It’s time for change in the publishing industry.

There could not be a better time for change in the publishing industry. On the eve of new leadership for America, magazine publishers need to pull their collective heads out of their asses and stop hacking away at the quality of products they produce (and the spirit of those that produce them) and start leading this industry in a new direction.

After announcing a restructuring of their magazines and a staff cuts Anne Moore CEO of Time Inc. told publishers at a circulation conference that Time Inc.’s decision to reorganize had “nothing to do with digital and one hundred percent to do with the recession” (here).

Really Anne? Yes, advertisers are leaving because of the recession but they are also leaving because the product you produce no longer works for them, because there are new and exciting opportunities online and because you keep hacking away at the staff, frequency, page count, trim size and contributors until what’s left is not worth what you are charging. Was it ever worth what you charged them? You’ve certainly made millions off advertising to your readers but I think we’re about to find out if that was a fair deal for everyone.

This AdAge article (here) presents two scenarios for the next five years. Either, top tier magazines that somehow find a way to survive will reap huge returns when the recession ends or advertisers that are leaving now will never come back again. Without a doubt I know all the publishers are betting the former and I think they are all completely wrong.

There are two monumental changes in our industry:

1. The balance of power has gone to the consumers, contributors and even *gasp* your employees who can create, distribute and use content online practically for free.

2. The web allows you to save millions of dollars in creation and distribution costs.

Yet, I feel like many people in publishing think they’re not monumental. If a magazine is anything it’s a very expensive and complicated way to package and deliver content. Suddenly this takes zero effort and publishers are all standing around scratching their heads screaming how will we make money off this.

The changeover to the digital use and distribution of your content is going to be a mess, a complete mess, but without significant investment from existing publishers you will see your market share dwindle and eventually disappear completely. There’s nothing wrong with this really, it happens when the market changes and companies don’t see that hairpin turn in the road and just drive straight off the cliff. I’m sure there are many who will not be one bit sad to see the demise of a few publishers out there who don’t treat their employees or contributors very well.

Here are my 5 easy steps to making the transition to a new media economy:

1. Plow all of your profits back into the your company. Then get into the savings account an grab some of the profits from the 90’s when you were getting obscenely rich off your advertisers and plow some of that back into the product. Use it to make mistakes.

2. Gather all the employees you were about to fire because they don’t fit in so well with your organization or because they are too green to have mastered traditional publishing and give them promotions. Put them in charge. Gather all the people you’ve trained to say no to change and yes to whatever you say is good and fire them (ok I know this will mean there is nobody left in accounting and IT so keep a few of them around but maybe go for the junior ones).

3. Now, add staff and make everyone spend half the day doing traditional print work and half the day working on the online thing (it’s not a magazine). Make sure they try lots of crazy ideas and make lots of mistakes.

4. Invest in your contributors. You spend a tiny fraction of your production costs on the contributors yet the product without them is worthless. If you don’t start building some loyalty with your content creators they will leave you when a better deal comes along.

5. Photography is the key. Figure out how to use it. Video online is TV. We already know that works. Text online is, well, it’s great to read at a certain length but you know, it’s always going to work better printed. Photography is the perfect medium for communication online.

Change or die. It’s up to you.

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  1. I’d like to still be able to pick up a magazine in three years, sit down on the sofa, have a drink, turn on some music and turn the pages. How is online media going to satisfy that customer desire? It would be interesting to run a poll to see how many readers here prefer print based magazines over websites.

    • @brandon,
      Online can’t satisfy that desire and both can exist although you might be paying more for your subscription or newsstand purchase.

    • @brandon,

      It’s not like you’re chained to the desk anymore. With all of the different options for e-books and such. I know it’s not tactily(sp)the same, but I bet as more and more publishing is on-line only there will be new technology that will give you much the same experience as reading a traditional magazine, or newspaper.

  2. You say:

    ‘… working on the online thing (it’s not a magazine)’

    The publishing industry should change. But it should not by any stretch of the imagination call the new thing it produces online a magazine?

    From Wikipedia:

    Magazines, periodicals or serials are publications, generally published on a regular schedule, containing a variety of articles, generally financed by advertising, by a purchase price, by pre-paid magazine subscriptions, or all three.

    The wikipedia definition says nothing about being printed on paper.

    It really is simple, research and produce an online magazine format that is capable of progressive enhancement and replicates the key experiences of print.

