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Magazines Are Dead. But Media Isn’t.

People are consuming more media than ever before, but legacy publishers need to change their approach to seize the opportunity, argues Amy Odell.
Collage by BoF | Source: Shutterstock
  • Amy Odell

NEW YORK, United States — Magazines are dead. Legacy fashion publishers can hem and haw over the value of glossy print titles in media nerd podcasts, but magazines are dead — or at least they are on their way out the door and with them the lucrative print advertising deals upon which many titles still heavily depend.

This does not mean that media is dead. Quite the opposite. People are consuming more media than ever before. An August study by Nielsen found that American adults spend more than 11 hours a day with media, up from 9 hours 32 minutes four years ago. In fact, media is having a renaissance.

So why, if consumers have bigger media appetites than ever before, do the conversations in the elevators of legacy publishers simmer with panic over job security and lost ad dollars?

According to data from technology and strategy consulting firm Activate, the average American spends only 4 percent of their media consumption hours with print, compared to 20 percent on personal computers and 28 percent on mobile. And, by and large, they are not using the growing time they spend with digital devices to read the websites of legacy magazine publishers. In a recent survey, FreeportPress found that nearly 43 percent of people in the US never read magazine websites.

Why? Legacy magazine publishers are simply not innovating at the pace that shifting media habits demand. If they were, I’d guess that fewer women’s magazine websites would aggregate TMZ items all day, in an attempt to gin up page views in a social media-driven ecosystem where traffic is increasingly hard to come by, but no less necessary if you are in the business of selling advertisers on audience size.

The more media that exists, the harder it is to find that quality.

Indeed, too much time and money go into trying to maintain the status quo through cost cutting instead of trying new ideas. To some extent, it’s a case of Clay Christiansen’s “innovator’s dilemma.” Management does not see immediate return on investment in new ideas, and therefore does not fund them, focusing instead on what has worked so well in the past — even as the results grow less convincing and smaller upstarts with less to lose set themselves up to dominate the future.

But it's also a lack of imagination. Too many legacy publishers seem resigned to a world driven by impressions and traffic, while failing to expand their influence on the emerging platforms — take Snapchat Discover and podcasts — that are changing media before their eyes.

It’s a shame because genuine innovation can be staggeringly successful. Just think of how Serial transformed audio storytelling or how BuzzFeed’s Tasty revolutionised both cookbooks and food service media. And the birth of new platforms is hardly slowing. Consider smart speakers, which, according to eMarketer, are on track to grow users from 16 million in 2016 to 76.5 million in 2020.

So, what must legacy media do differently?

Innovative Journalism, Not Commodity Content

The term “content” was the downfall of content. As a catchall for images, feature articles, blog posts, videos, podcasts, tweets and more, the word cheapens all of these things with lowest common denominator thinking.

But a blog post is not a feature article is not an Instagram. And labelling all of these things "content" to be shovelled thoughtlessly into the platforms that dominate the internet will lead to, yes, content that was created for the purpose of being shovelled thoughtlessly into the platforms that dominate the internet.

Content is abundant and cheap, while journalism is the opposite. And many publishers, fixated on chasing scale to secure ads, think it’s their job to create content not journalism. This approach is a race to the bottom when what’s needed is the opposite.

Innovative journalism can create real value for consumers. The podcast Serial transformed both longform and audio storytelling. The Skimm newsletter altered how a generation of women like to consume hard news. Five Thirty Eight’s data journalism changed the way we want the world’s top news outlets to report on elections. BuzzFeed's Tasty completely altered the definition of service media for food.

These ideas all share an investment in burgeoning technology (podcasting, newsletters, interactive data modelling) and talent that possesses an uncanny understanding of that technology and its audience. Without these upstart competitors, it’s possible that these now rote genres of media might not even exist.

Monetisation Beyond Advertising

One of the most exciting developments in media monetisation of the past decade is the New York Times paywall. It seemed crazy when it launched in 2011. Paying for things you can read on the internet? Who would do such a thing? A lot of people, it turns out. With millions of paying digital subscribers, the Times brought in $340 million in online subscriptions in 2017, according to Recode, with hundreds of thousands more paying for standalone crossword and cooking apps.

