Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In Praise of: TIME, The Week, Wired, and Flipboard2.0

The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) just announced finalists for the Magazine of the Year (General Excellence) and other awards.  The list includes the familiar and impressive heavyweights: Esquire, Glamour, National Geographic, New York, and TIME.  I don’t envy my friends at ASME the task of sorting through the best of the print best while giving a nod to digital.  So far, all is right with the world.

I was very happy to see TIME on the list, not only because many friends still work there, but also because of the way it was knocked around during the rumors about Meredith acquiring Time Inc.  TIME was said to be left out of that fantasy transaction and a place at the table.  Perhaps this indignity prompted the Atlantic Online post by Joshua Macht, who leaves nothing to the imagination in his title: “Running out of TIME: The Slow, Sad Demise of an American Magazine.”

Thank you ASME for giving this relic of a magazine one last acknowledgement at the upcoming awards dinner because, well, you never know.   But Macht seems to know, suggesting that it’s hard to imagine there will be much left of the brand in 36 months. 

He exaggerates and I exaggerate.  There is some sadness in his blogger voice.  He wonders out loud how Time Inc., so early in the game with a $100 million investment in the Pathfinder portal, long before Google and when Netscape and AOL were still tiny, has not been able to capitalize on the web? Obviously the huge distraction with the AOL deal that some have called the worst media merger in history didn’t help.

But this is all a prelude to the real dance.  Frank Rich’s current New York piece, “Inky Tears” sucks all the sentimentality out of our much-aired historical narrative about the demise of the media titans.  “TIME is on the block.  The New York Times is teetering.  It can get an alumnus down, but the last thing the news business needs is a case of nostalgia.”  He writes that whether print survives or not is borderline irrelevant:  “Survival, not survival of a print edition, is what’s at stake now.”

My earlier remarks about TIME magazine point back twenty years to those halcyon days.  Rich suggests that “If you look back at TIME in its heyday, it’s a model more worthy of parody than emulation.”  Here  Rich is referring to the magazine’s far flung bureaus, editorial redundancy in the extreme, and a profligate waste of money worthy of an Evelyn Waugh satire.  Accordingly, the seeds of the magazine’s decline were planted a long time ago.  The writer notes that “In the modern history of media, the reigning giants have nearly always been caught napping by transformative change.”  There is something almost biblical in that statement.

In the last couple of days, I’ve had occasion to look at The Week, a modest, hardly handsome, print summary of domestic and international news within the fair-use doctrine.  When Felix Dennis of Maxim fame launched The Week in the US in 2001, the WSJ wondered out loud whether the man was nuts.  I know Dennis and have called him a lot of names, but “nuts” wasn’t one of them.  Dennis, who is rich, unpredictable, and a Brit with a wicked wit, gave his best quote to the NYT:  “In the end, The Week will inherit the earth.” 

The Week has neither inherited the wind nor the earth, but it has gained a tidy, secure, foothold on a piece of expensive real estate by behaving like a very traditional print magazine.  It has a paid circulation of about 540,000, a fraction of the 3+ million TIME enjoys.  Its circulation base is almost completely subscription.  Newsstand sales are insignificant as are digital replicas.  The Week sells a lot of gift subscriptions.  The magazine has a very active web site, but is just now looking more seriously at digital revenue-generating opportunities, such as e-commerce and the like, an effort that is likely to be helped by sister company Mental Floss.  The Week is said to generate about $50 million in total revenue with a 10-15% ROR. 

By publishing standard, this is a very small enterprise, but the example is instructive nonetheless.  Over the years, The Week has reminded the publishing community that it is not a legacy magazine trying to adapt to the current news environment.  The magazine identified its niche, filled it, and served the readers well.  My guess is that the ratio of consumers who subscribe to those who renew their subscriptions for the next term is very high.  And this is the secret sauce.  You can bet that Felix Dennis, a stickler on cost control and, as I’ve noted in earlier blogs, a trenchant critic of American magazine cost structures and largesse, has kept the business very lean.  I’ve heard people argue that The Week isn’t a real magazine; that it is built on the backs of other journalists.   This sounds like legacy thinking.