    An online magazine is mutlimedia, not images, its text, images, video, audio, that’s the whole point. A multimedia rich experience.

    And @Brandon, I’m sure you all prefer print. This is the blog of a print fan. It doesn’t matter what you prefer. I prefer vinyl. I can’t buy it, it’s not profitable. The same will be true for printed or dead tree press magazines.


    • @Mike Hartley,

      If you don’t mind sitting in front of the computer, I love reading certain magazines like Macworld with the Zinio reader. it’ a better reproduction than the print version, with live links to the advertisers and no wasted paper.

  3. Could it reach a point where the online experience is paying for the paper printing? Maybe they take a huge “loss” on the paper in order to compliment their online presence.

    Doesn’t the NYT do something similar now?

  4. As e-ink readers get better and cheaper, I think we’ll see the end of traditional paper magazines. Just too expensive and environmentally unfriendly to continue with.

    I’m talking about something like Amazon’s Kindle Reader, which is a version 0.1 product. Something that you can carry with you to the sofa with your morning coffee. That, really, may be the last obstacle to ditching paper.

  5. @4

    That makes sense – curl up with your kindle. I think we are all getting used to the layers of content that the online experience offers. It will probably have to be a subscription model with limited content offered for free. (like does now) but it seems to me that, like with a print subscription price of $20-30. / year with the potential of much greater numbers , it should pay for itself. Then offer annual, semi or quarterly printed “editions” – maybe even printed on demand – for those that want something to hold onto. There is even to potential to sell original content off the site. And the “publishers” that actually care about their artists will let them see some of the profits – wouldn’t that be radical.

  6. But just exactly how does one read an e-mag on a Kindle or even a laptop while on the can? Or at the beach? Or in a hammock? Or hanging halfway off the couch? Or in a dentist office? Or on a train in Peru? Or while standing in line to vote?

    There is something tangible and tactile about a well crafted magazine with amazing prose and award-winning photography. And therein lies part of the problem. These are a rare breed. So as print magazines lose their audience to the Web due to sub-standard production values, I still think most people would prefer to lose themselves in a real honest to goodness magazine that they can fold up and carry.

    There are ways to reduce the cost of production. Recycled paper and eco-friendly inks. Patagonia does it with their catalogs. Sure they’ve reduced the size over the years, but I always love reading and rambling through the pages of each new edition. Back in the day when they were the size and thickness of Interview, I even collected them because they were amazing examples of printed communication. Then again, who didn’t collect the Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Edition? Seems to me that a better recycling program in this country would help reduce the costs as well.

    However, as Rob has pointed out, a magazine is not worth the paper it’s printed on if the content is crap. And this should go for the online versions as well. Compare Travel & Leisure in print to its online version. Night and day. Which leads to Rob’s other pint – pay your photographers and writers the money they deserve, people. Yes, it costs money to redistribute an image or an article online. And me thinks because publishers are unwilling to pay twice, they let the online versions go to crap. Reduced word count and smaller photos. If any.

    So what to do?

    1) Find ways to reduce costs and the carbon footprint of producing a printed magazine for those of us that will still buy them. Increase the cost if need be to reduce the print run if you want people to go to the online version.

    2) Make the online version of a magazine completely different from it’s printed form. Most online version suck. Garden and Gun is the only e-mag that’s worth a look. Don’t reproduce the same articles. Use multimedia slideshows and such like the NY Times, Surfline and MSNBC. Use click-through URLs at the end of each multi-media article to guide people to other places and companies to learn more like the Frontline site does.

    3) Revenue can be generated for the publisher by making the printed and online versions completely different in content. The online version can also have articles and presentations that require a paid subscription like PDN does. The printed version can have twice a year special issues that are only available through subscription. Imagine how much money Sports Illustrated could make if the Swimsuit issue was only delivered to those with a subscription? Then again, maybe not. But revenue could also be generated by using click-throughs like Google does. Not to random ads. But to other companies related to the article or multi-media presentation. Good old-fashioned co-op advertising.

    If anything this is just my 2 cents.

  7. I think that the print magazines most in danger of losing advertising support are service based. The way we get our information has changed forever, period. But magazines like the New Yorker will always…uh wait a second, I forgot. The New Yorker never made money, not even in the nineties.

    Quality journalism and photography has always been a labor of love, for publishers and contributors alike. Maybe government funding is the answer. Hey, if they fund the financial industry, why not the arts too?


