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.

  • Ed

    So true, i used to buy piles of magazines and the pinnacle of my career was to write for the glossies. And life’s no worse without them.

  • Drew

    Do not understand what you are implying with this sentence:

    “Cut costs. Yes, I know, Felix Dennis made his career on that call and look where it got him.”

    What it got him was millions and millions of dollars when he sold his company to Quadrangle at just the right time.

    • True. I should have said, look where it got his company. He did fine.

    • JohnB

      Yes, that had me confused too. At the end of the paragraph, I came away thinking Dennis’ cost-cutting lost him money.

      • You’re both right, but let’s be clear: It was Dennis’s spending that made him money, as Jeff said, not his cost control. But that kind of spending is just silly and wasteful these days. No one’s impressed anymore. (Vanity Fair, beware.)

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  • Mikael

    From a viewpoint of northern Europe the main thing is for these magazine-media-brands to stay trusted during transition (to being a web service). Guardian’s web service is fantastic and a good example.

    I’m no pro in journalism. I don’t have the resources to do all sorts of checks on credibility of news sources of the magazine/web service. I want to trust. I don’t want to be made a fool, even on a trivial topic.

    This seems so obvious…and yet many times I’ve felt that when moving to web service you get second-rate stuff. So Google search to the rescue, less trust on the story and…

    I am sure that who ever solves this problem on a global scale (US 300m, EU 450m, Russia 150m= 800m people who more or less can read english) without being a national provider like BBC (no biases, even national, please) could have an interesting thing going on. Throw in Australia, NZ, SA, India and Brasil and the scale becomes enormous.

    Google is already trusted by the world…any story-weaving takers?

  • Jan Cifra

    Jeff to be honest I a quite disappointed with your stance towards Apples iPad.

    The iPad itself is not a lock-in. It’s a platform and the question is how the newspapers should use it? Why don’t you come up with an idea there? Doesn’t seem your ideas mentioned above are tangible. They are general advice and I feel a lot of people are sending a lot of general advice towards the newspapers which is apparently doing squat for them.

    The iPad is not perfect, Apple has it’s serious flaws but it’s the first attempt at a platform that could bring about a turnaround. I understand your reservations towards it but I do not understand your destructive attitude.

  • Yvonne

    These are really interesting points, but can’t help feeling that you are describing something that is entirely different from the core competence of a magazine company: to provide quality, targeted editorial content and advertising. To ‘listen to readers and not editors’ is fine if you want Facebook (and if you’re a teenager you do) – but the social media that is more sophisticated and successful in adult markets – such as Twitter – is mostly a great tool to link to content elsewhere. In driving everyone towards community; towards creating brands around user-generated content are we overlooking one of life’s greatest media-delivered pleasures: to sit back and enjoy – to be entertained and engrossed by professionals who’ve done a lot of research and word-smithing so you don’t have to?

    I used to work in glossies but have now worked for over 10 years in the web – I love both, but I haven’t given up magazines. As with much TV, when I enjoy magazines, I usually want simply to sit back and not interact – I want a select few clever, edited insights – a slick TV format – a fashion editor’s top season picks, enjoyed at the end of the day with a crisp glass of good wine. I don’t want to wade through the rushes anymore than I want to canvass my entire local community on their views about what they’re going to wear next season…. (no disrespect to the people of Islington intended – I am sure they’ll look great, but they haven’t attended all the designer shows and neither have I and I’m just kind of interested to know what they were like…)

    I agree with your point about exploring merchandising – but are some successful magazine-derivative websites such as Net-a-Porter not built on the great edited selection – the editorial works with the merchandising in the same way as a glossy. And that does need editors….

    • Scotty

      Yvonne makes some excellent points. The beauty – and value – of magazines is specialist content delivered in a focussed and (usually) well-packaged format.

      Jeff might like to believe the whole world wants crowd-sourced data from amateur journalists, but there’s a valuable market of readers that could not care less what the Muggles think of things. They want well-researched, quality writing from professionals delivered in an appropriate format, and more often than not that format is a magazine, be it a printed glossy or an immersive digital app.

      Probably the only piece of advice worth listening in this wish list of his is to engage readers and build a community based on their shared interest in the topic, but most magazines I read do this already.

      There’s no reason magazines can’t keep doing what they do – delivering quality content in an appropriate format – while also engaging their readers in the online world.

      As usual, however, all Jeff’s “analysis” comes back to his agenda that content must be freely available on the web otherwise his pet, Google, will die.

