USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Cutting the Cord With Print
Three publications exchange paper for picas

Over the past several years a small group of magazines that began life in print have migrated to the digital realm.  And once there, for financial and, to a lesser extent creative reasons, they killed the print parent.  Three of these varied magazines, Darwin, LiP, and Gadfly, are profiled below to help illustrate how and why different magazines make the switch, as well as the unique journeys each took on their way to becoming solely online entities.

Darwin

Launched in June 2000, a business magazine like Darwin, whose professed goal is to "make literate sense of technology's hype, hooey and manifesto opportunities," seemed like a financially-sound investment.  After all, like-minded publications including Business 2.0, Fast Company, and the Industry Standard could all at the time be mistaken for glossy doorstops, stocked as they were with advertisements for the latest dot-com start-ups.  But when the economic boom turned to bust, Darwin editor-in-chief Lew McCreary was forced to come up with an innovative way to keep his magazine, which survives almost exclusively on advertising revenues, alive in what he has described as "a sharply deoxygenated atmosphere."

"When the time is right, we will have survived to launch again in print (which is still the most pleasing and convenient way to package in-depth information)." -- Darwin Magazine's Lew McReary

Rather than allowing the publication to languish in an increasingly desolate print market, McCreary told Darwin's 150,000 readers in the final April issue that he had decided to move the magazine online for the foreseeable future.  He did not elaborate on how he plans to make money with his newly Web-only venture (which currently features a scant amount of banner advertising) or, at the very least, continue to pay the salaries of his 30 or more staffers.  When contacted recently, McCreary, just back from a trip to Europe, refused to discuss Darwin's online future, explaining that it was simply too soon for him to discuss plans.

Many of the magazine's readers who wrote in to the Web site in response to McCreary's declaration were sad to see the demise of the print edition but, as one subscriber put it, most "would definitely rather adapt to E-Darwin than post-Darwin."  Some looked toward the bright side of reading online: the articles are easier to forward to co-workers and friends, they reasoned, and if their eyes begin to strain the content can still easily be printed out.  Others suggested that the publication should implement a NPR-style campaign for voluntary subscription donations.

"In this case, the medium is not the message," reader Bill White reminded Darwin's staff.  But, one may argue, the medium does convey quite an important message; indeed, a tech-oriented business magazine that pins its hope for survival on the Internet is perhaps one of the strongest statements of practice-what-we-preach attitude that it could possibly promote.  However, it seems that in the minds of both Darwin's editors and readership, the sooner the publication is back in print the better off it will be.

"Technology is a wonderful thing when it can be used to provide an alternative such as this," reader Toni Jelinek explained.  "Isn't this why we have the Web?"

Well, at least for McCreary, who still sees the move as a temporary switch, online publishing might be no more than a means to an end.

"When the time is right, we will have survived to launch again in print (which is still the most pleasing and convenient way to package in-depth information)," he wrote in his April editor's letter.

LiP Magazine

After the twenty-month hiatus about 20% of the LiP Magazine print readership carried over to the online version.

Not all periodicals, however, possess this sort of unconvinced outlook toward Web publishing.  Brian Brasel, the 31-year-old publisher and co-editor of LiP,  resurrected his long-dormant print zine (which existed as a quarterly for a little over three years) as a monthly Webzine that has remained true to its original mission of promoting socio-political and artistic awareness.  Brasel conducts LiP's editorial process online from his Seattle home, along with two other editors, Jessica Clark (a Chicago resident) and Silja Talvi (also from Seattle), and a staff located throughout America.
 
The publication began its life in January 1996 as a traditional zine, printed from materials 'donated' from Brasel's then-employer, the management consultant firm Ernst & Young.  The stapled-together mass of paper and ink was filled with typically leftist commentary about the Zapatistas in Mexico, the effects of NAFTA, and even an obligatory reprinted Noam Chomsky piece.  But over time, LiP evolved into a more 'respectable' publication with more stringent copyediting and a stronger editorial focus -- although it still rarely paid its contributors and came out on a loose schedule that had its editors jokingly describing it as a 'sporadical'.
 
Brasel put LiP on hiatus in April 1999 when he was hired as an editor at Britannica.com.  Once there, however, he met current co-editor Jessica Clark and, now becoming familiar with online publishing through his new job, he eventually decided to reincarnate his dormant publication on the Internet.
 