  8. I will go a little further and say that blogs with RSS feeds are the new magazines. Not only can you subscribe and sit back as interesting things come in (just like a magazine), but you get it much faster than any magazine could print and without any of the size or layout constraints that magazines are limited by. For some of us, RSS feeds have almost entirely replaced reading magazines already. I suspect that we will start to see a pay-for-subscription addition to RSS technology soon, and I don’t doubt that there have already been photo stories shot just for blogs…

  9. @Steven Rood:

    ‘But just exactly how does one read an e-mag on a Kindle or even a laptop while on the can? ‘

    Same way you read print. You put the device in your hands and focus your eyes on the content.

    • @Mike Hartley,

      Not if the content is crap. Ha.

  10. A few months back, I sent Rob a link and he posted it on his blog. It was about a new e-reader that is about the size and weight of a copy of Newsweek. It’s bendy and flexible, and has built in wifi.
    This, I think, is the future of magazines, though I admit I’m not thrilled. Staring at an electronic screen, be it a laptop, my iphone, or an e-reader that emulates a magazine, gets me down.
    Rob, do you still have a link to that thing?

  11. could u tell this to a few of my clients? those commie bastards treat their contribs like shit. I think they all do.


  12. Evolution seems to favor great content and better (faster, easier, richer) experiences. Evolution doesn’t care that you may “miss” reading a magazine in a chair. It also could give a rat’s ass about advertising.

  13. There needs to be fewer executives and more content creators.

    BTW, my new favorite magazine is Corduroy. Not a page of advertising and the content is fresh and photographs beautiful, especially on the thick stock they use. I don’t know how they do it, but I’m glad someone is making a magazine worth picking up.

  14. I strongly disagree with you APE. You are looking at product, not industry. You try to condition your statement with an eye toward industry, but it is hubris to believe that e-industry is sustainable.

    Not to mention, I’d rather not spend my entire life jacked into technology!

    As much a statement of discontent as a reasoned response, but as we’ve finished our tenth year as a radically computerized world, I can’t say I’m all that impressed.

  15. So true Rob.

    The thing that really gets me is how they’ve destroyed the contributors. I had one bill held up for two months because there was a receipt for a pack of tissues and a bottle of water listed under food, when evidently it should have be listed under supplies.

    Meanwhile, the corporate/advertising side flies hundreds of people off for retreats in the Bahamas for karoke by aging rock stars, at a cost of who knows what.

    They’ve gone out of their way to destroy the content and the people that produce it and haven’t paid any of the personal costs (although they’re the ones that created problems).

    Then to blame the economy? Oh dear.

    The bottom line is they don’t have a product without content.

    No wonder I’m so grumpy.

  16. If a magazine can be replaced by a website, it should be.

    If a print magazine is going to not only survive, but prosper, in this evolving business, it’s going to have to offer an entire experience based on its core ideals. And not just a dang website, either…


    I used to work at a magazine, and everybody was afraid to fuck up every once in awhile. We were a weekly, and every Wednesday, the editorial staff would sit around in a conference room and be asked, “what do you think of this week’s issue?” And all anybody would do was talk about successes, however small they were. Bringing up mistakes was a huge no-no, and my boss was even chided for saying how something could have been done better. “Don’t ever do that again,” he was told.

    The old guard had no idea that you learn the most from your mistakes, not your successes.

  18. FPE@17, just substitute “the federal government” for ” a magazine” in your comment. Seems to be systemic of our whole country. Call for change, sounds vaguely familiar….

  19. I agree strongly with the above comments that things like the Kindle e-reader could be an answer for magazines but I don’t think that will happen until some of these publishers do something radical like offer FREE e-readers for subscribers (once the price is right – or if they can make the price right) or even offer them for $25 to $50 when they subscribe .

    Imagine the win-win for the manufacturer if they could split the cost with a major publisher and give away their product, making them more visible.

    Visibility will push more people to buy them or to subscribe.

    On the other hand . . .

    One commenter mentioned RSS feeds becoming the new “magazines” I think that hits at something that we’ll see more of over the next 5 years – custom content collections. I like to think that something like TiVo will begin to compile articles, photos, video, and similar content that you will like based on the stuff that you’ve added in the past.

    Maybe the shift needs to be even more radical.

    Forget publishing an entire magazine about cigars or recreational bicycling – publishers could become providers of content that has merit (think of the gate-keepers) so the quality will stay high.