      That’s why he’s opposed to the idea of mags using iPad (or Android, presumably) apps – they take content away from the big G. (There’s your answer, Jan; it’s not about putting readers first and delivering content in a way they want, it’s about supporting what would appear to be an increasingly “evil” corporation.)

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  • Linda Wood

    Yes, there is a lot of good advice here. Can’t argue about the direction of print. But except for a reference to Glam, where are the successful, new models? And I would say you can charge for content IF it is unique (unavailable elsewhere), helpful/useful,
    and/or fun. That puts general news sites at risk (NYTimes, WashingtonPost) but I think WSJ has the right model. I’d rather have a 100 paid subscribers instead of 1,000 eyeballs.

    • The subscription model really existed to have an auditable circulation — it never covered the cost of production. Paid content is unnecessary for that purpose in today’s world. You can audit eyeballs directly. So, 100 paid subscribers with known demographics may be better than thousands of undiscriminated eyeballs. BUT, 1000 unpaying but well-defined and fully-engaged readers are infinitely more valuable in the long run.

    • I agree, Linda.

      100 paying subscribers will always matter more than freeloaders who don’t want to pay.

      I think Jeff has made some astute points, but he has not tackled the paid content issue.

      It’s just not enough to say that content should be free. It has to be paid for by the end user, at least professionally made content.

      • Oh, I’ve tackled it ad nauseum.

      • Andy Freeman

        > It’s just not enough to say that content should be free.

        Jarvis has never said that content should be free. He has said that some content in the future will not be paid for by consumers. Since that was true in the past, it’s unclear why it’s such a controversial position.

        Were you misinformed or do you not understand the difference?

        > It has to be paid for by the end user, at least professionally made content.

        Oh really? You think that the US govt should charge for weather reports or get out of the biz? That’s professionally made content….

        In the past, some professionally made content was not be paid for by end users. Why will “some” go to none? (Note that the trend is the other way, with “some” growing.)

  • Steve Strasser

    Okay, I disagree with this one. Sometimes people don’t want to be interactive. They want to sit back and receive a pleasurable media experience: going to a movie, watching TV, reading a book or magazine. You still can’t have an enjoyable time reading a magazine on the Web. The designs are uniformly atrocious, you have to puzzle around looking for what you want to read, and all the interactive bells and whistles are mostly annoying. There will continue to be a market for a beautifully designed package of magazine articles – accessible, lovely to look at and just plain fascinating to read. We will not continue to kill trees to produce these magazines, but I think an iPad or some appliance that can mimic print design and provide a pleasurable, relaxing reading experience will do the trick.

    • Good points, Steve… The Web is notorious for poor user experiences. But haven’t we all been annoyed at poor print design too? (Examples: Wired in the early days where following an article from one page to the next was a challenge and most fashion magazines where the table of contents is buried 20 pages under full page advertising.)

      So I think you don’t necessarily have to mimic print design to improve the experience (and the relaxation factor) on both the Web and on “appliances” like iPad.

      • I think you’ve hit this one on the head, David. The thing I notice most about the iPad is that it turns the Web from a poor user experience into a very good one. And that’s for most websites, even the ones that were built for a standard web browser..

        Magazines don’t need to build a locked-down, push-media platform to take advantage of the iPad. They just need to redesign their websites from the ground up to deliver a magazine-style experience that translates to that device. And (as always) deliver content that will find an audience.

  • “SI and EW will be worth more than Time, Jack.”

    “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.”

    “You can escape the cost and tyranny of editorial ego and determine what the community wants most.”

    “Enable a thousand entrepreneurs to build a thousand new brands. Curate them. Train them. Equip them (Flips for all!). Promote them. Sell them.”

    I dunno. I’m a journalist, just to make my bias clear. I care about what people want. I also care about what kinds of information they NEED to make informed decisions about life. That group of like-minded people might be small, anymore. I can’t help but feel that’s an important group of people, though.

    One thing that consistently frustrates me is the way “entrepreneur” is bandied about when talking about journalism and “any-media.” While there are some honest-to-goodness entrepreneurs in journalism these days, most the the time the term is used as code for FREE content. Anyone can be a reporter, because any information can be news. Journalism is about helping people make sense of all that information. Putting cheap, consumer digital devices into the hands of someone and training them how to use it does not make him or her a journalist. It only justifies paying them zilch or next to nothing.

    Is wanting to preserve journalism as a profession egotistical or arrogant? Do people (editors) who check the veracity of information, verify the reliability of information sources, maintain the balance and fairness of differing points-of-view, and apply a code of ethics to newsgathering and presention have a place in the future of media? Is there no value in that?

