Future of magazines: Net could empower readers

While Newsweek magazine has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons — mainly for a faulty Periscope item on Koran abuse — the magazine should be praised on a much larger scale for reinventing itself. This isn’t about politics, but about the scope of Newsweek.com, the online home to Newsweek that has included everything from daily breaking news to video blogs from correspondents at the Vatican to podcasts of the Newsweek On Air online radio show.

The transformation of Newsweek is timely, as the major U.S. newsweeklies are experiencing a decline in print readership similar to that of major newspapers. According to numbers collected by the State of the News Media 2005, the big three newsweeklies — Time, Newsweek and U.S. News — have lost 1 million readers in combined circulation over the past 16 years. But the magazine business as a whole remains relatively healthy because of the rise of so many niche publications and the staying power of glossy entertainment news.

In fact, magazines were pioneers in niche content before cable TV and the Internet came along and usurped them with the flashy video of the former and the interactive communities of the latter.

“TV has managed to segment audiences into the same demographic/psychographic buckets that once were the sole purchase of magazine land,” wrote John Battelle, founder of the Industry Standard magazine, on his blog.”PVRs [personal video recorders] only accelerate this trend, adding the convenience of search and storage to the magazine rack concept. Add in the fact that the average cable bill in the US is more than $40, and you have a subscription + ad model, just like magazines.”

While the “print is dead” meme has been hashed out countless times in the media world since the advent of the Net, few experts would predict that print magazines will become dinosaurs anytime soon. The spate of early online-only magazines has largely subsided, with Salon and Slate still standing as survivors but not as the vanguard to what comes next.

Instead, innovation in long-form magazine journalism online is coming from the edges, in the shape of thoughtful audio podcasts, on-the-scene video blogs and in the plethora of thoughtful essays on Weblogs maintained in academic and professional realms. The “power of many” means that in-depth magazine pieces that once took a reporter months to amass might one day be accomplished by an online community that has a strong interest in the subject — with a reporter or editor prodding them on.

To find out the present state of magazines in the digital age — and where they might go in the future — we convened another virtual roundtable of esteemed journalists and academics, many of whom have observed the medium’s evolution over decades. The following is an edited version of the group’s conversation, done entirely via e-mail over the past week.

David Abrahamson is the Helen G. Brown Research Professor of Journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the author of “Magazine-Made America: The Cultural Transformation of the Postwar Periodical,” an interpretive history of the magazine profession since World War II, and the director of the Northwestern University Center for the Writing Arts.

Jeff Jarvis is the creator of Entertainment Weekly magazine, and the former president and creative director at Advance.net. He currently writes a popular blog called BuzzMachine, and is consulting for About.com while planning to be editor in chief of a new news start-up.

Samir Husni is professor of journalism, the Hederman Lecturer and the director of the University of Mississippi’s Magazine Service Journalism Program. He is one of the nation’s leading authorities on magazines, known also as “Mr. Magazine.” His expertise grew out of a childhood pastime of collecting magazines, which grew into an addiction and snowballed into a doctoral thesis, a teaching career and then a book, “Samir Husni’s Guide to New Consumer Magazines.”

Nina Link has been president and CEO of the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) since November 1999. She has refocused the organization through strategic initiatives in four areas – government affairs, advertising, circulation and promotion and professional development. Prior to joining MPA, Link served as group president, publishing and interactive for Sesame Workshop, formerly Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), where she was responsible for the magazine publishing, book publishing, database, interactive software, and school divisions.

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University, where he has been on the faculty since 1986. From 1999 to 2005 he served as chair of the department. Since September 2003, Rosen has authored PressThink, a Weblog about journalism and its ordeals. His current project is a book about the press in the Net era, tentatively called “GatesKeepers Without Gates,” to be published by Times Books in 2006.

Joan Walsh is editor in chief at Salon.com and an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, Vogue, Glamour, Health and dozens of newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. Prior to joining Salon.com she worked as a freelance writer specializing in race, education, poverty and urban development issues, and was a consultant on those same issues to government, foundations and non-profit groups.

Online Journalism Review: The Magazine Publishers of America envisions a Jetsons-like future where people take floating baths but are still using the old print magazines to read in the bath. What do you imagine might change about the physical nature of magazines in the decades to come? More tablet or e-ink readers?

Jeff Jarvis: I don’t see the form changing in profound ways at all (unless you consider a new size a profound change; I don’t). It’s a quite separate matter to ask whether magazine content — feature writing, long-form writing, in-depth reporting, strong photography — will be distributed via other media — namely, online — and become multimedia, with audio, video conversation. Would that still be a magazine? No, I think it would be a mistake to try to import the old definition to the new thing — whether that is magazines or newspapers or TV or radio. Magazines are magazines. Paper is paper. New things are new things.

