There’s a lot of talk about the future of magazines, and print media in general, because there’s a lot to talk about. When it comes to discussing what the future holds, Rex Hammock is one of the guys you want to speak to.
He’s a veteran “magazine guy” who co-founded the Custom Publishing Council, served as a director of the American Business Media trade association and is today the CEO of custom media firm Hammock Inc. His recent guest column in Publishing Executive entitled “9 Things I’ve Learned About Magazines by Blogging” piqued my interest so I decided to ask Rex about the state of the magazine industry, what the internet means to print publishers today, the pay walls that are coming up and what blogging might look like a decade from now.
You recently wrote that “magazines and blogs are made for each other”. What did you mean by that?
I would add one more thing, wikis, to that list, but here is what I mean: Magazines are, in my opinion, the most effective medium for capturing — and telling the story of – a moment in time. With the format, you can tell stories from multiple angles and within a media context that provides a permanent aesthetic and design that holds the story together — or, when done well, is a part of the story. The magazine format can be as close to art as you’ll find in a commercial medium — okay, that might be a bit of hyperbole as film, music and book publishing can also be commercial and art. For those who are passionate about a topic related to work or some aspect of their life, magazines are, as I’ve described before, like fine wine: there is an appeal in the anticipation and a joy in partaking. They come to us with precise regularity and have an expected architecture and form — yet the best of them are produced by men and women who know how to surprise their readers with each issue.
While those things are wonderful, they don’t fulfill all the needs of someone who is passionate about a topic. And for a community of people who share a passion, one medium is never enough. For them fine wine is a joy, but they also want a daily drink from a fire-hose of information. A blog can fill in those big gaps between each issue of a magazine. Blogs allow the magazine — let’s call it “the brand” or the community curators — to help guide an audience through the passion they share. It enables the brand to present what has been learned today, this hour, a few seconds ago. Blogs (and I consider all forms of personal expression they allow — video, audio, photo-sharing, map-sharing, etc.) enable the brand (the people who “represent” it) to participate in, facilitate and celebrate the community of individuals who share a passion.
Blogs — the online format and the style of continuous and improvisational writing that is associated with them — provide those who publish a magazine to stay in a constant conversation with the audience — the community.
How should magazines be approaching the internet when it comes to their overall strategies?
Over the past 15 years, savvy media people who have participated in the evolution of new media and the internet have grown in their understanding that a brand that “succeeds” on the internet has to reposition itself as being more than, or an extension of, the legacy media channel (the magazine). Before that (and for the not so savvy media people) the legacy medium, say a magazine, was the center of the brand and everything was thought of as “a brand extension” than came afterwards. I think we’re now at a place where “the passion” that draws someone to a particular magazine is at the core of a community. Serving the community in whatever way it can is the role of a media company: online, in print, face-to-face; facilitating conversation and community and commerce. Everything goes when you’re “a part” of the community — and not imagining that you are the community. Or, worse, that some product (a magazine) is what the community is about: it’s the passion, not the magazine that the audience cares about.
So, the answer is, magazines should be approaching the internet as if they are a member of a community that is passionate about something. They should, of course, be experts and leaders and professionals on the topic. But they shouldn’t approach the internet with the kind of hubris that suggests they are the only source of wisdom about the passion.
And they should get over the idea that the internet is about one URL. Passion is too big to be limited to one URL. Wherever people are developing community around your passion, you should be there, supporting their efforts.
Which magazines are using the web most effectively today and which ones are being left behind?
There are lots, but Make Magazine is about as good as it gets. And I like to use them as an example because they use open source (free) technology platforms to accomplish what they do, so it’s not about how “slick” it is. They are a successful business venture that has a business model that can be understood by magazine business people — which is another reason I like to use them when talking about being “effective” AND being a good business.