    Perhaps this vision about the future of media will come to pass. Personally, to me, it sounds like the road to “Idiocracy.”

    • Andy Freeman

      > Do people (editors) who check the veracity of information, verify the reliability of information sources, maintain the balance and fairness of differing points-of-view, and apply a code of ethics to newsgathering and presention have a place in the future of media?

      Those things may have a place in the future of media, but they weren’t present in its past.

      When journalists describe a past that wasn’t to argue for their future….

  • Excellent. This call needs to be heard by all “purveyors of information” as I call them. It’s not just journalism, not just mags. They are just a subset of purveyors of information, all of whom need to rethink the actual product as ones *native* to the media of our time. They cannot continue to approach the media to as a means to *distribute material in old form*. This is a key difference I focus on at the Center for Digital Information — between Digital Distribution and Digital Information http://digitalinfo.org/3 . We are at an inflection point I think. Jeff, “the winner…will be the one who breaks out of the old models” hits that inflection exactly. But I think such winners will be crowned in ALL sectors — journalism, government, health, policy research, philanthropy, education, advocacy, you name it.

  • Chris Meyer

    Exponentially true for BtoB. You are dead on Jeff. Knock down the walls and drop the baggage. Like water flowing where gravity leads it, content is now free to find its audience. Not incidentally, did you read this in yesterday’s MB about journalism jobs? Growing, but not where they used to be. http://www.businessinsider.com/the-evolution-of-the-journalism-job-market-2010-8

  • Paul Dughi

    Jeff, my big concern in all of this is how we pay for it.

    The other question is how long we continue to ride out the status quo – because that’s where the advertising dollar is – while trying to develop the next generation with significantly lower overhead.

  • I like and agree with much of your forward-looking perspective … but I still love reading and seeing print publications.

    Nothing beats a beautiful magazine. Also, it’s tough to give up the tactile experience of holding a magazine or newspaper in my hands and discovering things to read and see, serendipitously. This a qualitatively and distinctly different experience than pointing and clicking in online media.

    I’ve whittled my magazine (and NYT) subs down to a favorite handful and expect it to stay that way!

  • As a specialist retailer of magazines in Australia I, sadly, agree with your points. Publishers ought to engage on these for their future.

    In Australia, we have 4,000 newsagents, specialist retailers of magazines. each selling between 1,000 and 2,000 different magazine titles. Our channel was created by publishers in the 1880s and today they continue to exert considerable control.

    While the publishers pursue (at varying degrees of speed) their future, newsagents are somewhat contractually stuck in a model which binds them to a print model.

    Our asset is our community connection. Our Achilles heel is that we have 4,000 CEOs who cannot agree on working together to find our future in a world where print fades as a delivery mechanism for news and information.

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  • re: Jeff saying: “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.”

    You are forgiven.

    One of the best lessons of my career was the realization that, as hard as it is to believe, there are tens of millions of people out there who don’t share my tastes and preferences.

  • Great post and I couldn’t agree more, with most of it at least. Print has more than a little staying power, at least until electronic readers can match the experience and at a price point where they’ll start showing up in doctors offices. After all, 1/3rd of all magazines are read in public places.

    There are a group of magazines that already address or are attempting to address some of your main points – local, community, and low cost. We call them Community Magazines but their also known as local, city, and regional magazines.

    Over the next couple of years you can expect to see them move from relative obscurity to a driving force in the media industry.

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  • Jeff, as usual I like all that you say, and that is why I read you and listen to TWiG.

    I have the feeling that for you the pie is always the same size, so if there a community then there is no room for print, and that newspapers and magazines as we know them will die forever.

    Well, maybe the pie can grow. What they need to do is to become more efficient.

    If they use the same community models than the web and they embrace it as you say, but they keep the traditional print but getting rid of the distribution and printing itself, would that work?
    Let me elaborate. I think there will always be a consumer for paper, at least for the next 30 to 40 years. Honestly I don’t see everybody reading books and newspapers on kindles and iPads. There are plenty of people who enjoy reading a book in the beach, and having libraries at home.
    What could be done is a distributed printing model, more efficient. I know this goes against collaboration and building on top of news with opinion, and complementary information, but a magazine on a topic you like, or a newspaper with opinion you like, I guess it is OK to have it too. Take it as a snapshot of what happens online. Maybe print a weekly summary of all the web activity. But print it efficiently at the peers where you distribute. Maybe giving birth to a whole new way of printing.
    Just a thought ;-)

  • John

    Jeff your overall argument is strong.