Samir Husni: Only two people can tell you the future: God and a fool. Having said that, I recall the many professors of mine (back in the late ’70s early ’80s) who told me that I was wasting my time studying magazines … print is dead they said. We have now three times the number of magazines that were offered for sale back then and the numbers continue to grow … I agree with Jeff that content will change. It did, it is changing, and it will continue to do so. As for the format, ink on paper will be with us as long as we have trees.

Jay Rosen: I think when we ask questions like this, we aren’t really asking about that ‘physical nature’ so much as posing a metaphysical question, along the lines of: Will the future be radically different from the past, or not really so different at all? I notice this in the ‘future of newspapers’ debate. It applies here.

People who hope that the fundamentals of journalism won’t change tend to attach those hopes to statements about unchanging media forms, like, ‘I’ve lived through the death of print three times already. Remember the paperless office?’ Whereas those who are hoping for change in journalism tend to get ‘attached’ to platform change as a kind of dynamo. I have no firm sense of what will happen with print, paper and ink. But I do think this: The strength of print is still that is scaled to the human body and what ‘works’ for it, or doesn’t. The body and its requirements do change, but far more slowly than technology –and journalism — do.

Nina Link: We know from the Northwestern Magazine Reader Experience Study that people talk about magazines with some of the following words: ‘it’s my personal time out’; ‘I lose myself in the pleasure of reading it’; ‘it stimulates my thinking about things’; and ‘it makes me smarter.’ The physical attributes of a magazine are very much part of the experience of reading a magazine — the size, the portability, the quality of the graphics and the ease of use. I believe strongly in the future of the paper-based magazine. It’s been with us for more than 260 years. Paper-based magazines are a timely and timeless medium.

We’re certainly moving to an era where there are exciting digital platforms. Magazine content, the power of magazine brands and the communities of magazine readers will be part of this evolving media transformation as well.

OJR: Everyone is now arguing about the death of print newspapers due to declining readership. What is it about magazines that will allow the medium to retain readership and profit economically as ad dollars move online? How can magazines prosper economically in the digital age?

Jay Rosen: I don’t think it’s my business to worry about the state of the magazine industry. Others have that job, a hard one; I try to follow the solutions they come up with as ad dollars move around. In the fate of those magazines that are doing what I consider real journalism, and especially new forms, I am always interested. (Feed magazine from a few years ago is the perfect example.) This can vary from the small non-profit policy magazine that might provide a great internship for students up to Forbes and Sports Illustrated. It includes Salon and Slate and many others online.

At NYU, I have colleagues who share my fascination with the future possibilities of long-form journalism, and social criticism in periodical form; and if you start where we do, the natural question is not ‘how can magazines prosper economically in the digital age?’ (your perfectly valid industry query) but ‘how can a Republic-enhancing form of journalism — long-form journalism, narrative journalism, the journalism of ideas, of criticism in tune with the news — thrive in the years ahead, whether or not the market values it at such and such a rate, whether or not people call it a magazine.’

Profit, non-profit, semi-profit, patron model, public radio model, new model, old — we’ll take anything that works — even bake sales — because we care about continuation of a form, and the chance to be great in it, guaranteed for future authors.

Nina Link: We are an industry that constantly reinvents itself to serve the evolving needs of its readers and advertisers. In the first quarter alone, 75 consumer magazine launches were announced. These titles include 16 magazines targeting women and 12 aimed at men, service and shelter magazines, magazines aimed at the Hispanic market, as well as magazines targeted at the niche affluent market. These announcements demonstrate the vitality, energy and creativity that distinguish our business.

I would agree that ad dollars are moving online, but it’s important to note that some of those dollars are falling into the magazine industry bucket. Our magazines have some wonderful content-rich Web sites that serve as powerful brand extensions of the core product and advertisers have taken notice. Already, we estimate that these sites generate hundreds of millions of advertising dollars a year. We see the online world as a bright opportunity rather than a dark threat.

Jeff Jarvis: I have a simplistic answer: I don’t have time to read magazines as much as I used to. I love magazines and I kept buying them, but finally I realized that they were stacking up as The New Yorker, causing guilt. I do read magazines in print that I can’t get online — but I curse them when I can’t link to them and quote them and get them into the conversation. That’s just me.

