Business pubs are cautious about their online efforts
To look at their Web sites, one could easily come to the conclusion that the print business media just doesn’t understand. While amply reporting on the online abundance economy in their print editions, the Big Three business magazines–Fortune, Forbes and Business Week–still shy away from posting full content of their current paper selves on the Web for free.
The result is a split personality when it comes to how business magazines view the Web. In their print products, they herald it to their readers as an unmatched business opportunity. But when it comes to how it’s viewed in respect to their own businesses, the very same publications treat it with caution. Cannibalization, their belief system seems to indicate, is only a mouse click away. (In fairness, the consumer magazine industry as a whole also has a skittish attitude toward online media.)
So what are Fortune, Forbes and Business Week doing online? Taking baby steps into posting print content, even as there is growing evidence that ad-supported free content not only builds brand awareness among the Net-connected but actually sells more real-world magazines, boosting circulation and, presumably, ad revenue.
The business magazines are hardly at a loss for advice from within that they should reconsider their stance. Occasionally they even heed it, up to a point.
Take the case of Fortune, which publishes a column by Stewart Alsop, a partner in the Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. His “Infotech” column in the November 23, 1998 issue took fortune.com to task for waiting to post some of the magazine’s content on its Web site until the issue’s cover date–its last day on newsstands–almost two weeks after the paper edition reached subscribers.
So what if non-subscribers got a free ride, he argued; the Time Warner-owned publication had to provide service to paid subscribers.
“I’ve got to give Fortune credit for printing that column,” he says seven months later, juggling his cell phone as he parks his car by his Silicon Valley office. The piece prompted somewhat of a change in the magazine’s online policy. Now on Fortune’s actual publication date, selected articles are posted in full on fortune.com; these usually include the cover story, all the technology and investment coverage, and most columns.
But for Alsop, that’s still not enough. “They should put up full content online at the same time print copies go out to subscribers,” he insists, arguing that the much-feared cannibalization issue isn’t an issue at all. “I completely disagree that posting all your content will shrink the subscriber base. Instead, I believe that it will grow the audience relying on print. Selecting and packaging information on paper will become even more valuable in its own right.”
Then again, according to Fortune management, posting technology and investment articles simultaneously with the magazine may be sufficient for its online audience. “Our current policy is partly the result of Stewart’s column, but also the result of more people from the West Coast getting their information from our Web site,” says Peter Petre, executive editor of Fortune. With many visitors from Silicon Valley and other members of the online cognoscenti, the purpose of posting tech and money coverage is as much to generate buzz (and ultimately more sales) as for subscribers to access the magazine if it is delayed in the mail, or to print out an article as a reprint, or even to cut-and-paste for quotation in a memo.
“Less than half of the magazine appears online, but we are posting more original Web content,” says Christopher Peacock, editor of fortune.com. To the successful daily “Street Life” column by Andrew Serwer (copies go to an e-mail list of 40,000), the Fortune Web site has added “Valley Talk,” featuring three reporters out of its Silicon Valley office.
The package of print and Web-only material is proving a lure for new print subscribers, as well, according to Richard Fraiman, Fortune’s consumer marketing director. To wit, the Web site has recently featured a pop-up window that offers free trial issues to visitors as they leave the site.
“We’re at about 10 percent of all our new subscription sales from our online trial offer. It’s a source with a very good conversion rate of leads to paid subscriptions. Fortune.com is also Time Inc.’s most successful e-commerce site,” Fraiman says. And none of this comes at the expense of losing readers; he notes that the magazine recently raised its guaranteed rate base from 740,000 to 775,000.
While one or another of the Big Three business magazines is always pulling ahead in copies sold or total ad pages, their Web sites draw remarkably similar traffic. According to Media Metrix, in April Fortune’s Web site received 526,000 unique visitors from work and home, while Business Week had 531,000 visitors and Forbes had 486,000.
Perhaps to narrow the gap, Forbes.com recently launched a $10 million campaign running on radio and busses created by New York-based Merkley Newman Harty.
At Forbes, the online publication policy starts out like Fortune’s: concurrent with the print edition’s publication date, the magazine posts the cover story, columnists and other selected articles on forbes.com. Then, over the next two weeks, print material is added until virtually full content is available as the magazine goes off sale on newsstands.
In between print and online publication, visitors to forbes.com are also offered five to 15 original stories a day, including market roundups. Why not offer 100 percent of the magazine on pub date instead of through this fortnight’s dance of Web veils?
“I didn’t want to be cannibalistic,” says David Churbuck, editor for Forbes Digital Media.
Uptown at McGraw-Hill’s offices, Tom Masterson, Business Week’s vice president for circulation and marketing, counters: “There’s no evidence of cannibalization. And we’re generating online subscriptions from people who never read the magazine before.”
Business Week’s online schedule is the exception to the rule, with full content from U.S. and foreign print editions posted around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday evening, sooner than available on any newsstand–with another important exception. The entire magazine is behind businessweek.com’s firewall, accessible only to its print subscribers and a new category of online-only subscribers, a group unique among its competitors.
Business Week offers the online-only magazine subscription for $39.95. “We price it to be advantageous to order a print subscription, too–just $42.95,” explains Business Week Online’s general manager, David Smith. He points out that Business Week’s print editions are also available on America Online.
Way back in 1997 Business Week experimented with free access to its print content on the Web, but in 1998 moved to its current policy, favoring its circulation base. Non-subscribers visiting businessweek.com (about 70 percent of the site’s traffic) access a portal-like homepage with daily original features and excerpts from the magazine’s departments.
Will the business magazine Big Three try any time soon to put their full print content online in the new abundance capitalism? Don’t hold your breath.
As Alsop wrote in the Fortune column which criticized the magazine’s posting policy: “From all my experience as a customer, an editor, a publisher, and now a venture capitalist, I end up thinking that most old-media companies are a long, long way from succeeding online.”
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