In his New York article, Rich raises the question, first raised by PaidContent, that “At what point does it become more of a hindrance than a benefit to be associated with a traditional media brand?”  Rich is referring here to newspapers and news magazines, but his question probably has broader media implications.  The brand remains the glue, the identity, the existential positioning for media properties.  Magazine publishers now design for branded, edited content that will thrive in a cross platform and cross-channel world.  Print is just one component of this content universe.  This positioning is vital, pragmatic, and defensible in the business sense.  And this approach should become more secure as publishers get better at delivering and monetizing content across these platforms, especially tablets where advertising CPMs are favorable, without all those workflow and staff redundancies.

Speaking of awards:  this is the 20th anniversary of the launch of Wired Magazine by Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rossetto, a date worth celebrating.  I recall meeting Ms. Metcalfe in 1996, showing up in their office in the low-rent district of SF in my very NY suit and tie to chat about expanding the title internationally.  Three years earlier, New York publishers had rejected their business plan, so they turned to Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, for financial support to publish their version of Rolling Stone for the digital age.  (Ad Week’s Ted Greenwald has a wonderful article on the launch of Wired in the current issue.  The 20th anniversary edition of Wired will be available for download April 16 and on newsstands April 23).

The launch of Wired now seems gutsy and charming in a way, brought to life by founders who had a clear sense of purpose and who perhaps fortuitously lived three thousand miles from the epicenter of publishing.  The founders could bring in alumni from Ziff-Davis and Macworld to help bring the magazine to life where, in the East, few seemed to speak that language.  I don’t think the magazine would have stood a chance in New York in 1993.

Media disruption today can be found in the app stores.  The joke in Silicon Valley is that everyone is working on an app, but it’s not that funny.  Google just booted 60,000 apps from its Google Play, many apparently spam-like.  I’m working on a couple of mobile apps and have learned how difficult it is to differentiate and bring something genuinely new to market.   And like most in the space, we keep an eye on Flipboard.

The platform is said to have 50 passive and 4 million active users.  That’s a sizeable community any way you slice it.  Though there has been some pushing and pulling with publishers, especially over revenue-sharing, Flipboard appears a useful tool in the publishing arsenal.  And with the introduction of Flipboard 2.0, this relationship could get even more interesting--and complex.

We’re heard ad nauseum for the last decade or so that one grand end-game for digital is to allow every consumer to be an editor and publisher.  To a degree, this wish-fantasy has already come to life as the proliferation of blogging and self-publishing tools have become widely available.  Flipboard 2.0 raises the stakes even more.  In this version, the navigation is much simpler and I can flip through digital pages as if I am thumbing through a print version.  But for me, the really interesting part is that consumers are now able to create custom magazines in literally seconds for sharing or private use.  Have a look at the Flipboard video available on the site and watch magazines such as Living in Trees, Mountain Biking, and Mid-Century Amazing, about houses and the like, come to life.  And with the new bookmarking feature, you don’t have to be on the platform to add content from other sources, such as the web.

Paul Armstrong at PaidContent has referred to Flipboard as a “giant iceberg lurking in the path of media,”  As an ex-Navy guy with long stints at sea, I can appreciate this metaphor, even if it appears to be somewhat overstated.  But Armstrong is absolutely right about Flipboard 2.0 signaling a “pivot from purely curation-based interaction to one that uses full-blown creation abilities.”  

Flipboard’s business model would become much more interesting if the platform became a digital magazine incubator, a media laboratory, an experiment in beautiful branded content, particularly for the publishing verticals, all with the energy and insights of the crowd.  Flipboard could be a real partner to magazines and media companies.

In my most recent post, I wrote that the software that will make content more intelligent and an increasing dependence on algorithms to solve editorial tasks over time will impact the magazine publishing model.  Flipboard might be a more old-fashioned disruptor, making use of technology plus the wisdom of the crowd.  IDG, publisher of Macworld and other computer titles, realized years ago that its readers knew as much, if not more, than its editorial staff and embraced that talent. This seemed an important awakening.

Going forward, magazines publishers will likely need a lot more of this brand of humility.

No comments:

Post a Comment