But magazines, like other old media, face competition for our time and thus for ad dollars and they, like newspapers and TV, need to find the right way to cross media. However, magazines have one great strength: They’ve not been commoditized. There are many newspapers and news shows reporting the same things. Magazines have a voice and in this era voice is values; magazines can create content with unique value and if they can continue to find readers across media they will survive.

David Abrahamson: In support of Jeff’s observations, I suspect that there are a number interesting particulars to his generality. The ideas of ‘non-commodification’ and of ‘voice equals value’ are terribly important aspects of how magazines serve their audiences.

Other notions, many of which are unique to the magazine form, are part of the equation as well. For example:

  1. Magazines facilitate for thier readers the creation both personal identity and communities of shared interest (often in only virtual terms).
  2. What might be called the ‘journalistic distance’ between producer (editor) and consumer (reader) is often far shorter in magazines than in other media. It is still ‘from the few to the many,’ but the few and many share a common set of interests and values.
  3. The concept of ‘narrow-casting’ (specific information of assured value to definable and reachable audiences) has come to be ever more central to periodical publishing since the late 1950s.

Taken all together, it can be argued that magazines seem uniquely suited to take advantage of the digital (read: Internet/WWW/interactive) future. The key, at least on the basis of this analysis, is magazines’ special relationship with their audience: one characterized by unusual loyalty, affinity and community, shared personal interests and ideologies and an ability to provide high-value information targeted at self-defined audiences.

Joan Walsh: I agree that *some* magazines have some assets that most newspapers don’t — trust and affinity and presumed shared interests, at least for smaller niche publications — but without an online component they’re not going to build what’s most basic about the relationship, and that is allowing users instant feedback with you, as well as the capacity to find one another. I still think that affinity relationship is the key to why people actually pay money to support Salon — they value us, the relationship, and increasingly they value one another.

OJR: For print magazines, what are the most useful ways to use technology to distribute content beyond just U.S. mail? Should they all have Web sites, and what content online works well in concert with print?

Jay Rosen: I think Washington Monthly, a political magazine, had a good idea when they found an already successful political blogger — Kevin Drum, a kindred spirit — and gave him the front page without hedging bets. You can still promote the magazine’s contents, and you have a new connection to a new audience online. The blogger brings a certain credibility (and user base) to you. You also add to the blog’s credibility and shine by putting the magazine ‘around’ it.

Nina Link: Magazines are using technology to deepen their relationship with their existing readers and to introduce themselves to new readers. Virtually all our members have a presence on the Web and many are exploring how to deliver content to other platforms as well — cell phones, PDAs, iPods, etc. There is no ‘one size fits all’ formula for creating a meaningful magazine-branded experience using digital distribution. Because magazines are trusted, recognizable and targeted communities of interest they have the ability to connect with people across a wide range of delivery systems.

The challenge is finding the right touch point for their audience with content appropriate to the platform and the brand. Magazines are no longer transferring their content verbatim to the Internet. Many are using their Web sites and other digital devices to update content between publishing cycles, to provide a forum for communities of interest to interact together, and to engage people in interactive experiences (games, polls, and contests, etc.) They are also conducting research, managing their customer relationships and some are experimenting with sight, sound and motion. Not every platform works for every magazine, but every magazine should be exploring, alone or in partnership with others, how to use technology to expand their relationship with their reader.

Jeff Jarvis: I am reminded of the excellent speech by Tom Curley before the Online News Association, in which he called on the press to separate content from container. Magazines are magazines because that’s what the technology, printing, and distribution demanded. Now technology allows any means of publishing, broadcasting, and conversing; now printing is a cost center; now controlling distribution does not bring the advantages it once did. So we need to stop thinking of media brands as tied to their medium. In other words, this is about more than distributing content. The definition of a magazine story should not be that it’s printed in a magazine. And a magazine brand can and should have new relationships with its public across media: in print, online, on video, in audio.

If I were starting Entertainment Weekly today, I’d consider the possibility that the brand, content, and relationships exist first online and that the magazine is the ancillary product, the value-added for readers and advertisers. Ditto TV, radio, mobile. And the content would be entirely different: The people should be the critics; the listings can be local; the features can be video stories; the conversation can be a podcast.

Samir Husni: We are in the business of selling content. So, any way I can get my content to the hands of specific customer, I will be in good shape. I envision a day that each one of us will have their little Web printer in their home in which they can print the magazines they wish to subscribe to. The magazines will be custom made to the reader’s needs, wants and desires. The problem we have now with the Web delivery, is that in most cases it is a one-way street. We send readers to the Web from our print publication and we never ask them to come back. There are few exceptions here and there. But rather than thinking of the technology as a competitor, we need to think of it as an add-on. The key is to always send people back to the printed edition. That’s where the beginning and end should be.

