Posts about magazines

Curtains down

Premiere magazine is folding (cough) going online. Almost 20 years ago, when it launched ahead of Entertainment Weekly, we at Time Inc. fretted that it would get in the way. The business guys considered buying it but passed, saying the business plan wouldn’t work. Well, it worked for a few years. What didn’t work was transitioning its community and content and value to online years ago. They still thought like a magazine. And now it’s as good as gone. Let other magazines be warned: If people would rather talk about your subject matter online, then you’d better be there to help them do what they want to do. Your community is there, with or without you.


Andy Plesser of Beet TV made the mistake of handing me a microphone at Always On, but I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Whitaker, former editor of Newsweek and new the overseer of the future at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, and my friend David Weinberger, author of the soon-to-be-released Everything is Miscellaneous. Whitaker, part I:

Whitaker, part II:


About Time

Of course, we feel bad for the 289 people who lost their jobs at Time Inc. yesterday, but the place was — and always has been — incredibly inefficient.

When I went to People for a tryout in the ’80s, they were dubious: We don’t hire newspaper people, they said with a sneer. But they gave me a shot. The first day, I was given 30 pages of correspondents’ notes and wrote a 400-word story in the morning. Piece of cake. I was a newspaper rewriteman used to writing a handful of stories a day and then a columnist writing 1,500 words a day, six days a week. I asked for the next story. They had nothing. For five days straight, it was the same tale. At the end of the week, they offered me the job. But one of the old hands from Time Inc. pulled me aside and growled, “Don’t ever do that again.” I couldn’t figure out what he was telling me until I arrived and sat in a meeting of writers with then-Managing Editor Pat Ryan as she told them, “Listen, people we really need to improve productivity; I expect you all to get up to writing one story a week.”

Mind you, once reported by a cadre of correspondents and written by a staff writer in New York, it was edited (read: rewritten) by a senior editor and edited (yes, rewritten), by an assistant managing editor, and then edited (and, with surprising freqency, rewritten) by the managing editor. And then the research came along to try to correct all the errors this process inserted in the story. (This is how People famous declared Abe Vigoda dead; he was next see in an ad in Variety holding up a copy of that magazine while sitting up in a coffin.) And alongside all this, there were photo researchers and editors and layout artists and production people galore — all to perfect that 400-word tome about some small moment in life. Oh, and to make sure they had the very best 400-word celebrity haiku, they “slashed” two to four stories for every slot in the magazine — that is, they went through this entire process for at least twice as many stories as would actually be printed.

I left people in the late ’80s to start Entertainment Weekly (where I proudly started a weekly magazine with a total edit staff of 60 — fewer editorial staffers than any monthly magazine in the company). I returned about a year ago to talk to the staff about blogs and I was gobsmacked at how huge it had grown: One floor had become two; the place was jammed with people, all doing essentially the same job we had done 20 years before, quite inefficiently, with too many people even then.

So it’s hard to imagine that the layoffs will hurt. They will change the tone of the magazines as stories are now to be reported, written, and researched by single authors. The point of that entire Time Inc. system was to homogenize the style, to make it all sound like Time or People, no matter who wrote it. But now Rick Stengel, ME of Time, is filling the book with columnists: with distinct voices. And People is closing bureaus filled with full-time reporters (rather than writers).

But looming over all this is the fate of magazine, especially the newsmagazine. I’ve been arguing that magazines with communities can be in good shape if they learn to enable those communities to share their knowledge and passions — and that will happen online, not in print. But I also argued that general-interest magazines could be doomed in the age of the mass of niches.

‘Radical’ transparency

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, puts forth the means of what he calls radical transparency. Pardon my blog triumphalism, but I think it takes the culture he has learned in the blog world and tries to lay it over the big-media world. And that is good.

But I do think the truly radical transformation would be to stop looking at the magazine as a thing — a product in print or online — but as a community, for that is what magazines really are and always have been: people who rather around the stuff they all like or need. See my earlier blather on the notion here. The point is that what you really want to do is open the windows on either side of your house and let the people standing around talk directly to each other, with or without you. You do your job, still, creating some stuff that people want to gather around. But then you enable them to share more. And now you have a new role — helping them. So you end up bigger than a magazine.

That said, I like Anderson’s tactics and I think they’ll work:

1) Show who we are. All staff edit their own personal “about” pages, giving bios, contact details and job functions. [e.g. -ED] Encourage anyone who wants to blog to do so. Have a masthead that actually means something to people who aren’t on it. While we’re at it, how about a real org chart, revealing the second dimension that’s purposely obscured in the linear ranking on a traditional masthead? . . .

2) Show what we’re working on. We already have internal wikis that are common scratch pads for teams working on projects. And most writers have their own thread-gathering processes, often online. Why no open them to all? Who knows, perhaps other people will have good ideas, too. . . .

