Posts about magazines

Oh, to be the Economist

When newspaper people in the U.S. aren’t wishing they were the Wall Street Journal – “well, they can charge” – they aspire to be The Economist.

Dream on.

I just got email announcing The Economist Group’s latest financials.

* Operating profit up 26% to £56m
* Revenue up 17% to £313m
* Full year dividend of 97.3p per share, an increase of 8%
* The Economist’s worldwide circulation grew 6.4% to 1,390,780 (July-December 2008 ABC). It was named Magazine of the Year by Advertising Age and topped Adweek’s Hot List for the second year running
* Economist.com’s performance has been strong, driven by a strategy to make it a place for intelligent debate; advertising revenue is up 29% and page views 53%

The good news is that quality still sells.

The Economist is to the rest of the news industry as Apple is to Google. In What Would Google Do?, I argue that Apple is the unGoogle. It violates practically every one of the 40 rules I set out. But it succeeds. Why? It’s that good, uniquely good. There’s room for one such company, probably, in any industry – and that spot isn’t always filled (name me the Apple or The Economist of phone companies, airlines, cable companies, or retail).

In news, the Economist is the exception that proves the rules. It doesn’t have the individual voices and brands that succeed elsewhere on the internet; it has a single, institutional voice (but a charming one). In a sense, it’s a general-interest publication in the age of specialization (and every other general-interest product, from Time to the metro daily is failing). It has built a strong online product but it’s still not known for that; it’s a magazine (pardon me, newspaper) that still relies on and succeeds in print.

The problem for the rest of the industry is that they can’t all break the rules as The Economist does because they’re just not that good. You have to be great to the The Economist or Apple and if you fall short, you fall all the way. And staying great is constant work.

I was at The Economist’s offices in New York last week for lunch with editors. Don’t think that they are resting on their laurels. They, too, are trying to understand The Economist’s role on the new media age (my advice: they have just about the smartest crowd anywhere and I hope the company asks how that crowd can be empowered to connect, share, and create). But it’s a nice perch from which to be wondering what to do next. While other publications are looking for a limb to grab onto as they fall, The Economist is looking for the next higher branch.

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 Wired.co.uk: Can anyone explain how this story is wired?

Don’t meet. Work.

So now the American society of Newspapers Editors has canceled its annual meeting, joining the Magazine Publishers of America, joining the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum before them. There aren’t enough dollars to send them to Vegas or its equivalent. And the way things are going, there won’t be enough of them to get a quorum anyway.

A homecoming at EW

I see that my baby, Entertainment Weekly, has a new editor, its fourth: Jess Cagle, who was part of the launch team at EW (when he was known as “young Jess”). My congratulations to him.

When will they ever learn?

John Koblin writes a v good piece in this week’s Observer on the state of magazines online post-crash and it’s a mixed totebag with some magazines – The New Yorker seems to be the poster child – getting it at last but its parent company not getting it – indeed throwing ‘it’ on the ground and stomping on it:

“We work in the high-end market,” said our Condé Nast source. “We’re going to stick to it and we might be the last one standing, but that’s our philosophy. The Web isn’t really a priority.”

Ouch. My emphasis. Having worked on their online sites in the earliest days – and then suffering through no shortage of the infamous Conde Nast politics, taking my share of spike heels in soft tissue – I think this is a pity.

I’ve long believed that magazines should have great potential online because they already have communities of shared interest. And though magazines still – today – have franchises and value in print, it would be foolish, even suicidal to ignore other media already overtaken by the internet tidal wave. Music drowned. TV learned from that and started streaming online. Newspapers are going down for the third and last time. Magazines haven’t learned from that. The glossy monthlies may think they’re safe because they’re glossy but Time Magazine used to be huge and now it’s so thin I could use it to cut cheese. The weeklies, with their high costs and general interests, are dying just behind newspapers. Will the monthlies be next? I wouldn’t gamble against it, as some magazine publishers are doing.