Posted by Paul Cloutier on 12 February 2007 (Essays)
Josh Norem, a former editor of Maximum PC, says that the web is going to make magazines extinct because they can't compete with the timeliness, the infinite amount of space, and the cost structure of the web. This should be of concern to us, after all we are a new publishing company that is betting on the future of the printed magazine. Well, we pretty much agree with his points. But rather than seeing this as the demise of magazines, we see this as an opportunity to embrace the web and make magazines better.
We see a bright future for magazines, and in order to be successful a publisher must accept the following points.
Magazines cannot compete with the timeliness of the web. This is true: there is no arguing that it takes a good deal of time to produce a printed work and therefore a magazine can never really beat the web to a story. This doesn't mean that magazines have lost an advantage they always had, it means that magazines have always failed at getting timely data. The web was designed explicitly for the purpose of sharing timely data and almost immediately it has been embraced as the best way to learn about something in depth.
A magazine that is not about ephemeral data becomes much more about inspiration and discovery. A magazine does serendipity really well—you can flip to a random page and find something new that you never would have thought to search for. Magazines should be tactile, inspirational, and beautiful. They should be an experience that takes you somewhere unexpected.
Takeaway: Do not compete with the web for data and timeliness, instead focus on a magazine’s strengths of inspiration and discovery.
The web has an infinite amount of pages. Again, this is unassailable. The web allows for virtually everything anyone has ever said or written to be cataloged and made searchable. However, the imposed scarcity in a magazine, with only a select number of pages, is one of the things that makes magazines really interesting. Each page should inspire a person to want to find out more—and when someone is ready to find out more—the web is there, ready to do what it does best, provide crazy amounts of in-depth information.
We see this as a central part of how to make a magazine: recognizing that the web has to be a huge part of the process. It can no longer be seen as only a marketing tool or just a subscription engine, but rather the heart of the whole system. Every story and photo that we publish starts out on the website. After being vetted by the community, the best of that work gets published as a sort of beautiful artifact of the community’s interest. This artifact then serves as a summation of what the community has created but also as a way to start the process over again by inspiring people to dig in deeper on the web site.
In a community, scarcity is a common motivator. Think of the Digg home page or Flickr's interestingness. All publishing systems are set up to find the most interesting contributions, and the promise of being featured is a powerful driver of participation leading to more focus and quality.
Takeaway: Use the scarcity of pages to your advantage and recognize that the web and print are both parts of the equation.
It is cheaper to produce a website than a magazine. Printing a magazine costs money, but the cost of making a printed magazine is much more than just printing bills. You have writers, editors, assistant editors, department editors, publishers, publishers assistants, photographers, ad sales managers, ad sales people, designers, the list goes on. One of the reasons it is cheaper for a publisher to start a web-only magazine is that web-only magazine startups generally eschew all of the traditional staff and structure of publishing in order to do things more efficiently. The entire editorial process is changing from a centralized staff intensive process to a much more agile software based method. Most publishers have not yet grasped this and are still employing the cost structure of production that they have used for the last 50 years.
Another reason magazines have struggled is the zero sum game of driving the cost of production down. We believe strongly in the idea that magazines are about inspiration and experience. So it's hard to have much sympathy for publishers complaining that their audiences are flocking to the web while at the same time printing on the lowest quality paper with 40–50 pages of ads and advertorial.
One of the most interesting parts of launching a magazine after years of launching websites is that we are actually selling a physical thing. We don't have to convince people to sign up for a premium membership or to pay us for something that didn't cost anything to distribute. We are selling people something they are familiar with: a physical product, a magazine. People seem to be pretty comfortable paying for something they can hold in their hands.
Takeaway: Embrace the lightweight cost structure of the web to reinvent the way magazines are created.
The central tenet of Norem's article is that magazines cannot compete with the web. In reality magazines are not the same as the web—they do such different things, both as a part of the journalistic ecosystem. The day we realize that this is not about web vs. print is the day we will free up magazines to do what they do best.
The web is not going to make magazines go away, it is going to make them better.
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