Posts about magazines

The innovation race

I had breakfast this morning with the leadership of TimesOnline.co.uk talking about innovation and the subject was the same yesterday morning at breakfast with the Project Red Stripe team at the Economist: six people — from editorial, classified, marketing, data sales, technology — who have been given six months, $200,000, and the freedom to use any content from any Economist property to come up with something new for the magapaper. They made it onto the team by applying and sharing their ideas. Their only instructions: to make it innovative and put it on the web. They say they will know they have succeeded when they present their big idea and get someone saying, “I don’t get this at all.”

I am hearing the smart people in media — those who do get it — talking urgently about innovation. It’s almost to the point where that is the thing the most value, that is the commodity over which they are competing (but, thank goodness, there is no scarcity at work here). I don’t hear them talking as much about getting another new print subscriber — so much for that — as I hear them racing for innovation ahead of the other guys.

The Project Red Stripe team and I started off with a debate about blogging. The Economist is blogging but, in Economist tradition, they are doing so anonymously. I said this is a clash of orthodoxies. Blogs are conversations with people. The irony is that the other side of this debate came from the guy who got on this team by pushing blogging and who acts as the team blogger, Tom Shelley. He defends the Economist voice as a human voice of its own. Fun discussion. We talked about community and they raised provocative, Economistian questions about the fragility of communities and the value. And more.

Afterwards, I questioned Alan Rusbridger and Carolyn McCall of the Guardian in front of the Online Publishers Association about the pace and culture of change. I asked Alan whether he is more worried about changing too much or too little. No doubt, he said, he worried about changing too little. But read his principles again; he is not changing to throw out the value of journalism but to preserve and advance it. At this morning’s OPA, I got into the predictable, well-rehearsed conference tussle with Martin Nisenholtz of The Times — we should take the show on the road — about blogs and MSM, but what it really was about was centralized architecture (the value of coming to The Times, what I now call the Yahoo model) vs. decentralized, distributed structure (going to where the people are; the Google model). The question is how the fundamental model, the architecture of media and information is changing. It’s important to keep in mind that change should not be sought for change’s sake. Nor innovation. But the only way to change successfully as the world changes around us is to innovate. Thus the race.

What makes a week in London so damned exciting for me — professionally and intellectually invigorating — is the competitive race for innovation I see all around here. It has been a great week.

: LATER: Demonstrating the point, Shane Richmond of the Telegraph — with whom I breakfasted three days ago (video when I get near good bandwidth) — notes Rusbridger’s speech about shifting the Guardian to 27/7 preeminent-web journalism and argues that they got there first:

The Guardian will be following us into integration. . . . Alan Rusbridger’s statement to staff yesterday contained the ‘draft principles of 24/7 working’. Almost all of them are already in practice here, where we work on a ‘web first’ basis.

It amused me. These guys are all rushing to innovate first. That is healthy for newspapering, for no matter who brags about starting it, good ideas are good ideas and if someone does it first others will quickly follow. And as I said above, innovation is not a scarce resource. So have at it. If we’re smart in America, we’ll watch and copy, too.

: LATER STILL: Just got a link from the Economist Red Stripe team to their invitation to submit ideas to them. That openness is smart. The pity is that the damned lawyers got to them with dreaded terms & conditions, which makes it quite unappetizing to submit things to them on their form, giving up rights and your first born. I’d suggest that a better way to share is openly on your own blog, which they are free to read and to use as inspiration and should still — as they will with their form — give credit where it is due. Indeed, if the idea is open, so will the discussion be and any good idea can get even better. If you want to innovate, follow Shakespeare’s advice: Kill the lawyers first.

Curtains down

Premiere magazine is folding (cough) going online. Almost 20 years ago, when it launched ahead of Entertainment Weekly, we at Time Inc. fretted that it would get in the way. The business guys considered buying it but passed, saying the business plan wouldn’t work. Well, it worked for a few years. What didn’t work was transitioning its community and content and value to online years ago. They still thought like a magazine. And now it’s as good as gone. Let other magazines be warned: If people would rather talk about your subject matter online, then you’d better be there to help them do what they want to do. Your community is there, with or without you.

OD TV

Andy Plesser of Beet TV made the mistake of handing me a microphone at Always On, but I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Whitaker, former editor of Newsweek and new the overseer of the future at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, and my friend David Weinberger, author of the soon-to-be-released Everything is Miscellaneous. Whitaker, part I:

Whitaker, part II:

Weinberger:

About Time

Of course, we feel bad for the 289 people who lost their jobs at Time Inc. yesterday, but the place was — and always has been — incredibly inefficient.

When I went to People for a tryout in the ’80s, they were dubious: We don’t hire newspaper people, they said with a sneer. But they gave me a shot. The first day, I was given 30 pages of correspondents’ notes and wrote a 400-word story in the morning. Piece of cake. I was a newspaper rewriteman used to writing a handful of stories a day and then a columnist writing 1,500 words a day, six days a week. I asked for the next story. They had nothing. For five days straight, it was the same tale. At the end of the week, they offered me the job. But one of the old hands from Time Inc. pulled me aside and growled, “Don’t ever do that again.” I couldn’t figure out what he was telling me until I arrived and sat in a meeting of writers with then-Managing Editor Pat Ryan as she told them, “Listen, people we really need to improve productivity; I expect you all to get up to writing one story a week.”