    Then they can sell ads embedded into this content for things like RSS aggregators or other specialty websites that act as a TiVo-type system.

    – Give the people what they want but don’t make them work for it.
    – Allow people to compile content of their individual diverse interest from hairless dogs to rollerblading.
    – Let them have your content, add some adverts to it so you can make money.
    – Don’t force them to see every other article you’ve published this month that they might not want to read but suggest what they might like at the end of your article based on it’s relevance to what they like.

  20. Outstanding. It is all about change and new ideas this year. Sweep out the naysayers and yes-men to leave room for new ways of doing business and creating. Well said.

  21. I’m looking for a job currently, a well-paying job. (My resume)

    Freelance work has been drying up as of recent, at least in Louisville,
    and I haven’t been getting enough work here to pay the bills.

    I’ve been offered numerous positions in the publishing industry,
    but none of them have come anywhere close to being able to pay
    the market rate for a skilled multimedia producer, interactive designer
    (whatever you want to call it).

    I think there’s a strong desire for progress to be made
    at many of these publishing companies, but inadequate budgets
    and multi-hierarchical red-taped bureaucracy appears to stifle
    many necessary adjustments from being made.

    Another thing is the working conditions.

    Smart companies in the creative industries
    work hard to keep their best talent from leaving.

    After spending time working in both the “creative”
    and journalism market sectors, I would say that
    the treatment in journalism/editorial work doesn’t even compare
    to the respect and treatment one receives in the creative sector.

    The creative sector is much more liberal
    about fostering and rewarding new, innovative ideas
    which is pretty much the opposite of what I’ve observed
    in the journalism/editorial sector.

    The creative sector also pays a lot more money.

    There also seems to be much more hostility and petty office politics
    rampant in editorial work, as well as more anti-intellectualism.

    Not everywhere though. Just in general.

    Much of the success of a profitable company requires
    the intelligent allocation of resources.

    Many tech companies invest at least 25% of their net profits
    right back into research & development, so as to stay on top
    and ahead of the competition.

    By definition, these growth companies tend to foster
    more of a modern culture of innovation, whereas journalism
    (which doesn’t appear to be a growth industry)
    has a much more traditional culture of control and autocracy.

  22. Thinking that the problems looming for editorial contributors can be solved with management platitudes seems academic and counterproductive. Improving publishing philosophy and management is a fight that should have been taken up decades ago when outlets for editorial photography began to wither and there was still a snowball’s chance of actually affecting the industy. More to the point, it’s very unlikely that hiring and management structure for online pubs will mimic print. Online content is more organic, and often free. A good blog will be comprised of ringers who seed topics supported by a large amount of grown content, e.g. comments and reader posts. Yes, many of the traditional papers and magazines will have continued success in web, but more and more, they, too, are incorporating blog-style generation of editorial.

    The big problems for contributors are twofold, and not directly related to publishing management: increasing competition and decreasing outlets.
    You have more competition from rich media — the sites that are replacing print will increasingly go for video and interactive over still imagery. More competition from young photographers, particularly as photography becomes technically easier (sorry, but true.) More competition from stock sources. And, finally, competition from photoblogs and communities — I know that doesn’t seem related, but when I want to see cool pictures, I now go to or similar sites rather than to magazines.
    Decreasing outlets are pretty obvious: The recession/depression may all but kill the print periodical industry. Subscriptions will continue to decline. Print media will subsist, but you’ll see magazines increasingly as adjuncts to other industries: e.g. trade pubs, catalogs (like Lucky), membership publications, etc… This trend may further the conglomeration of photo sources, e.g. Corbiss, iStockphoto. It will also decentralize publishing, making it more difficult to connect efficiently with your clients. I know that’s all about print, and this discussion is about new media, but the truth is that still imagery is much less important to new media, and the text to image ratio of web is not in photographers’ favor.
    The decentralization of print outlets may lead to less draconian contracts, which is not a bad thing. But most of this bodes ill for independent working photographers. The heyday of print publishing is behind us, which is tough to swallow for those of us who love print.