    But I find your use of Glam as the model for networks to tarnish your point. Glam started off as a good idea. But their focus on scale has caused them to search out sites which have nothing to do with the channels that they are in. Simply look in comscore. They have dropped their best sites, probably because they cost too much to keep. Now they are dominated bt truly 3rd rate sites, like ugc-squidoo and highbeam.

    I do not think you should set them up as the role model It wiil only serve to encourage more scams in the digital business. Look to Halogen or even Martha for best practices.

  • Jeff, I agree with all the major points you make, especially using news to nurture community and selling merchandise. What’s interesting to me is that both these things are still controversial with journalists (Disclosure: I used to be one.) and publishers. In a piece I wrote for HuffPost quite a while back, I talked about the need to make all news social — to direct journalism toward fostering community. I interviewed a woman at Duke you might want to talk to: “Penelope Muse Abernathy is a prominent former news manager who now is a new media guru and expert on the future of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Abernathy believes serving niche communities is a critical element in preserving a future for the news business, especially newspapers, which provide the vast majority of the original news and information that powers our society.” Here’s a link to the piece: http://huff.to/aszZU9

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  • Wha…?

    Why not “Whither the pencil”? It’s has numerous competitors, many of them with replaceable sources of ink or lead so you only need one instead of continually grinding down yet another pencil.

    Why not “Whither radio”? TV is so much better and it acts like a radio if you don’t look at it while it’s on.

    Why not ‘Whither the movie theater”? Home TVs are huge and I can just rent the movie when it comes out.

    Why not “Whither the skirt”? Pants are so much easier.

    Why not “Whither the spoon and fork since the advent of the spork made both obsolete”?

    The battle cry of the author is tired. TIRED. This argument is at least a dozen years old and magazines continue to be plenty important to consumers. They may have slowed down but plenty of that slowing is attributable to a horrific ad market and advertisers who have decided that internet advertising is cool despite the facts that numerous studies indicate that advertising on the web is c-r-a-p. It enriches the venue but shows scant evidence of sales for the advertiser. TV still reigns supreme when it comes to garnering sales for advertisers.

    The author speaks like someone in the industry and not like a consumer. You can make point after point about industry direction but if you fail to look at consumer behavior as the keystone to any outcome, you’re missing a critical determinant.

    There’s a reason we don’t have flying cars and jet packs despite all the predictions from experts in the past. They’re too expensive and cars and public transportation do the job just fine. Delivery of information via the web is expensive (it requires some kind of device) a tether (cable or phone) or access to a wireless network (cha ching). The web will permanently suffer from these drawbacks.

    Print is not expensive to consumers. It’s easy to use, requires no interface, no power source, no update to an OS and all it requires is a light source. Drop a magazine and you pick it up. Drop your computer and it likely breaks.

    Consumers will choose the least expensive and most reliable method of interaction. The web does certain things very well (not the least of which is giving away content which will come to an end sooner or later) But the ease of print makes it the most obvious choice for years to come. Possible, forever.

    If you don’t believe in the power and ease of print, take a look at the “paperless office” that was promised decades ago. It never happened despite email, the desktop computer or texting.

    Why didn’t it happen? Because printed objects are still incredibly effective, relatively cheap compared to impact and they don’t lose battery power when you least want them too.

    The web is subject to outages, server malfunction, and congestion. It requires an ISP ($), a device and a certain amount of patience. Print doesn’t.

    To the author’s other points-

    The iPad is a game changer. Period. It will alter delivery of “magazine” products in a way the web never could. It is easy to use, vastly more compelling and the sheer number sold and the number of wannabes headed for the market runs directly counter to the comment from the author.

    The lack of visual impact to the user of web sites is going to become a glaring deficit once consumers see the benefit to a compelling iPad based delivery. It’s like a K car compared to a Mercedes.

    And, yes, consumers still care about how something looks. If they didn’t, Fashions by The Amish would be the top retailer in America. Ignore the desire by consumers to have something that looks attractive at your own peril.

    Sure, build great products and people will buy them. That little fact of product creation is still, and always will be, a cornerstone of success.

    Hyper locality as a building block? Yup. Said that for years myself BUT websites will likely offer the best way to do that. Print will not do so well there, IMO, as websites will deliver that information.

    The web and its proponents have utterly failed (more like, chosen to ignore) to accept that the web narrowed the way content can be delivered. It’s all small pictures and 400 word stories. People will consume content like that but that’s not ALL they want. They still love big, pretty pictures, transportable delivery systems (printed mags) and to not worry about a battery.

    Now, go sharpen your pencils and rebut my comments.

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