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 Can anyone explain how this story is wired?