3) “Process as Content”*. Why not share the reporting as it happens, uploading the text of each interview as soon as you can get it processed by your flat-world transcription service in India? . . . After you’ve woven together enough of the threads to have a semi-coherent draft, why not ask your readers to help edit it? . . .

4) Privilege the crowd. Why not give comments equal status to the story they’re commenting on? Why not publish all letters to the editor as they’re submitted (we did that here), and let the readers vote on which are the best? We could promise to publish the top five each month, whether we like them or not: “Harness our tools of production! Make us print your words! Voting is Power!” . . .

5) Let readers decide what’s best. We own Reddit, which (among other things) is a terrific way of measuring popularity. Why should we guess at which stories will be most popular and give those preferential treatment? Why not just measure what people really think and let statistics determine the hierarchy of the front page?

Ah, but those two tactics still separate the magazine from the crowd. It’s still about commenting on what the magazine does (‘but enough about you…’). Go the next step, Chris: Recognize that the crowd has stuff to say that may have nothing to do with what the magazine may be working on but that is of value to the rest. Or as a group, they have information that is valuable to the group. I’ve been saying I want to know the best-selling books among New Yorker readers. I also want to know the best-selling phones among Wired readers (and why).

The magazine is the crowd.

6) Wikifiy everything. The realities of publishing is that at some point you push the publish button. In the traditional world, that’s the end of the story. It is a snapshot in time, as good as we could make it but inevitably imperfect. The errors (and all articles have them) are a mix of commission and omission–we hope for the best yet brace ourselves for the worst. But what if we published every story on a wiki platform, so they could evolve over time, just like Wikipedia itself? . . .

Believe it or not, I almost think that last one may go too far. There is still a role for authorial responsibility. That doesn’t mean control — yes, by all means, show us the corrections and suggestions ,but then do the work to verify and edit. I don’t think you can necessarily hand over your work to the public but you can , indeed, improve your work with the public.

Again, I think the starting point is not what the magazine had but perhaps what the magazine doesn’t have: A wiki of helpful knowledge the public wants to share. And then the editors can come in and polish and verify and report. So then the editors becomes the handmaidens of the crowd. Now that’s radical transparency.

The Bivings Report surveys magazine sites.

After finishing the research, it became clear that magazines are not making use of Web 2.0.

Despite their failure in terms of Web features, it should be recognized that magazines have taken on a more effective general strategy than newspapers when it comes to the Internet. Instead of replicating printed content online, as newspapers do, magazines have made efforts to publish unique, Web specific, and easily digestible materials on their websites. In this way, magazines are using the Internet as a supplement to, rather than a replacement of, their printed publications. Magazine websites limit their article content and focus on pushing customers to purchasing printed subscriptions.

Here was my advice to magazines.

Thoroughly modern magazines

The latest Glenn & Helen Show talks with folks from Popular Mechanics about running a magazine the modern way, as more than a magazine.

Whither magazines?

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.

Out of Time

David Carr imagines Time Warner without Time Inc. The old magazines are a drag on corporate performance. They have not managed to start new successes. They’ve started selling off their lesser titles. Can a sale of the publishing division be next? Sure, it can. Did it need to be this way? No, it didn’t. But Time Inc., like other magazine companies, never managed to figure out the internet. Oh, they tried. Who can forget — try as they might —

Magazines could have had a unique benefit in the internet if they had thought of themselves not as slick paper but instead of networks of interest and information. The New Yorker is a good illustration: David Remnick et al pick good shit. People like the shit they pick. So they gather around and subscribe. That was as far as the relationship could go in years past. But The New Yorker is more than its content. It is truly a community of smart people, a wise and select crowd, who all like the same shit. And all those people could join in and contribute to the community. Wouldn’t you like to know the books that New Yorker readers are reading? Wouldn’t you be eager to have them recommend articles they’ve read elsewhere? Wouldn’t you enjoy contributing yourself to that exchange? I would. And would this make my relationship with the magazine, its brand, its value, and its community stronger? Yes, it would.

I ran into a few smart magazine executives I respect last week and they are frustrated that magazine brands don’t have greater presences online because they want to build stronger relationships, which will yield better business. Sadly, not many in the business view it this way. They’re still thinking content and control. They’re still thinking centralized. Break out and think distributed and think community and new things become possible.

Newsmagazines are particularly screwed in a world of commodity news (who needs one-size-fits-all Time to give you the news — late — when you have friends to point you to what you really care about?). But even they could have become more than just repositories of content their own staffs created but instead gateways to what larger worlds know.

The strength of these brands is that they had — note the tense — a headstart. They could have used their promotional clout and reputations to enable these communities to form around them. But they didn’t. Too late? Maybe.