What’s Next In Independent Magazines: 4 Questions For Utne Reader Editor-in-Chief David Schimke

Newspapers are dying, magazines are closing and more journalists are finding themselves without paying gigs every day. Everyone is wondering: what does the future hold for the media? We brought the questions to the front lines, asking leaders in the field to tell us: what’s next?

This week, we kick off our series with a discussion with David Schimke, editor-in-chief and general manager of the Utne Reader, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based digest of independent and alternative media, and it’s Web site, Utne.com. The magazine also presents annual Independent Press Awards, honoring excellence in independent magazines, which this year celebrated its twentieth anniversary.

FBNY: Many people blame the economy for the media’s recent problems. Do you think the recession is to blame or are there other factors at play?

David Schimke: I think there are two things going on at once. The first is a shift in the way people are consuming reported material and writing. We really are in the midst of a revolution, so it’s hard to see where we are. The blogger Clay Shirky [who has been republished in the Utne Reader] makes a great comparison to the creation of the printing press. Now, everyone knows what the printing press wrought, but at the time it was a transition period. And right now we’re in the transition period.

FBNY: Do you think independent magazines are better prepared to survive the current challenges than larger, commercial publications?

DS: Independent magazines are in a particularly good place because they are nimble and they can adapt. For content providers in the independent and alternative magazine world this is a good thing. They are smaller so they can quickly try new things — like cutting printing, distribution and postage — and see what sticks and what doesn’t. They can take advantage of things like a smaller print run. Also, a lot of smaller publications are niche publications, so they have a loyal audience that is invested in their survival. Those magazines have a better chance.

FBNY: What is the general feeling among those in the independent and alternative magazine world?

DS: Smaller publications, alternative and niche magazines are concerned and troubled, but they’re not panicked. There is this sense that things are okay for the time being. Things are changing, but we can kind of take advantage of it. The big players have relied on ads, so they are in trouble. But because the smaller publications have never been able to rely on ads they are in good shape.

FBNY: One solution to magazines’ revenue problems that is being discussed at length is requiring readers to pay to access their Web sites. Do you think smaller magazines will also start charging their readers to access their online content?

DS: People are going to have to start paying for content, whether you’re getting your content online or in print. Smaller magazines have been raising the rate they charge print subscribers. But where they have the advantage, in terms of charging for their Web sites, is in the niche market. If people want the information, they are willing to pay for it. The bigger magazines that are counting of hundreds of thousands or millions of readers to visit their sites, they may not get the same kind of response from online readers.