OJR: David and Jeff mentioned all the things that set magazines up perfectly for the digital age — creating loyalty, community and narrow-casting. So how can they best exploit this advantage? What journalism can they do to best utilize print and online — together? How can they engage their audience online in a conversation? Cite some current examples that might bode well for the future.

Jay Rosen: People can know a lot more together than they can ever know alone. And they find it magical, or maybe just satisfying to participate in that larger project. Even though the Internet makes this possible, it still has to be organized and initiated by someone who has a plan, and knows what she’s doing. One name for that person is magazine editor. Someone who is good at making it possible for users (‘readers,’ in the old lexicon) to know more in common than they can ever know alone about things passionately felt or actively pursued.

It’s different than feeding content to consumers. It’s asking yourself how the former consumers can also be knowledge producers, and do something great. Go study Firefox and ask yourself: why not a magazine, rather than a browser?

Let’s say you edit a ski magazine. The Web lets you organize readers in the Northeast to get a true, independently arrived at, hour-by-hour picture of conditions, prices and crowds, every state, every slope, every trail, every day of the season. People can know a lot more about ski conditions together than they can ever know alone. It’s easy for them to pool the knowledge through you, and better than relying on the industry’s self-report. The editor who makes it happen online is also going to learn a lot about these users, which will be useful in editing a quality magazine for them. Within a potentially vast user base there are a few people who are motivated to speak to the community-at-large, who have a voice and whose feel for the milieu is superior. These become your bloggers, if you can find them and coax them into it.

In all cases, I think, these methods will be most successful when they combine with traditional acts of editing and packaging content, and with the traditional strengths of journalism: original reportage, tight editing, routines of verification. Combine how? We need to figure that out. Ask me in twelve months. We may know a lot more then.

Jeff Jarvis: I can’t say it better than Jay (as usual).

Joan Walsh: I think the challenge is to invent or refine new magazine forms that let users preside in lots of ways, let users find one another, let users form communities, let users create — and yet still offer professionally produced, well researched and edited essays and investigative reported pieces that the reader won’t find anywhere else, an opinionated guide to a mixed-up world. Three of Salon’s most popular stories in the last few weeks have featured the words ‘best’ (independent movie) ‘worst’ (reality TV) and ‘everything you wanted to know about’ (a useful and popular guide to the nuclear option). Our readers want to know what we think — and they want to tell us what they think. And they want to know what other readers think. Our reader letters are also among our most popular content, understandably, and we’re in the process of automating their posting to get more onto the site more quickly.

Samir Husni: Magazines are and must continue to be interactive. When reading Seventeen magazine or CosmoGirl one can have the magazine on their lap and their figures on the keyboard. Those two magazines are just an example of the way the multitasker generation uses print and the Internet. My fear, and I have mentioned that earlier, is the one way street from print to the Web. Very few publications have learned the art of sending readers back to print. Engage the reader/user with your content. The new generation does not get dizzy from shifting gears like we do. The hook is the content … the bait can be any medium you like.

OJR: Thanks to advances in printing technology, magazines will have the opportunity to print out custom versions of their issues and let people choose the sections and articles they want before delivery. Online, the opportunity for customization is even more profound. How important is customization in print and online for magazines, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this for publishers, journalists and readers?

Joan Walsh: Online we have rampant personalization already thanks to RSS. It’s becoming a cliche but in our TiVo, Google, iPod world people want what they want in the order they want to get it. And yet … we’re investing in a redesign at Salon because there’s a need for both — the public face you show the world, the hierarchy of content chosen by editors AND the capacity to chop it up and view it the way you want it.

Jeff Jarvis: The technology has been there for years; I remember the oohs and aahs at industry confabs when newspaper people saw plateless, ink-jet printing and when magazines saw selective binding. They haven’t taken over the world; doesn’t mean they couldn’t help magazines — especially in an era when advertisers learn to stop just buying masses and start buying masses of niches. But it’s hard to imagine that personalized/localized printing will ever beat the personalized/localized web.

Samir Husni: The beauty of print is that our readers know some of what to expect and a lot of what not to expect. If we limit the content to what each one of us thinks what he or she needs, I do not even want to think of what type of society we will have if people only read or viewed the stuff they think they need. We will have customization, but we will always have surprises. Magazines existed in the age of the 8-page newsletter and and will continue to exist in the 24/7 age of the Web. I agree with most of the panelists that it is the content and the way we package it is what is important. Selling content is our business and we should never forget this.