"Instead of trying to compete with high-gloss, ad-funded publications for shelf-space in chainstores and the like, we decided to return first on the Web, developing and strengthening our editorial focus, and building a community of readers on-line," Brasel has written on the publication's Web site.
 
Just sixteen months after it made its January 2001 debut, Lipmagazine.org counts 8,000 readers for each of its online issues.  Brasel, who splits his time evenly between working on LiP and serving as the executive editor of Sea Kayaker magazine, has focused on creating an increased dialogue between the publication and its readers.  Interaction, whether elaborate or simply an e-mail link on a writer's byline, has been one of the editor's main concerns.
 
LiP's goal is not to make a profit; a large magazine with financial ambitions, like Darwin, it most certainly is not.  Thus, aside from an almost monetarily negligible amount of banner advertising, Brasel and his colleagues keep the costs down by volunteering their time and resources toward the project.  In fact, the total amount of last year's expenses, including rights to the domain name, came to only about $1,000.  Writers are rarely paid for their contributions, although the magazine has a policy that allows for those contributors who live off of their writing to receive payment.  Just as in the humble zine days, the staff actually consists of only three core editors, who handle all of the copy and design work, along with about seven outside contributors and reviewers.
 
"We do a lot with just a few people," Brasel said.

Content-wise, LiP Magazine's influences include the standard list of politically leftist publications, including Z and In These Times.  With regards to online design, the visual presentation of Suck, Salon, and Feed were particularly important.  And, of course, Brasel and Clark's tenure at Britannica.com seeped into the consciousness of the revived magazine.

The editors spent quite a bit of time perfecting the distinct 'look' of the Web site, as well as the publishing schedule.  Each issue now appears around the 15th of the month previous to that which is listed; April's edition, for instance, became available in the middle of March.  During the print years, the editors simply added articles to the Web site when they had a bit of spare time.  But since becoming an online-only operation, the digital side of publishing has taken on new importance.

"We thought that simply moving things online that were formerly in print was doing a disservice to the new medium," Brasel said.

The switch to the Internet has been filled with typical obstacles and rewards.  For instance, LiP received traffic spikes on several occasions after links were provided on other, larger Web sites, but unfortunately the magazine's highest moments were often punctured by server problems that kept many prospective readers away.

On the other hand, low costs coupled with an editorial process that can be easily conducted with no geographical base have bolstered the editors' resolve.  Also, typographical errors and factual mistakes in each issue's copy can be quickly corrected, allowing for a more polished finished product.

"It's liberating," Brasel said.  "There's no more sweating over the small stuff."

Like Darwin, LiP initially planned on an Internet presence as only an interim step before the magazine made its way back to the newsstands.

"Even though I'm now an editor of an online publication, I still prefer to read in print," Brasel said.

LiP's readers as well had not been entirely enthusiastic about the digital change; the most politically radical segment of the readership felt that the medium is solely the domain of the rich.  But Brasel reasons that his readers formerly had to purchase the print zine for $5, and now they are getting similar content (albeit delivered in a different way) for free.  Either way, he happily reports that even after the twenty-month hiatus about 20% of the print readership carried over to the online version.

So instead of making the leap back to print status, LiP has decided to continue and expand online.  Brasel detailed future plans for a sister site, LiP Fancies, which will concentrate on publishing poetry and fiction, as well as further experimentation with multimedia content, especially audio, in the magazine's quest to put the webzine format to use beyond simply posting text articles.

Gadfly

55-year-old lawyer John Whitehead began Gadfly because he could not find enough quality writing about Lenny Bruce, jazz, and a myriad of other subjects close to his heart.  So in January 1998 the Charlottesville, North Carolina resident began to bankroll what he now describes as "a mini-warehouse of different ideas" in the form of a bi-monthly magazine dedicated to provoking readers to recognize the relevance of arts and culture.  Whitehead, serving as both editor and publisher, brought in five full-time staff members and a variety of writers to, as the Web site puts it, "interpret and challenge the legends, beliefs and assumptions of a dynamic and a diverse culture by examining its literature, music, film, politics and live arts."