The magazine (they used to call it a “mook,” a portmanteau of “book” and “magazine”) was launched by a book publisher (O’Reilly) that serves a specific community (in their case, open-source geeks) and so the idea of being a part of community was baked into the DNA of the publication. From day one, a passion for a topic — do it yourself geeky projects — is at the heart and soul of the brand and it flows from print, to video, to forum, to blog, to day-long events. The audience and editors are complete equals in a celebration of a passion they all enjoy. There is absolutely no “we” and “them.” If a great DYI idea pops up on a competitor’s website, they’ll link to it and celebrate how cool it is. It’s just about as perfect a mix of media in service to a community as I can imagine.
As for magazines being left behind, the obvious answer would be those who are clinging to the notion that they can succeed behind a pay wall. However, I don’t doubt some magazines can serve a community behind such a wall. In other words, while my bias tilts towards “free,” I believe a paid model works in many specific instances.
I think the ones being “left behind” are those magazines that have a “free” model but who then abuse the audience with gimmicks like page-churning “slide shows” to the top ten this or the top ten that. I won’t mention any names, but the initials of one of the worst offenders is Forbes.com. (Oops.) Those are the ones who, despite appearing to be successful on the web, are being left behind. In the case of Forbes, there’s some irony in that as in print, their style of journalism and commentary would seem to easily adaptable to the web and blogs. However, their web strategy is all about churning page views, not serving a community.
There’s obviously a lot of talk about the death of print media. Yet if you look around, it’s not that simple. While BusinessWeek, for instance, is struggling to find a buyer, The Economist is doing extremely well. What do you think separates the winners from the losers today?
It goes back to what I was saying about the magazine needing to serve the passion of the community. If a medium is the exclusive — or at least, unique – source of information and insight that’s necessary for one to belong to a community related to specific personal or professional passion, the audience will pay whatever you charge (especially if, as with the examples you note, a third-party (ones employer) is picking up the subscription price). In the U.S., the Wall Street Journal has traditionally played that role with its unique and witty feature stories and insightful and exclusive coverage of business and politics.
For instance, if reading the New Yorker or The Economist is part of the price of admission into being a part of a community you belong to (i.e., you know that articles in them are going to be discussed in board rooms or cocktail parties), then those publications (in print, online, free or paid) are going to succeed. When a specific source (say, BusinessWeek) becomes “nice to read” instead being part of the admission price for belonging (or advancing), then they are heading down the path to Loser-ville.
Information is pretty much a commodity. Great reporting and great writing — the kind that’s a “must read” — is still pretty rare and valuable. So, the surest way to win is being the “must read” magazine in a category — to be the source of what people are talking about.
Can some of the losers turn things around and become winners?
The answer is typically, no. The powers that be at the brand typically invest in what they know — the status quo. It takes an economic crisis or hitting bottom for companies to turn around. Usually, they have to kick out the current management and get some leaders with less hubris. By then, it’s too late.
Today, winning is a collaborative effort between people inside the brand and the group formerly thought of as “the audience” or “the reader.” Now, we’re all in this together because we share a passion. That’s a paradigm bridge to far to cross for many. Impossible? No. Likely? No.
That said, I’m impressed with a few companies like the New York Times that constantly display the willingness to try anything and everything to stay relevant and to be everywhere its readers are.
Let’s talk real-time for a moment. What role do you think real-time, and Twitter, in particular, will play in the news media?
I like the term I heard first from Doc Searls back around 2005, “world live web.”
That term (which he said he heard first from his son) captures how people immersed in the ethos of what the tools and approaches we now call “social media” view the web. There is nothing static about it: it is an ever-changing place that never stays still. Real-time captures that sense of being “alive” — and not something (as we may have thought in the early days of the web) that is static and created by some group of professionals who “publish” to it. Real-time is another way of saying the internet enables an ever-flowing river of media, conversation, community and collaboration.
Is going all-digital a viable option for struggling print businesses or do they lose something fundamentally valuable when they do so?
