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The Internet Tail Will Come to Wag the Magazine Dog

Jesse Kornbluth on the dwindling life expectancy of print-only media

By Jesse Kornbluth - May 4, 2005

A few years and a lifetime ago, at the annual summer gathering in Sun Valley where Herbert Allen and his friends re-arrange the deck chairs on the media landscape, a crowd of moguls gathered around Bill Gates. That year, they had a special reason. Gates had recently discovered the glory of the Internet, and announced loudly that the Web would be the main focus of all future Microsoft business.

The moguls didn't want to know what Gates thought the future looked like.

The moguls didn't want to know if there were deals they might make with Microsoft.

What the moguls wanted Gates to tell them was this: Will this Internet explosion happen on my watch? Will it send me floating off on a golden parachute years before I'm ready?

Gates, I am told, was reassuring. Your jobs are safe, he said. And he was correct—that year, anyway. For the next big event was the bursting of what has come to be known as the Internet Bubble, and those who owned stock in Cisco had enough losses to last for the rest of their lives. No more IPOs. No more conferences with awesome swag. No more bar mitzvahs with the Backstreet Boys. No more Aeron chairs occupied by 23 year-old CEOs.

But after the obligatory time-out in the dunce chair, the Internet has come back—bigger than ever. And this time it's not the picks-and-shovels companies that are getting the buzz. Now we see a fresh challenge to job security: content sites like the WallStreetJournal.com, which has become more profitable than the print edition of the newspaper. The WSJ is a special situation; people are, historically, willing to pay for online financial news, sports, and porn. But what if it's a harbinger of a paradigm shift? What if large numbers of broadband-enabled readers prefer to get their favorite publications online? What if online sites increase their offerings in order to compete with long-established publications?

Impossible? Well, consider all the people you know who once lived in rooms like the Collier Brothers—newspapers and magazines piled at least desk-high—but who now occupy pristine spaces because they mostly read online. People like… well, me.

Why does a guy who spent the better part of three decades writing for Vanity Fair, New York, The New York Times Magazine and most of the slick monthlies turn against magazines? Because they're just not relevant. The physical magazine is a beautifully designed, artfully constructed monument to the Analog God. An artifact. A time-capsule. A collectible.

Why don't I read the newsweeklies? Because they're a record of everything that happened last week, ending Thursday. Newspapers—the Times, the Journal, and the Post delivered to my doorstep, a great many more waiting for me online—have replaced these magazines for me. In my hurry-up world, a newspaper is a magazine.

Why don't I read the slick monthlies? Because production schedules dictate that the editors had to plan them six months ago and close them as long ago as last month. And also because they're increasingly all the same: the same celebrities on the cover, the same editorial mix inside.

At some conference around the turn of the millennium, I was on a panel with an executive editor of a mega-successful monthly. "We serve up surprise every month," she said. Really? I see something else. There's the stock society crime story. There's the stock deadly earnest foreign policy analysis that only the copy-checker read closely. There's the stock celebrity profile that might as well have been edited by the press agent. No, monthly magazines aren't surprising; they're symbols of stability.

And isn't that the point? Your job is uncertain, the world is going nuts—but here, month after month, is this warm bath of words and pictures that assures you that you're in the right place in a society that's fairly stable. This is not exactly an editorial decision. In the slick monthly business model, the real needs of the reader come last. The advertiser is king. The articles exist to keep the ads from fighting.

Which isn't to say these magazines are doomed, just that they must refocus if they're going to do more than fight subscriber attrition. How could they do that? By adopting my mantra: "The Internet tail will come to wag the magazine dog." Magazines must start to look at their websites—those digital afterthoughts they built because someone said they should—as their future. These sites can no longer be static; their justification can no longer be "to promote the issue" or "lure new subscribers." They need to be interactive and up-to-the-minute; they need to reach out to the reader on a daily basis so the reader looks forward to the monthly caress of the physical magazine. Because readers are not just numbers; they're members of an untapped community. Tap it, and you have a focus group, a band of citizen reporters, a gaggle of consumers—and, oh yes, a place where advertisers can go to talk to potential customers.

This does not seem like radical thinking to me, and yet I do not see mainstream media giving more than grudging acknowledgment that online media is now part of the daily media diet of its best customers. Look at, say, Gawker's most recently reported demographics: Most readers are under 35. 85 percent are college graduates. 30 percent make more than $100,000 a year. And they shop online: 90 percent buy books, 60 percent buy DVDs/videos, 80 percent buy music, 85 percent buy airline tickets. A magazine would kill for those numbers… and yet Gawker's creator, Nick Denton, has little to no competition as he rolls out website after website, turning himself into a one-man Conde Nast or Hearst.

So here's what eludes me: Why is there only one Nick Denton?

For that matter, why—for two years—did Maer Roshan persist in trying to launch Radar as a magazine? Why couldn't he have rolled it out as a website, seen if anyone cared, and, if he did have an audience, then take it to print?

And James Truman's art magazine—was there really no way it could have been a website?

And what about the Magazine Development Groups of the big media companies—how many of the magazines they're thinking of launching might best start out as websites? How much money would they save if they did that?

I know the argument against this web-centric approach: How do you make money on the web? Well, maybe you don't, not if you're wedded to old-fashioned, stand-alone accounting. But if media companies stopped looking at their web operations as profit centers and started seeing them as marketing costs—or if they simply treated web-and-print as a common enterprise—they might get a very big bang for very few bucks. They might even find that web sites launched on the cheap can be mildly profitable.

And there are other ways to blacken the bottom line. When it launched, James Wolcott's blog (JamesWolcott.com) looked like a gesture of independence, a grand scheme to build Brand Wolcott. It was certainly a bonanza for readers: a free way to read the best writer at Vanity Fair. Now there are big links to Vanity Fair—and links back to Wolcott from a beefed-up Vanity Fair website. JamesWolcott.com, for my money the blog of the year, is a win-win—a way for Wolcott to reach his readers whenever he feels like it and a terrific advertisement for the magazine. (Gee, do you think there are writers for other magazines who could, on a daily basis, remind readers that they can be found, in longer form, on slick pages?)

Different strokes for different folks. The one universal truth, for me, is the death of one-way, top-down communication—monthly magazines as the print equivalent of anchor-driven network news—and the rise of community-created content. I'm all for star writers, I just think they'd be bigger stars if they were accessible by email and responsive to reader suggestions. I'm all for magazines too, as long as they make community-building an obsession, with message boards, letters to the editor, reader-generated story ideas and more. In short, I see the way for magazines to survive and prosper is to transform themselves into conversations and collaborations—I would put a stake in the heart of the notion of magazine as artifact.

jessekornbluth2.jpgA few months ago, I shared these ideas with executives of a magazine group. As one who would rather seduce than confront, I feared my remarks were too aggressively in-their-face. Then I had lunch with Jerry Spiegel, my Internet lawyer and one of the kings of his field. "That was hostile?" he said, when I told him about my speech. "You were way too kind."

"Really? What should I have told them?"

"That in ten years, their magazines will be promotion for their websites."

Now that...that's the kind of idea that might make executives think about early retirement.

Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based writer and the founder and editor of HeadButler.com.



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