The Digital Dialogue

I ‘ve been keeping a close eye on the magazine publishing business, and, as I see it, magazines are in a particularly tough spot. In a head-to-head competition of the printed page vs. the digital page, it’s hard to find any advantages left for print.

You can’t easily search, bookmark or e-mail the printed word. Nor can you blog about it—or even subscribe to its RSS feed. The portability of print is similarly challenged by broadband (wired and wireless) and the proliferation of handheld mobile computers (from Blackberry to Treo to Nokia Nseries to iPhone).

We are on the cusp of an era when broadband networks—now commonplace in our homes and businesses—will be with us everywhere we go. Through Wi-Fi, they have become de rigueur in our coffee bars, hotel lobbies and airports. Through 3G, they are available on our mobile phones and PDAs. And within the year, they will be available on our airline flights and train trips. As networks and devices converge to offer us “always-on, high-speed” access to the Internet, the portability advantage of magazines nearly disappears. How many of us will stop at Hudson News prior to our next flight when instead we can access an Internet’s worth of content on a laptop or multimedia phone while in flight?

Magazine publishers had the opportunity to stake out their turf in the digital landscape back in the Internet’s early days. But their business models and need to protect the cash cows of print have gotten in their way. Change will be particularly difficult because the magazine brands need to establish a compelling digital offering and win over new audiences who are not currently print readers. In response to all these challenges, there have been three recent pieces of notable news.

The first was Time Inc.’s announcement in October that it was selling off 18 titles, including venerable niche publications like Field & Stream and Popular Science, in order to focus on its core titles like Time, People, Sports Illustrated and Fortune. Then in January, Time Inc. reorganized these “core titles” in order to prepare the business for its digital transformation. These announcements are notable because they represent one of the thorniest challenges in publishing today: how to make horizontal content relevant in an age of vertical digital orientation. The two predominant trends on the Web are either huge (Yahoo or Google sized) or niche (zillions of blogs). To be successful online, you are either an aggregator of broad-based content, or way down the long tail in a singular niche. The editorial role of magazines in curating the best content on a particular subject and distilling it down to what fits into the weekly or monthly print run is being replaced by machines (e.g., search, personalization) and social networks (e.g., sites where users tell other users what’s good, useful or popular).

It’s somewhat easy to see how a niche publication like Dwell could become a major online destination (in fact, the multimedia-enabled Web version would probably be much better than the print one), but harder to see how a newsweekly could do the same. In a title like Dwell, editorial content and advertising are contextually related in a symbiotic way (i.e., the articles and the ads are generally about the same things, and readers are inherently interested in both) that is impossible for general interest magazines like Time. In announcing the decision to sell off 18 niche titles, Time chairman and CEO Ann S. Moore likened it to Procter & Gamble’s decision in recent years to sell off noncore brands in order to focus on the high performers. Although this seems like a sound business strategy, the analogy doesn’t quite work because P&G is not in transition from being an analog company to becoming a digital one. But in every sense of the word, that is exactly Time Inc.’s challenge.

The second piece of notable news was the December launch of Viv, a women’s lifestyle magazine available exclusively online. Viv subscribers receive their issues in a digital format called Zinio, which preserves the page-flipping metaphor of magazine reading. Many magazines, from BusinessWeek to Elle to TV Guide, are available in Zinio format, but Viv is the first to be offered exclusively as a digital publication. While there are benefits to the Zinio format, such as the ease of use and the ability to print in a magazine layout, it doesn’t have the advantages of Web-based publishing, with its ability to search, bookmark, e-mail or post comments. Furthermore, even though Zinio mimics the print format online, it lacks the tactile qualities like the ability to quickly thumb to a particular article or page. It will be interesting to see how a transitional strategy like Viv will fare amid all the other online choices women have for accessing lifestyle content.

The third piece of news—and the one that strikes closest to my own business—is the announcement last month that Meredith Corp. (publisher of Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, et al.) had acquired two interactive agencies, New Media Strategies and Genex. This is an interesting move because it will potentially put publishers in direct competition with the agencies that have traditionally recommended or bought their ad space. At the same time, it gives Meredith an ability to go directly to advertisers with packaged solutions that span creative and media. The challenge for the newly acquired agencies will be maintaining their creative cultures inside the confines of a traditional publishing company.

Magazines are part of the same food chain that includes advertisers and agencies in service to consumers. We are all engaged in a technological dance to reinvent our business models in an era of unprecedented change and opportunity. One of the hardest lessons publishers must learn is that content doesn’t end with publication, as it did in the past. Instead, publication of content is just the beginning of a digital dialogue in which the entire world is now participating.