Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Fear and Grumbling (Again)

It was only a decade ago that a senior executive at Hachette asked me how to spell dot com. The same executive was not displeased when the Internet bubble arrived, as scheduled. Mr. X had learned enough that he could, after April 2001, deliver luncheon speeches about how he had predicted its demise. So good was he in this role that he found a place in my soon-to-be published novel.  In this iteration the character builds paper mache Internet monsters that look like a many-headed hydra so he could kill them with a very real sword in front of a foot-stomping crowd of magazine publishers chanting "print today, print tomorrow, print forever."

I thought I was safe in my fictional cul-de-sac. After all, magazine publishers, blindsided by the Internet have given in the last five years or so every indication they are getting it or at least struggling with the emerging platforms and channels and placing strategic bets. This new generation of digital executives are not contributing very much to my fictional needs.

Then along comes Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone and other titles, who was quoted in Ad Age suggesting the rush to the iPad is "sheer insanity and insecurity and fear."  Like my fictional character Mr. Wenner seems not to be very knowledgeable about the Internet and magazine companies in that space, including Forbes. Appropriately Forbes reminded him that the magazine gets more revenue from digital than print.  And that if Rolling Stone had a decent web site the magazine could have gotten much more benefit from the infamous General McCrystal article.

If I had completed my training in psychology, I would suggest that Mr. Wenner doesn't really mean what he says; he's just addressing the shadow side of the business, where there is much concern about technology but, from what I can tell, little insanity. But to continue the metaphor: we come to grips with our shadow side--or technology--by embracing and understanding it. In this respect magazines have done a fairly good job.

I am heartened by digital hires from outside the magazine space and, if I can put it this way, the collective rise in digital intelligence.  But with all the good news I remain convinced that most tech developments in publishing will come from outside the ranks. Blogger Frederic Filloux addresses the need for tech and media companies to work together. In his view media companies have lost the dual battle for growth and economic performance. Tech companies have the audience and endless funding. (www.mondaynote.com/2011/05/22/media-tech-reconcilability).

I just returned from the SID (display) conference in Los Angeles and was reminded of how little I really knew about the software side of e-readers, smartphones and tablets. I was also reminded of the numerous conversations I have had with publishers who are overwhelmed with the number of devices, OS, and interfaces available. They seem to want a simpler, more predictable eco-system.

My response to this understandable desire is that the fragmentation will likely become more pronounced as the competition, especially in the tablet arena, heats up. My suggestion: move beyond the pure aesthetic of these devices and deeper into the raw technologies and in this way invite conversations with the ODMs, OEMs, and carriers, starting at the "chip level." 

Mr. X is waiting in the wings.