griffin. The fuller context:
As a result, the company invested in its interactive and integrated marketing businesses–spending roughly $600 million since 2002 on launches, acquisitions and building out its existing Web sites, Griffin said, as well as redefining its editorial hiring approach. “We don’t hire editors anymore,” he said. “We hire content strategists.”
I’m not sure what that means. But it made for a good headline.
Magazines won’t die. But I wonder how many new ones will be born. House & Garden is folding. Business 2.0 is dead. Ditto Jane, Cargo, ElleGirl, Teen People — all relatively recent launches. A launch can easily cost $40 million before break-even. Entertainment WEekly, my baby, went through $200 million before turning profitable (that wasn’t my fault!). It’s a $300-million-plus-a-year franchise now. But you can bet that it wouldn’t be launched today. Nor should it. EW should and would be a web network instead if I had my way.
So the question is: Who will have the balls to start a new magazine today?
Oh, once you already have one, if it’s profitable and if you’re smart, it can still prosper, especially if it learns how to gather and serve its community online. So I don’t think those magazines will die. But starting a new one? That’s just too high risk.
In London, I’m seeing freesheets turn into magazines. There’s a free men’s magazine and a free sport magazine. They also bring challenges: mainly distribution and, I’ll bet, ad rates associated with something given away. But they don’t have the incredible costs of subscriber acquisition; they don’t hang on their churn and renewal numbers; they aren’t building big brands. They’re just slick and free.
If there ever was a magazine that should have been primarily online and primarily a community, it was Business 2.0. But no, it’s dead now. And that’s a shame.
Why the hell it didn’t start online or transition to online is beyond me. Business 2.0 should not have been a product but a community; it could have been the magazine that shows how that’s done. It even had a community on Facebook eager to save it. But, sadly, this magazine was made by a 1.0 company that just didn’t understand how to think like a place instead of a thing.
This being a product of Time Inc., I suspect that politics also played a role. (That’s on my mind as I teach my CUNY course in entrepreneurial journalism and for the first class, I took the students through the saga of starting Entertainment Weekly.) Time Inc. refused to sell Business 2.0 to Mansueto Ventures, publisher of Fast Company and Inc., which are competitive. And Fortune, inside Time Inc., is also competitive. So out went the baby with the bathwater. Too bad.
Nick Denton has wanted his Gawker Media to be the plugged-in Conde Nast. He has even talked about having the same number of sites as Si has magazines. But now he bites the hand that inspires him with the antimatter to the matter of 4 Times Square: Jezebel, Celebrity, Sex, Fashion without airbrushing. It even comes with a manifesto:
Basically, we wanted to make the sort of women’s magazine we’d want to read, a magazine that would never actually see glossy paper because big-name advertisers and the publishers who kowtow to them don’t much like it when you point out the vulgarity of a $2000 handbag. Women deserve some of the blame here: if men ever bought $2000 handbags, Esquire and GQ might be as bad — and profitable — as Glamour and Vogue. . . .
[W]omen’s magazine covers display what are essentially female forgeries, smothered in makeup, lit and fanned and shot with equipment that could be eBayed to finance an Ivy League education, and computer-aided-artistry involving heavy airbrushing, contouring and rearranging to make hips look leaner and eyes that extra-special, inhuman hue of aquamarine. . . .
When a magazine editor highlights a must-have new creme eyeshadow, pore clarifying serum or sporty little capelet, she not only probably got it for free, she also probably got a meal out of it, and a celeb-studded party, and possibly a trip to Miami to learn of its merits from a carefully cultivated crop of experts, and oh yeah maybe a video iPod from the grateful publicist (with whom she is BFF!) Magazine editors are so buried in free shit that they don’t even realize how much they get, that when the time comes for them to exhort you to invest in the new important color that isn’t black they actually believe their own hype. The truth: black goes with everything, and you probably don’t need any more assistance going broke. . . .
It’s such a hip idea, Si might do it.
I was given an exclusive preview of the web site for Conde Nast’s Portfolio magazine, which has had all its business-publication competitors buzzing, wondering what they could be up. It’s set to launch online and on newsstands next week. I
But before I tell you what I saw, I need to unravel my Gordian knot of disclosures, conflicts, and caveats in this story: I worked for 11 years for Conde’s parent company, often with CondeNet (which is not running Portfolio’s site). I had lunch with the Portfolio guys early on, giving them free — meal aside — political advice. I still consult for titles at Conde and Advance. Portfolio is working with Inform, a competitor to Daylife, a venture where I work. I ended up pitching the professional education services of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach. And I know people working for all their competitors. Because of all that and the grain of salt the size of Utah you’d have to take with my views — and because I didn’t get to dive into the site on my own but was guided by Portfolio.com Managing Editor Chris Jones and General Manager Ari Brandt — I won’t review it so much as give you a preview.