"There is not as much pressure now, but at the same time not as much permanence." -- Gadfly's Jayson Whitehead

Gadfly soon picked up a series of accolades; the Washington Post called it "refreshing" while the Utne Reader noted its "stupendous eclecticism."  But despite the critical and creative success, Whitehead's marketing inexperience kept his publication below the radar of most readers.  Unfortunately, by the beginning of 2001 the high cost of operating in print without receiving enough in return (whether advertising or increased circulation) forced him to consider a more economically suitable publishing option. 

Like Darwin's McCreary, Whitehead made the executive decision to publish solely on the Internet.  Gadflyonline.com's first exclusively online content (other material had previously been posted from the print edition) became available in the second week of March 2001, while the final, March/April issue of the magazine was still on the newsstands.

Whitehead enlisted his son, Jayson, now 31, and also from Charlottesville, to become editor-in-chief of the new online edition because of Jayson's previous professional working experience on the Internet.

"I was a little skeptical [at the time], to be honest, as to whether it would work out or not," Jayson said.  "I didn't know what to expect."

It took several months, but in time Gadfly found its footing on the Web.  A new, daily publishing schedule called for general features to be posted on Mondays, and more specific coverage on different fields during the succeeding days of the week -- music on Tuesdays, art on Wednesdays, literature on Thursdays, and cinema on Fridays.

John, who had scaled back his participation in the publication to a few days each week, was particularly concerned with developing a distinct, sophisticated design for the Web site that would properly match Gadfly's content.  In this area, the father-son team came into conflict; John wanted an aggressive visual signature, while Jayson preferred a more understated approach.

"We wanted to strike a balance between the Web sites with no design at all and those with too much," Jayson said.  "So coming up with a 'look' was challenging.  It took several months to get it right, to be happy with it.  It's been a process -- a fun process -- of learning by going along."

Both Whiteheads pointed to timeliness as their favorite advantage of online publishing.  On the Internet they can send their writers to a concert and post the review the next day or coordinate movie features to run on a film's release date.

"We had to plan our magazine a couple of months ahead of when it was actually going to come out," Jayson said of Gadfly's newsstand tenure.  "So we could never be timely.  [Going online] has allowed us to cover more events than before because [in print] you couldn't prepare to cover something that would happen two months in the future."

Now, however, the editorial process has been sped up to such a degree that important events can be addressed in a short amount of time.  For instance, Gadfly was able to post a Billy Wilder retrospective piece relatively shortly after learning about the "Sunset Boulevard" director's death in late March.

"The amount of effort and energy involved in putting together a print publication was enormous, as opposed to getting an article from a writer for the online edition on a Friday and publishing it the following Monday," Jayson said.

Financially, Gadfly is now much leaner than it was in its print days; the previous workload of the five full-time staff members has now been consolidated into Jayson's position, along with part-time help from several others.  Unlike LiP, the Whiteheads still pay their writers for their contributions, although since settling on the Internet the fees have dropped to, on average, one-third of their previous print levels.  The magazine, which never came close to a profit while on the newsstands and suffered from a wholly inadequate distribution system, now averages approximately 6,000 readers a month online.  By comparison, the print edition accumulated about 1,200 subscribers at its peak.
 
John, who was at first concerned with the quality and credibility of online journalism, has over time developed a fond attachment toward those (mostly younger) writers who work in the medium.

"I've come into contact with a lot of great writers [online] who I wouldn't have otherwise met," he said.  Even better, most will work for much cheaper rates than their offline counterparts.

But John concedes that not everyone has been so supportive of Gadfly's transition to the Internet.

"There were definitely writers out there [who had contributed to the print version] that were not interested in writing online," he said.  "I think it's an older generation, for the most part, who feels this way.  As far as readers, there were some who expressed disappointment right at the beginning, but I haven't heard of any complaints recently.  Most people are just happy that the magazine is still going online."

For his part, Jayson admits that, like Brasel, he still misses many aspects of publishing in print.

"There is something about online publications in the sense that you don't enjoy them aesthetically as much," he said. 
"It's hard to get into the look and design of [them]."

In the end, the Whiteheads have been a bit crestfallen over the simple lack of tangibility of a digital product.  For them, working on a print magazine felt more like creating a work of art, something lasting that could be placed in a person's hands and, in many ways, be more fully experienced.

Jayson, who has put so much effort over the past fourteen months into transplanting Gadfly's heart into a different body, seems to be satisfied with the result but recognizes its limitations.

"There is not as much pressure now, but at the same time not as much permanence," he said.