Paywalls have been popping up ever since, with the latest major attempt coming from New York magazine, which is exploring a dynamic model that charges readers based on their consumption habits. There are many more as of yet untested ways to charge media consumers for the stories and services they want from the world’s top outlets. The goal, of course, is to help offset the flight of ad dollars from magazines to Google and Facebook.

A shift toward getting readers to pay for media will fundamentally alter the way editors think about their product. They will suddenly find themselves extricated from an exhausting race to the bottom, which is where publications unable to charge for their stories will inevitably end up.

That said, there is probably an upper limit on how many titles consumers will pay for. Most women’s magazines, which thrive on service and personal stories, are fundamentally different from news-driven outlets and will therefore have to rely on branded content and other non-subscription revenue streams, such as live events and branded products.

Media brands that can’t charge for content have to continue to innovate in the branded content space and deliver the highest possible quality to the audience, thereby delivering returns to the advertiser. One of my favourite examples of this — which felt incredibly fresh when it came out — is BuzzFeed’s Dear Kitten video series, which went on to become an ad for Friskie’s equally as delightful and successful as the non-branded episodes.

The challenge here is educating advertisers about the blind pursuit of impressions. A podcast listen has a different value than a click, and media companies first need to understand what that value is in order to articulate it to the brands who keep their lights on.

From Portfolio Manager to Start-up Incubator

A portfolio of magazines made sense in 1995. But does it now? Publishers often seem intent on keeping hopeless magazine titles afloat, which causes them to invest a little bit in a lot of brands. Not every brand that made sense as a printed magazine makes sense as a digital media brand, and publishers should consider killing these titles in favour of growing the brands that do make sense as digital brands.

Within a streamlined portfolio, I would task all departments — editorial, advertising and audience development — with innovation by asking this question: What would you like to do but feel like you can’t because you’re tasked with meeting ‘X’ metric for success? I would ask this question of all ranks — not just senior leadership — because in a digital media world, the ideas of someone who grew up with a cell phone will be different and perhaps more valuable than those of an executive who’s still playing catch up with technology. Under this model, publishers would become something closer to start-up incubators rather than managers of bloated portfolios.

Redeploy Talent More Flexibly

In addition to an innovation crisis, legacy publishers face a talent crisis. They want to hire editors with a large Instagram following, but it’s increasingly unclear why these influencers and micro-influencers would want to work at a publisher. As Lauren Sherman recently wrote in these pages, “Today, editors might have to work across multiple publications within a company without any sort of raise or recognition. Going it alone often makes more fiscal sense.” I have never seen a period like this in magazine media, where editors are so overworked, their responsibilities constantly expanding, often without a cent more going to their pay checks. It leads to constant bitterness and toxicity in the office, where the only thing that’s clear is that more cuts are coming.

The cuts may not be a bad thing for the industry in the long run. But publishers should find creative ways to leverage influencers without expecting to be staffed by them. Often the person who’s a great editor and manager is not the same as the person who’s a great influencer. Finding ways to outsource these needs to people who probably don’t want full-time editor jobs but wouldn’t mind the caché of association would free up talented editors to feel less suffocated by thankless executives. The same goes for video talent, for instance: invest in on-camera personalities rather than expecting an editor to go from blogging at her desk to being a star YouTuber overnight. This will only lead to disappointed managers and burnt out staffers.

I believe in legacy fashion brands. I grew up obsessed with them, and I still want to be obsessed with them, to use them as an escape from daily life. But given their desperate attempts to keep up with the rest of media rather than forge a modern existence, I wonder, too often, if they even remember the very thing that made them successful in the first place, which is in extraordinary demand today: quality storytelling with the distinct point of view of the expert editors they employ. The more media that exists, the harder it is to find that quality. But legacy publishers are better positioned to deliver it than an average independent content creator who has, remarkably, figured out the distribution and monetisation problems many of them haven’t.

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