My first reaction is that it’s very content-y, very magazine-y: stories, pieces, photos, their stuff as the value, the center of the universe. I understand that, but for this new magazine — and others that are for various reasons breaking away from old partnerships and rebuilding (e.g., Hearst, post iVillage) or losing their print companions (e.g, Premier, post profit) — I think there is a tremendous opportunity to reinvent the magazine relationship with the people formerly known as the audience, to enable the wisdom of the crowd, to put them at the center. But that’s my agenda (another caveat). Besides, there isn’t a community here yet.
Having said that, Portfolio is doing some things quite right. Start with the fact that all the content of the magazine, with the exception of a few difficult-to-translate graphics — will come online the same time that the magazine goes on sale. That’s just not done at many magazines and that hurts them every time a new reader comes to find an article. In Portfolio’s case, they’re all new readers. The site creates lots of content just for online. It also enables comments on every article and every blog post with community powered (like a fair number of other sites lately) by Pluck. They have a stable of bloggers, three of whom write for the magazine, the rest don’t, in areas such as politics, technology, entertainment, travel, and fashion. (Yes, they cover fashion. It’s Conde Nast, remember.) One of their bloggers is a name we blog people know: Felix Salmon. He’s the one who will still blog outside. (I would have set up a loose network with a score of Felixes, all writing wherever they write; that’s the beginning of the community I was looking for earlier.) The site does not try to replicate the news that business readers already know but links out to news elsewhere at Portfolio’s competitors; for this, they are using Inform to display headlines from top sources in various slices. They seem to know what they’re not; they’re also not offering portfolio services (yes, it’s a name challenge). Another Advance division, American City Business Journals, is providing local business coverage with stories hosted at Portfolio. And they are using Nielsen Buzzmetrics to track blog talk about top executives — though, oddly, you can’t then link out to that talk (yes, of course, I looked askance at that). For a big, albeit new magazine, I’d say that’s a decent collection of reasonably web-smart decisions.
So how do the site and the magazine view business? From what I can tell, in buckets of my own labeling, I see equal doses of executives-as-celebrities and business-as-lifestyle with some efforts to add in some business-y data with magazine-y voices. Here, it’s OK to both earn and spend a lot of money. In fact, it’s encouraged.
Though all those buzzing competitors wonder what room is left in this crowded and — in ad terms — shrunken field, David Carey, the head of the business, sees an unmined opening. I’ll need to see a few issues to decide whether I agree, but at the outset, I don’t disagree. My prescription for Wired magazine years ago (pre-Chris Anderson) was to make it an online, digital lifestyle magazine from the kind of taste-making perch Conde Nast always occupies: travel as lifestyle (CN Traveler), food as lifestyle (Gourmet, Bon Ap), overpriced furnishing as lifestyle (AD), sex and thin thighs as lifestyle (Glamour). Is there room for business as lifestyle with executives as celebrity role models? Maybe there is. Will there be plenty to ridicule among the recently rich? I hope so.
When you come to the site, you’ll see what they say are the five top stories shaping the market now. With it, they boast, will be a Conde-class photo. They’ve emphasized photography from the beginning. I have to say I still don’t quite get that. Yes, in its day, Fortune had magnificent photography, much of it iconic to its age. But now, in the post-post-post Life Magazine era, I’m not sure photography is so universal in its topical appeal. There’s only so much you can do with craggy-faced moguls. On the home page, you’ll see what they call a well — magazine-y talk — promoting their features, online and print, and promos for their blogs. Inside, they cover executives with feature stories, videos, and a nice little feature annotating what’s in a mogul’s office. (Pardon me a moment’s nostalgia: In the prototype for Entertainment Weekly, we had a similar feature explaining everything that dressed the set of Murphy Brown. It was always the thing that made people say wow. This is equally fun but now it’s all Flashed up.) They have spottings of CEOs on the red carpet. They have resource links for the overcompensated (my adjective) CEO — plastic surgeons, security firms, and white-collar prison-prep firms that executives recommend — and survival guides to plugging boardroom leaks and more modern-day inconveniences. Executives are busy, so they don’t review but summarize books — c-level CliffsNotes. They have profiles of 100 top executives and of 1 million companies. They cover careers — job of the week, profiles of headhunters. They work with Conde Nast Traveler (not CondeNet’s Concierge) to provide travel guides to more than a dozen cities aimed specifically at the first-class road warrior. And, given that this is Conde, they cover culture and lifestyle: food, arts, sports, and stuff (when you have $400 to burn on a shirt, here’s where to light the match). All this is sprinkled with cute Flash aps, slick video, and, again, photos.
