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.

  • Guy Love

    I find it interesting that both newspapers and magazines have finally thrown in the towel on overstating their readership. That is a step in the right direction as far as helping them understand the reality of their situation. Why is it that books still prosper in today’s time but newspapers and magazines don’t? Timeliness of information is one factor, but maybe people have moved on from the newspaper and magazine format.

    I could definitely relate to your large stack of magazines in a corner. The only magazine I get (Wired) is saved for long business trips where I can actually read it without interruption. I actually enjoy reading them and technology news tends to hold up over time better than political or current event news, but unless I am going on a trip they just pile up on my desk collecting dust. Time and Newsweek also compound their problem by the inability to break out of the corporate groupthink that newspaper editors seem to suffer from. They are so busy trying to shape public opinion that they offend today’s savvy news consumer.

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  • I interviewed Rick Stengel recently in my ‘Media Is A Plural’ blog, (http://www.roryoconnor.org/blog/index.php?p=194) and he told me “the Internet is central to his vision” of a new, improved Time, with its emphasis on informed opinion and news-that-stays-news.

    “Look, the fact is that news breaks online now,” says Stengel, who previously served as editor of Time.com. “Everyone puts it on line first now, and so will we. We have a 24/7 platform in Time.com, where we will offer all the values traditionally delivered by the magazine —only all day, every day—a big, blooming fusion of information.

    “In essence, we’re moving the magazine to the web, and everyone who reports here will need a web presence…”

  • Interesting. Especially the part about forming a community around the readers they already have. I’m thinking it could just be the people who are motivated to write letters to the editor, discussing among other like minded people.

    I also share the gripe about stories appearing online well after they’ve appeared in the print version. Putting a print article online right away is breaking news in the fastest delivery mechanism possible. Waiting a week until nobody is reading the print version means nobody wants to read the online one either. Plus, nobody can link to a print version of a story. I thought the whole point of a magazine was to get a written story in front of as many people as possible. But I guess that’s just a naive customer’s view.

    Someday people will have a go at a website that is the driver of the print magazine. Or, there will simply be no print magazine. But all arrows point towards the web.

  • Jeff,

    Do you see such specialization occurring in cable news? Fox panders to conservatives, CNN uses it personalities, MSNBC seems to like politics now, CNBC caters to the Wall Street crowd, and Fox Biz could very well likely target Main Street.

    I guess we’ve seen this trend with cable channels in general. E! covers entertainment. MTV featured music (before they took the “M” out of “MTV”). The Style Channel has shows like Craft Corner Death Match. Let’s not forget the Food Network and ESPN.

    However, with 5,000,000,000,000 channels, there is rarely anything worth watching. Will this such proliferation of niche content affect magazines as well?

  • Content is king. see http://snarkston.blogspot.com

  • Jeff – Here at 8020 publishing, we couldn’t agree with you more. And we’re working on exactly that concept. We call it community-first publishing, and it means embracing the power of the community to make your magazine. We believe strongly that magazines only really have one audience: the people who give a shit about that magazine. As the barriers come down, and more and more media becomes consumer-generated, magazines cannot keep treating their readers like sheep and expect to stay afloat.

    Our first publication is JPG Magazine, a photography magazine that’s made by its community. We’re now publishing the best photobloggers in the world – transporting their awesome work off the web and onto the shelves of a Barnes and Noble near you.

    We think the future of the magazine looks bright indeed – but only of the magazine biz learns from, and embraces, the web.

  • Jeff, you say: “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.”

    But this is a poor analogy for Time. In a democracy the “top news stories in the general-interest mass market” are important to know about. Citizens have to possess a base level of civic literacy about the national and international news of the day.

    The BuzzMachine likes to emphasize the lack of economic value of covering such stories by using the label “commodity journalism.” This underestimates the civic value of such journalism, which is inestimably greater than its potential profitability.

    Steve, when he cited CNN, suggests the way forward for Time. Its expertise is not in newsgathering so much as week-in-review news shaping. Surely Time Warner can take the 24-hour news-cycle skills of CNN to produce an immediate product and marry it to Time’s weekly perspective to marry the best in both traditions.

  • Andrew,
    Ah, that old song: The news we need to know because the editor said so. Well, I don’t need Time to masticate that news for me now that I have the internet, not to mention nightly news and Sunday shows. I can get that news from many sources and many perspectives. I don’t need to read a mass-market publication to know that the Republicans got thumped, do I?

  • shawnpetriw

    The right mags will make it. For example, I just bought the latest Wired, read the great long articles (on athiests and blogs) at the coffee house and in the bath. I lent it to my girlfriend and she read it in her bath and brought it to work to share.

    I would never do that with a newspaper — it’s disposable and not that good.

    Great long-form jourlalism will live on in magazines. Mags with 90% ads like Bride and Vouge will also live on because the online experience for that type of browsing doesn’t work.

    Newspapers are over, however. They should just become shoppers with a few local briefs and pics, if they don’t die entirely.

  • With all the news information I can access online from all over the world I will not being paying that price for one magazine. maybe it’s that I am a magazine junkie and spend way too much money on them but I am happy to cut this one from the list.

  • pt

    what is a good magazine? one that you will never find in a landfill… i collect old pop sci from the 30s/40s/50s they’re amazing. i think we capture that with the “mook” style @ MAKE and CRAFT (book/magazine) and our online site is updated 20+ times a day with a killer blog, videos, etc etc – and this comes from our Makers, it’s their magazine and site, we’re just celebrating them…

    great post jeff.