    Where does that leave professional photographers? Not sure. I have a feeling the more hostile environment will lead eventually to fewer new photographers entering the fray. But photo schools will still try to pump out shooters like hot dogs at the Oscar Meyer plant.
    A good discussion might be new sources of revenue from photography: new products, new clients, new applications for still imagery. A positive step would be the creation of a guild that helps define and standardize practices and rights, and also separates professional photographers from any hack with a point-and-shoot. Graphic designers have AIGA and Graphic Artists Guild, lawyers have the ABA, doctors have the AMA, Hollywood creatives have several powerful organizations, but I can’t think of a single entity that represents the interests of professional still photographers. This, in part, is what allowed many large publishers to bully contributors out of rights in the ’90s. A positive development are sites such as APE, which create a tighter community, but it needs to go further, I think — though I realize that might be too much to ask as photographers are notoriously independent and a bit disorganized.

    Sorry for the long comment. Thanks for letting an art director eaves drop on your conversations.

    • @Bill Smith,

      Not sure a guild would be a “positive” thing for many freelance snappers, leastwise in terms of being some sort of a bargaining entity or an organization that looks out for the rights, concerns, and career development of its members. I’ve been a member of the WGA for many years and, frankly, they hold, most dearly, the needs of the top-earners to heart with much less regard for other members. I suppose that’s a pragmatic way to do business but regarding your hopes that it would do something “positive” or meaningful for the majority of its potential members, well…. I dunno if that would happen. Sorry if I seem like a cynic. Time and experience has worn me down.

  23. 4. Invest in your contributors.

    Exactly. Editorial rates are already pathetic and never increase with the cost of living. I haven’t seen them change in my 10 years in NYC.

    I hear a lot of talk of magazines putting a hiring freeze on freelancers and going in-house with their content. That can’t be a positive move creatively.

  24. I guess printed magazines cater to photographers and lovers of photography that is traditionally printed in 4 colors of glossy ink usually on paper. Perhaps this is an old way of thinking, but computer screens can’t compare. The same can be said of seeing a wall-sized photograph in a museum vs a magazine. It is this hyper-reality that blows me away. I prefer the non-linear quality of a magazine that you can flip back and forth through quickly. This is where layout and photography do their trick by getting you to stop and look mid-flip. Looking at a computer screen only engages your sense of sight. A magazine also engages your sense of touch and smell 9ink on paper, yumm). I think the more senses involved, the more immersive the experience. Computer screens are not all the same, and load times make the non-linear thing choke. I guess “the kids today” don’t really care about these things though. They seem to want free content that is up to the minute. The problem with free as we all know is that the quality will suffer, be it horrible writing, crap imagery and banner ads up the wazoo. For me the exception are blogs where the creator accepts the fact that no profit is needed to compensate for quality content. I would like a product with pages and surface identical to a magazine that could be “loaded” with digital content. Flips like a magazine, looks like a magazine. Traditional ad models still apply, quality content assured, without intrusive banner ads, etc.

    Everyone says photography has a important role as magazines move online, but all the imagery I see is small and rare and usually involves low quality video, or some sort of “game”/interactivity. This is all fine I guess, but not what I think of when I think photography.

  25. We just launched our online magazine and first issue this October, I know that the market is changing and people are not buying magazines so much these days. I do believe publications need to concentrate more on their contributors. That is what IN*TANDEM magazine is all about, putting more focus on the contributors, rather than the stories alone. That is the way I see the market changing, we need to know more about the individuals that produce their great work. Just like actors get recognized in movies I think the same should go to artists that bring a publication to life, without them there is nothing. Online magazines allow for more of a multimedia based audience, we do plan to go to print in the future. How we do that will be another exciting chapter and challenge for us.

    • @Gabriel Magdaleno

      Nice E-mag Gabriel.
      I follow you completely. Some more respect to contributors and collaborating artists is key to the success of a lot of publishers.

  26. Nice article. I’ve seen some of my customers (old fashion publishers) cut down on both staff (good staff) as well as money they spend on contributors. However, they still expect more and higher quality.

    And, for some odd reason they then started hitting the internet, producing not 1 but several online magazines.

    While lacking at one, they immediately started to SUCK at the other. (normal if you ask me)

    Today, well, same as with Times:
    – advertisers keep away
    – stand sales drop
    – there online projects move, but not as they should, so they only cost money
    – …

    Hopefully some people will start opening their eyes pretty soon, ’cause to my honest opinion, a whole lot of them won’t survive the recession if they don’t.

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  29. […] off with the most important point. Yes, budgets are tight. Yes, it costs money to experiment. Do it anyway. No one is really sure how to “do” online news. Chances are your budget is only going […]

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