Let’s talk business models: Will magazine executives look toward the music industry (think iTunes and events) or TV (think cable subscriptions and ad-supported partnerships like Hulu) for salvation?
For magazines, micropayments aren’t necessarily the best fit. I don’t think the digital experience as we currently know it is enough of a draw to get lots of people to pay small amounts for it on an ongoing basis.
But I think the subscription model still makes sense, and that magazines still have the ability to attract small, specific audiences and sell them to advertisers. Right now we’re seeing digital subscriptions as add-ons to print subscriptions. They’re not a big selling point in and of themselves, but that’s because online magazines are just digital versions of print magazines. They’re not very interactive. As they innovate, digital subscription will become more attractive.
The iPad has the most transformative capability in that it’s not just a replication of the magazine page, but a true multimedia experience.
Will the digitization of magazines allow publishers to embed ads and revenue streams into the content, and how will this affect the traditional “Chinese wall” between editorial and advertorial?
I think it’s going to be very tricky to do without making magazine content a slave to the advertising opportunities out there. As a reader, I don’t want to be constantly having suspicions about the content, wondering why a particular brand is mentioned in an article, and whether they’re just trying to monetize.
There’s always the Google model of using automatically placed ads based on keywords so you don’t have human interference in the process. But anything that starts raising red flags with readers and disrupts their experience is going to be damaging in the long run.
While most of the magazine industry has suffered in the past few years, custom publishers have thrived. Why do you think that is?
I’m not an expert in custom magazines, but it’s obvious why companies and organizations would want to have access to the magazine experience. It’s a type of advertising that people will actually willingly expose themselves to. As consumers try to tune out other types of ads, this is one area that readers find fun and relaxing and interesting.
Maybe this says something about needing more transparency in journalism overall. If I know that the content is clearly the perspective of the publisher, I can keep that in mind as a reader and get out of it what I want.
Your research focuses on magazines as media communities. In the sense that they both connect like-minded people, are the Internet and magazines made for each other?
Like the Internet, magazines are all about identifying groups of people with similar ideas and similar interests. So just by existing and creating content around that particular theme, they’re really pulling together that group. But there’s a back-and-forth relationship where magazines attract like-minded people, and also help define communities.
There’s World of Warcraft magazine, which took an existing online community and built a magazine around it, which makes lots of sense. Then there’s Make magazine, which organizes Maker Faire events for readers to get together and work on crafts and projects built around the magazine brand. So some types of content are more suited to real-life events, and others to virtual communities where readers connect through the content itself.
Back in the ‘90s, news and culture websites like Slate and Salon proudly pronounced themselves “online magazines,” but today sites like Mashable or Gawker or The Huffington Post just call themselves blogs. So here’s my final, dramatically-phrased question….
What is a magazine?
I think we have to think of magazines as a very fluid concept at the moment. Certainly we have to move beyond the idea of the magazine as this printed and bound thing that’s on the newsstand or that comes in the mail.
Fundamentally, if you’re reading a magazine, you’re reading it to be immersed in content that speaks to a part of your personal identity. I think that if you listed off all of my magazine subscriptions you’d get a pretty good idea of what I’m all about.
We talk more and more about social media as a method of curation and a way for individuals to organize the stuff that’s most meaningful to them. And that’s essentially what magazine editors do.
So it’s not so much about the medium anymore but about finding content that resonates with you. And if you can recognize that experience, I think you’ve found yourself a magazine!