It’s not magazines that need saving

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(Updated: See note added at bottom.)

This may surprise the people who confuse my championing the magazine format with some delusional form of cockeyed optimism: I fully expect all magazines to die. The first magazine in America lasted one issue, so the legacy of magazines dying is as old as magazines themselves. And unlike Dylan Stableford, I don’t think five gimmicks are going to save magazines. I don’t believe 50 gimmicks are going to save magazines.

But the death of one magazine title, is not the death of the magazine format. Nor is the death of five titles or 5,000.

If Dylan had labeled his post “5 ways to save nationally distributed magazines that depend on mass advertising and newsstand revenues to sustain a business model with outrageous overhead (do I need to go on: Geary-designed dining rooms, cars for all executives, legendary expense accounts”) I may agree with some of his points. But, frankly, I don’t think any of those things are going to help save those kind of magazines. And I say good riddance.

But he said “magazines.” And magazines don’t need saving.

I won’t rehash what I said in this interview recently with econsultancy.com or in this recent column I wrote for Publishing Executive magazine.

One major point I made in them is this: The mass-media magazine business model is what is broken, not the magazine format. For instance, magazine readership is up over the past eight years — which I think is pretty good for a dead medium. And technology has radically changed magazines over the past 20 years: it has enabled my company to compete on a level field with any magazine publisher in American in terms of design and production tools, access to collaborative tools and a myriad of other mundane things.

And, as I pointed out the other days, technology is changing the economics of the production and distribution of magazines.

But to reiterate a common theme of this blog: Magazines that try to be all things to a mass audience are dying.

But you can also say that about internet-based media that try to be all things to a mass audience.

Tight focus. Niche. Passion-focused community. Must-have information. Great design or usability. Those are the key to any media these days.

A business model that a medium supports (from contributions to dues to attendance fees) rather than a media business model (advertising and circulation) is the key to business success these days.

The problem with media is not about platforms, it’s about business models.

Gimmicks won’t save magazines (including “a Netflix for magazines” or a “Hulu for magazines“).

Creating a great magazine that feeds the passion or business-focus of a specific group of people is the only thing that will save magazines.

Update: Just when my friend Jeff Jarvis declares the end to magazines — or, at least an end to their value, P&G announces a magazine that, according to AdAge will reach 6, 7, or 11 million households — depending on whether your read the illustration cutline or the story. And, whatever it means, the magazine will use “mommy bloggers” to help build the database for the magazine’s distribution.

I’m not saying the quality of “rouge” magazine will be on par with the Conde Nast titles getting axed this week — it won’t be.

I’m just saying, the magazine format is not dead. Nor is its value.

  • dylanstableford

    Alright, here's the thing. I agree that gimmicks won't save any industry. That article is part of an ongoing “Five Ways to Save” series. They're meant to be a gimmicky, although I'd argue executing each point would help as I said, “prolong the inevitable.”

    (And I totally disagree with you on the “Netflix for Magazines” concept — it would totally work if it were marketed right.)

  • In the immortal words of the Flight of the Conchords: “What are your overheads?” Rex is totally in the zone with this one… Although I might add that beyond the “Geary-designed dining rooms, cars for all executives, legendary expense accounts” there lies a profound and somewhat unmanageable cultural problem. The people who make mass market magazines have no idea how to respond to a steady wave of technological change that is de-massifying everything in site.

  • @dylanstableford – “if it were marketed right” = this is an industry that takes six weeks to get a magazine subscription started after someone pays for it.

  • dylanstableford

    Alright, here's the thing. I agree that gimmicks won't save any industry. That article is part of an ongoing “Five Ways to Save” series. They're meant to be a gimmicky, although I'd argue executing each point would help as I said, “prolong the inevitable.”

    (And I totally disagree with you on the “Netflix for Magazines” concept — it would totally work if it were marketed right.)

  • In the immortal words of the Flight of the Conchords: “What are your overheads?” Rex is totally in the zone with this one… Although I might add that beyond the “Geary-designed dining rooms, cars for all executives, legendary expense accounts” there lies a profound and somewhat unmanageable cultural problem. The people who make mass market magazines have no idea how to respond to a steady wave of technological change that is de-massifying everything in site.

  • @dylanstableford – “if it were marketed right” = this is an industry that takes six weeks to get a magazine subscription started after someone pays for it.

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