    (MAKE & CRAFT magazine)

  • Jeff,

    This is one of the best things you’ve written as far as I’m concerned. I think consumers demanding specialized content is the single biggest impact of the Internet. And adjusting to this trend is the single biggest challenge faced by the “general” media (I think calling it general is a better label in many ways than calling it MSM).

    Citizen journalism is an important trend. Social media like Digg is an important trend. Building a community of users is important.

    But, ultimately, the way media companies can make money is pretty fucking simple: provide people with content they actually value. Not week old news or generic AP content. There is nor market in that.

    Anyway, great post.


  • Jeff–Thanks for the mention of our community web site. We have been really pleased with the audience and contributions. We have a strong community of TV fanantics!


    Jay Bryant

  • jquiroga

    A hard problem for any magazine editor, how to compete with masterful, fresh, funny, special-interest ‘sponsored’ free content like this: Chutzpah, Truffles & Alain Ducasse.

  • I sometime think they are giving too much importance to this “community business”.
    The real problem is that the day has 24 hous, and we spend 6 or 8 of them sleeping, 2 eating, 8 working, 1 or 20 commuting to work, a few with our partner or family, that lives 1 or 2 and, since we belong to the “Internet generation” we spend them in our “virtual world”.
    That doesn’t leave much for magazines, however good they are…does it?

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  • Time is also doomed because it’s offensive to non-socialists.

    But yes, I thoroughly agree that generalized content is doomed or at least on the decline.

    Maybe someone can answer this for me. If say Time paid roughly $500 to a blogger to write a story, how much would its costs decline?

    In other words, its ad rates and circulation seem up against a ceiling, but how much fat is there to cut?

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  • I know that this is discussed already, but how do niche and hyper-specialized outlets inform their patrons of news and views that would otherwise evade their radar screens? Should they, or would such a practice diminish their appeal to their devoted base? Let’s face it; no crowd is interested in all the news and information that affects it and the world. Doesn’t the idealized professional editor or producer overcome this natural selective attention?

    Andrew, thanks for validating at least some of my previous point.

  • chuck

    I dropped my subsciption to Time in 1992 because the reporting was a joke. The science articles in particular read like bad parodies and I figured the rest of the magazine couldn’t be much better. I would still subscribe to Time if it did a decent job of reporting, so for me this isn’t a problem of content and the medium, it is a problem of competence. And jounalism isn’t going to solve that problem anytime soon as far as I can see. Why pay for junk?

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  • Newspapers (like everything else) are going to be delivered via RSS subscription to our computer just like the old world paper was physically delivered to our doorstep. Basically, it will be a PDF podcast and will save the newspapers a ton of cash by eliminating printing costs and delivery expenses.

    This is the only way newspapers will survive. They must streamline immediately. Their classifieds business is eroding hourly, their readers are all moving online and the online podcast versions will allow for the absolutaly essential component of audio and video coverage that the online audience will be expecting.

    Concerning generalized anything. It’s dead. It is all going to go the way of vertical niche content websites that provide a wide selection of audio and video podcasts and the most cutting edge social networking and tagging tools.

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  • Jeff, you are spot on when you say “Yet special-interest magazines — community magazines, to put it another way — have a brighter prospect — if they understand how to enable that community.”

    Soon, it won’t be enough to have a publication, say, targeted at houseware fans. In order to retain audiences effectively, publishers will need separate publications focusing on living room fans vs. kitchen fans. These special interest groups may niche out further into refrigerator lovers vs. oven lovers. And so on.

    The content targeting each special interest group will have to be extremely focused. To gain and retain a reader base successfully, the professional writing skills of a staff writer may not be enough because he/she won’t have the research & writing bandwidth to match the collective bandwidth of the masses. The staff writer will also have to function as an editor and moderator for user-generated content.

    And, frankly, traditional publishers will have to compete against passionate individuals who develop their online publications.

    To help passionate publishers — be they individual or corporate — I am developing 5 integrated technology components (to be released in March 2007) that accomplish the following (with complete editorial control for the site owner):
    1. Enables users to post special interest content from around the web. But only the most popular content gets to the front page. (Inspired by Digg)
    2. Enables the editor (or site owner) to easily syndicate special interest video content from video sharing sites. Users will be allowed to discuss these videos on the site, extending their duration of site visits. (Inspired by YouTube)
    3. Enables users to post special interest classified ads (displayed in a gallery format). (Inspired by CraigsList)
    4. Enables users to have special interest discussions in a forum. (Inspired by the massive success of special interest forums on the web)
    5. Enables users to upload their profiles and create their own social network. (Inspired by MySpace)

    Of course, RSS will be enabled for all of the above as well.

    People are always asking me how much I will charge. I don’t know yet. I will either give it away for free, or charge something very little, say $9.99/month.

    Would love to hear yours (or others thoughts) on my project. Feedback is always valuable.

  • If general interest news magazines are dead, why does huffington post do well?

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  • Magazine lovers are not the only one who appreciates magazine but also those individuals who always want to keep updated about the world news or the special issues here and abroad. The best thing about reading magazine is that it provides the most important info you sometimes miss while reading an online article. So who says that magazines are doomed? Only those who don’t know how to read, perhaps…

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  • Ian

    I think most magazines easily have a good 10 – 15 year run left in them before morphing totally online. If for no other reason than the older user base. A lot of people 40+ aren’t comfortable on the internet at all. That will of course slowly change, but there’s going to be a demand for that print version for quite some time to come.

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  • Reading magazines online is great, but until we have digital paper, there’s nothing like holding a magazine in your hands

  • I love reading ezines and paper mags will disappear. it is inevitable.