Whither magazines?

Three people I respect a great deal now lead the big magazine companies: David Carey (ex Condé) at Hearst, Bob Sauerberg at Condé, and now Jack Griffin at Time Inc. — and I’ll add Justin Smith at Atlantic.

It’s a big challenge to head a magazine company these days (witness the sales of Newsweek and TV Guide for a buck each). Circulation is plummeting; costs are soaring; advertising competition is killing.

But I still say that magazines have unique value in media as the centers of communities of information and interest. They just have to act like it. My advice to my friends at the top:

1. Ignore print. Enable community. Yes, print is where the revenue is today. But it’s only going to shrink. Preserving print — and the past — is no strategy for the future. The physical costs of production and distribution are killing. The marketing cost of subscriber acquisition and churn is hellish. The editorial costs of maintaining gloss are wasteful if not sinful. So concentrate instead on your relationships with your like-minded souls among the people formerly known as your audience. In a social (post-brand, post-search) market, these magazines still have tremendous if very perishable value if you know how to unlock it because their people care about the same stuff. Enable communities to build and meet and create value around their interests, especially those that are specialized — SI and EW will be worth more than Time, Jack. EW may look like a bad business today (it pains me to say that, as its Dad) and it may be way too late to the web party, but I still think there’s one last chance to enable fans to congregate and create. Enable them to do what they want to do and follow along. Before you follow the money, follow the passion.

2. Avoid Steve Jobs’ siren call. The iPad is not, not your salvation. Oh, it’s nice and elegant but your editors are leading you over the lemmings’ cliff because they think the public wants the world packaged just as they used to package it. The link robbed them of that control forever. And that’s great news to you because you can now listen to your customers, your readers, instead of your editors. You can escape the cost and tyranny of editorial ego and determine what the community wants most. Fine, have apps. But the winner in your war, friends, will be the one who breaks out of the old models and scales to enable a huge community instead of a small audience.

3. Build new brands. Don’t just preserve the old brands. Enable a thousand entrepreneurs to build a thousand new brands. Curate them. Train them. Equip them (Flips for all!). Promote them. Sell them. That’s the key to scale.

4. Build new networks. Oh, I know, magazine people make fun of Glam because it’s not as controlled as magazine brands but they’re blind to do so. Glam grew to four times iVillage’s size by enabling a network of many independently owned sites and brands. That’s the way you can grow and scale even as your old, print brands shrink. So imagine a huge, scalable network of like-minded sites and brands you don’t have to build and pay for that you can sell.

5. Commerce. I don’t think you’ll succeed at charging readers for content. As Google taught media and government, we now operate in an economy of abundance, not scarcity. So trying to convince readers to pay premium prices for content when content is anybody’s game is a fool’s paradise. But I do think you can sell merchandise to the people formerly known as readers as long as you take on the skills of merchandiser. And that ain’t editors.

6. Cut costs. Yes, I know, Felix Dennis made his career on that call and look where it got him. But there’s no doubt that growth will not come from fancy offices and car services and wardrobe allowances. So cut the hell out of your costs. Move to Jersey.

7. Be any-media. Glossy paper is expensive. Pixels are cheap.

8. Get local. This is the hard one but it’s a goldmine if you can figure out where the entrance is. Look at how ESPN is going local. Every one of your magazine brands (well, except Time) can find local audiences, local advertisers, local efficiency if you can scale advertising sales with new partners.

I used to love magazines. I bought piles of them every week. I don’t buy them anymore. I don’t need them anymore. I don’t miss them. Sorry but it’s true. Be honest and imagine life without any of your magazine brands. It’s not hard. It’s easy. So imagine instead what would matter: relationships. That’s the key to your future.

What makes me hope that these four people might be able to pull this off is that they aren’t just advertising snake-oil salesmen. They understand value. Now they have to find it and enable it and I think the key to that is people, not content or paper or apps.