Whenever possible, I believe more media channels are better than less. I believe a multi-media platform approach is better than a one-medium approach. I believe a magazine and an array of digital properties are better than just digital properties. See where I’m going? It’s an option and every situation is unique, so there’s no blanket answer. However, I’m not sure if I can think of a magazine that went “all digital” that I believe will still have the same stature in the market it serves.
So, I think my answer is yes — but I’ll admit, it’s just an opinion and not based on empirical data — a print business loses something fundamentally valuable when they try to go “all digital.” That said, I think there is a mountain of opportunity for magazine companies who want to start digital-only products that serve niches of their audience, or serve specific needs of an advertiser.
You’ve been blogging for nearly a decade now — since August 2000. Obviously that was before blogging really became a mainstream phenomenon. Did you have any thoughts at the time about what blogging would become? Do you have any thoughts on what the blogosphere will look like and what impact it will be making on media 10 years from now?
Let me clarify something. I set up a blog ten years ago, but like, say, when someone first sets up a Twitter account, it took me a while to understand what it was. I posted things on the blog for about 18 months before I started doing what I really consider “blogging.” Indeed, it was not until the end of 2001 that I dove into the deep end and started posting things almost daily. So, I was blogging long before most people had ever heard the word “blog.”
I think I was lucky to start blogging before there so many “experts” started telling people what blogs were and how blogging should be done. I started out thinking of it as an email I was sending to anyone who wanting to come read it. And, frankly, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read it. And later, when I understood the amazing power of RSS (something that most people still don’t seem to understand), I decided, again to use an idea I heard once from Doc Searls, to view my blog as an e-mail I was sending to the world. The idea of a blog being something that is pushed out (subscribed to or “followed” as we’d think of it in Twitter parlance) rather than something people surf to and visit is a concept that took me a few years to understand and appreciate. The notion that more people read it via Facebook or Google Newsreader than on the website itself is easy for me to comprehend today — but wasn’t ten years ago.
It may surprise people, but I don’t think much will change — fundamentally — about blogging in ten years. In fact, I think there is a generation of teenagers now hitting about 18 (I have a son that age and a daughter 22, who I jokingly call my in-home focus group) who have been using Facebook since they entered what we’d call in the U.S., the freshman year of high school who are going to hold-back the advancement of what social media could become.
I don’t know if I can fully explain what I mean, but it’s clear these teenagers aren’t bogged down with the whole metaphor of “publishing” that was applied to blogging — and that’s a good thing. A Facebook account has all the blogging tools one needs — they’re just not called “blogs.”
But on the downside, this group has become “neo-traditionalists” — they consider Facebook as the only part of the internet they need (except, perhaps, Wikipedia, Google and e-commerce sites.) I think they’d be better off managing their identity free of Facebook and use various expression tools — and view Facebook as one of many networks. But I doubt they will. Facebook has smart people running it and I think my 18 year old will still be locked into in well into the next decade.
The “social” part of the web will evolve into new tools and will constantly have newer, faster and cooler ways to do things. But the fundamental acts of expression and interaction that blogging is will still be at the core of what we today label “social media” (except, I hope that term is long gone in ten years). It may look a lot different and we’ll be using different types of in-put devices (and still be spreading rumors about what next gizmo will be coming from Apple). But we’ll still be establishing and managing our identities online. We’ll still be expressing ourselves in words, images, video, music, etc. And we’ll still be connecting with others in small and large groups.
But personal or business passions will still be a center of all our communities. Oh, and we’ll still be displaying magazines on our coffee tables.
Rupert Murdoch just announced his plans to charge for access to all of News Corp.’s news websites. Is paid content going to be the sustainable business model that gets news organizations back on track financially?
Media exists for lots of reasons other than a media business model. For a century, business to business media has included lots of major media companies that gave content away to attract people to meetings. University alumni magazines and customer magazines support business models other than that which Murdoch is talking about. Charging for content will work for some — again, especially when the subscription is paid for by an employer. But for the general interest or general news category, I predict those who hope to make the pay model work will flop.