Mind you, once reported by a cadre of correspondents and written by a staff writer in New York, it was edited (read: rewritten) by a senior editor and edited (yes, rewritten), by an assistant managing editor, and then edited (and, with surprising freqency, rewritten) by the managing editor. And then the research came along to try to correct all the errors this process inserted in the story. (This is how People famous declared Abe Vigoda dead; he was next see in an ad in Variety holding up a copy of that magazine while sitting up in a coffin.) And alongside all this, there were photo researchers and editors and layout artists and production people galore — all to perfect that 400-word tome about some small moment in life. Oh, and to make sure they had the very best 400-word celebrity haiku, they “slashed” two to four stories for every slot in the magazine — that is, they went through this entire process for at least twice as many stories as would actually be printed.

I left people in the late ’80s to start Entertainment Weekly (where I proudly started a weekly magazine with a total edit staff of 60 — fewer editorial staffers than any monthly magazine in the company). I returned about a year ago to talk to the staff about blogs and I was gobsmacked at how huge it had grown: One floor had become two; the place was jammed with people, all doing essentially the same job we had done 20 years before, quite inefficiently, with too many people even then.

So it’s hard to imagine that the layoffs will hurt. They will change the tone of the magazines as stories are now to be reported, written, and researched by single authors. The point of that entire Time Inc. system was to homogenize the style, to make it all sound like Time or People, no matter who wrote it. But now Rick Stengel, ME of Time, is filling the book with columnists: with distinct voices. And People is closing bureaus filled with full-time reporters (rather than writers).

But looming over all this is the fate of magazine, especially the newsmagazine. I’ve been arguing that magazines with communities can be in good shape if they learn to enable those communities to share their knowledge and passions — and that will happen online, not in print. But I also argued that general-interest magazines could be doomed in the age of the mass of niches.

‘Radical’ transparency

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, puts forth the means of what he calls radical transparency. Pardon my blog triumphalism, but I think it takes the culture he has learned in the blog world and tries to lay it over the big-media world. And that is good.

But I do think the truly radical transformation would be to stop looking at the magazine as a thing — a product in print or online — but as a community, for that is what magazines really are and always have been: people who rather around the stuff they all like or need. See my earlier blather on the notion here. The point is that what you really want to do is open the windows on either side of your house and let the people standing around talk directly to each other, with or without you. You do your job, still, creating some stuff that people want to gather around. But then you enable them to share more. And now you have a new role — helping them. So you end up bigger than a magazine.

That said, I like Anderson’s tactics and I think they’ll work:

1) Show who we are. All staff edit their own personal “about” pages, giving bios, contact details and job functions. [e.g. -ED] Encourage anyone who wants to blog to do so. Have a masthead that actually means something to people who aren’t on it. While we’re at it, how about a real org chart, revealing the second dimension that’s purposely obscured in the linear ranking on a traditional masthead? . . .

2) Show what we’re working on. We already have internal wikis that are common scratch pads for teams working on projects. And most writers have their own thread-gathering processes, often online. Why no open them to all? Who knows, perhaps other people will have good ideas, too. . . .

3) “Process as Content”*. Why not share the reporting as it happens, uploading the text of each interview as soon as you can get it processed by your flat-world transcription service in India? . . . After you’ve woven together enough of the threads to have a semi-coherent draft, why not ask your readers to help edit it? . . .

4) Privilege the crowd. Why not give comments equal status to the story they’re commenting on? Why not publish all letters to the editor as they’re submitted (we did that here), and let the readers vote on which are the best? We could promise to publish the top five each month, whether we like them or not: “Harness our tools of production! Make us print your words! Voting is Power!” . . .

5) Let readers decide what’s best. We own Reddit, which (among other things) is a terrific way of measuring popularity. Why should we guess at which stories will be most popular and give those preferential treatment? Why not just measure what people really think and let statistics determine the hierarchy of the front page?

Ah, but those two tactics still separate the magazine from the crowd. It’s still about commenting on what the magazine does (‘but enough about you…’). Go the next step, Chris: Recognize that the crowd has stuff to say that may have nothing to do with what the magazine may be working on but that is of value to the rest. Or as a group, they have information that is valuable to the group. I’ve been saying I want to know the best-selling books among New Yorker readers. I also want to know the best-selling phones among Wired readers (and why).

The magazine is the crowd.

6) Wikifiy everything. The realities of publishing is that at some point you push the publish button. In the traditional world, that’s the end of the story. It is a snapshot in time, as good as we could make it but inevitably imperfect. The errors (and all articles have them) are a mix of commission and omission–we hope for the best yet brace ourselves for the worst. But what if we published every story on a wiki platform, so they could evolve over time, just like Wikipedia itself? . . .

Believe it or not, I almost think that last one may go too far. There is still a role for authorial responsibility. That doesn’t mean control — yes, by all means, show us the corrections and suggestions ,but then do the work to verify and edit. I don’t think you can necessarily hand over your work to the public but you can , indeed, improve your work with the public.

Again, I think the starting point is not what the magazine had but perhaps what the magazine doesn’t have: A wiki of helpful knowledge the public wants to share. And then the editors can come in and polish and verify and report. So then the editors becomes the handmaidens of the crowd. Now that’s radical transparency.