The first issue of Portfolio, the magazine, comes out next week but the next doesn’t come out until September. This, Carey explained, enables them to better sell advertising into early issues and to sell subs; it’s how Conde launches magazines lately. But between the first and second issue, Portfolio’s site will keep churning all summer. And it has plenty of people to churn: 15 edit staff, 15 tech staff, 15 business staff, plus lots of freelancers. That’s huge. I guess it takes big money to cover big money.
I’ll be curious to see your reviews when the site and magazine come out next week.
I had breakfast this morning with the leadership of TimesOnline.co.uk talking about innovation and the subject was the same yesterday morning at breakfast with the Project Red Stripe team at the Economist: six people — from editorial, classified, marketing, data sales, technology — who have been given six months, $200,000, and the freedom to use any content from any Economist property to come up with something new for the magapaper. They made it onto the team by applying and sharing their ideas. Their only instructions: to make it innovative and put it on the web. They say they will know they have succeeded when they present their big idea and get someone saying, “I don’t get this at all.”
I am hearing the smart people in media — those who do get it — talking urgently about innovation. It’s almost to the point where that is the thing the most value, that is the commodity over which they are competing (but, thank goodness, there is no scarcity at work here). I don’t hear them talking as much about getting another new print subscriber — so much for that — as I hear them racing for innovation ahead of the other guys.
The Project Red Stripe team and I started off with a debate about blogging. The Economist is blogging but, in Economist tradition, they are doing so anonymously. I said this is a clash of orthodoxies. Blogs are conversations with people. The irony is that the other side of this debate came from the guy who got on this team by pushing blogging and who acts as the team blogger, Tom Shelley. He defends the Economist voice as a human voice of its own. Fun discussion. We talked about community and they raised provocative, Economistian questions about the fragility of communities and the value. And more.
Afterwards, I questioned Alan Rusbridger and Carolyn McCall of the Guardian in front of the Online Publishers Association about the pace and culture of change. I asked Alan whether he is more worried about changing too much or too little. No doubt, he said, he worried about changing too little. But read his principles again; he is not changing to throw out the value of journalism but to preserve and advance it. At this morning’s OPA, I got into the predictable, well-rehearsed conference tussle with Martin Nisenholtz of The Times — we should take the show on the road — about blogs and MSM, but what it really was about was centralized architecture (the value of coming to The Times, what I now call the Yahoo model) vs. decentralized, distributed structure (going to where the people are; the Google model). The question is how the fundamental model, the architecture of media and information is changing. It’s important to keep in mind that change should not be sought for change’s sake. Nor innovation. But the only way to change successfully as the world changes around us is to innovate. Thus the race.
What makes a week in London so damned exciting for me — professionally and intellectually invigorating — is the competitive race for innovation I see all around here. It has been a great week.
: LATER: Demonstrating the point, Shane Richmond of the Telegraph — with whom I breakfasted three days ago (video when I get near good bandwidth) — notes Rusbridger’s speech about shifting the Guardian to 27/7 preeminent-web journalism and argues that they got there first:
The Guardian will be following us into integration. . . . Alan Rusbridger’s statement to staff yesterday contained the ‘draft principles of 24/7 working’. Almost all of them are already in practice here, where we work on a ‘web first’ basis.
It amused me. These guys are all rushing to innovate first. That is healthy for newspapering, for no matter who brags about starting it, good ideas are good ideas and if someone does it first others will quickly follow. And as I said above, innovation is not a scarce resource. So have at it. If we’re smart in America, we’ll watch and copy, too.
: LATER STILL: Just got a link from the Economist Red Stripe team to their invitation to submit ideas to them. That openness is smart. The pity is that the damned lawyers got to them with dreaded terms & conditions, which makes it quite unappetizing to submit things to them on their form, giving up rights and your first born. I’d suggest that a better way to share is openly on your own blog, which they are free to read and to use as inspiration and should still — as they will with their form — give credit where it is due. Indeed, if the idea is open, so will the discussion be and any good idea can get even better. If you want to innovate, follow Shakespeare’s advice: Kill the lawyers first.