NEW YORK, United States—A few weeks ago, independent fashion magazine i-D, founded in 1980 by art director Terry Jones, announced it was cutting back its print run to 6 issues per year, while major commercial titles like American Vogue have been forced to slash payroll and scale back on expenses.
Across the spectrum, times are tough for fashion magazines. With ad sales dramatically down, their main source of revenue is evaporating. And while online readership is growing, the "culture of free" that dominates the web means magazines earn nothing from internet subscriptions, while the sale of online ad space simply doesn't generate enough income to cover cost. It's a crisis I first examined a few months ago, amidst dark headlines about powerhouse publishers like Condé Nast.
As marketers continue to slash advertising budgets, there's no doubt the current economic crisis is contributing to the problem. But it's not the underlying issue. Even if demand for print advertising rebounds when this recession ends, things will never be as they once were. The fact is, we are in the midst of a digital revolution as powerful as Gutenberg that's causing sustained, seismic upheaval across the publishing industry.
Readers are migrating online, where information is abundantly available and freely shareable. But that doesn't mean content can't be monetized. The demand is there. Indeed, people are consuming more content than ever. And there's no shortage of people who want to supply it. The problem is, the internet is destroying the business structures of the past faster than the structures of the future are being created.
So what's a magazine to do?
So far, nobody has cracked the code. But what's increasingly clear is that there's no single code to crack. As Clay Shirky, internet writer and professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program puts it, "there was one single business model in a world where media was scarce, but there needs to be many when media is abundant."
In other words, there is no generalized answer to the problems facing publishing. "We are not moving from a world of Business Model A to a world of Business Model B. We are going from Business Model A to Business Models A to Z," says Mr. Shirky. That means each publication will have to find a model (or models) that suits its particular content, readership and market position.
Although many new business models have been proposed, from "free" content that's bundled with internet access to micropayments for individual articles, it's extraordinarily difficult to predict which solutions will work. As with political revolutions, nobody really knows exactly what's on the other side of this digital upheaval.
What's more clear is that success is likely to come from lots of little experiments whose importance will be revealed only in retrospect. "Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as Craigslist did, as Wikipedia did," says Mr. Shirky.
What's also clear is that the challenge posed by the internet impacts more than business models alone. It's not just how publishers package and deliver content that's in play. It's the content itself.
The internet is transforming the way in which content is both created and consumed, challenging the current emphasis on static words and pictures pasted on a page. Nobody really knows which new formats for telling stories will capture the collective imagination of editors and readers. Again, success is likely to come from lots of little experiments.
But admidst all the uncertainty that revolutions like this create, it's important to remember writer and futurist William Gibson, who observed: "The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." Indeed, amongst the fashion media, a handful of online pioneers have been conducting lots of little experiments in digital content that help point the way forward for their more mainstream counterparts who are just beginning to understand the impact of the internet.
Vikram Alexei Kansara is a digital strategist and writer based in New York.