Monday, December 03, 2007

BoSacks Speaks Out: R.I.P., the American magazine, 1923-20__

BoSacks Speaks Out: R.I.P., the American magazine, 1923-20__
I met Jon Friedman at the MPA conference mentioned below. We talked and chatted for a while in the journalists' newsroom provided by the MPA and, based on the article below, walked away with different impressions. I came away with a bit more hope for our future than Jon. There was plenty of self-aggrandizement and pie-in-the-sky talk at all of the main sessions, but filtered in between the hyperbole was some good information, some moderate success stories and even some real, forward thinking. But most of the heady, aggressive forward-thinking that was at the event was not in the big conference room.

For the future, I suggest making it mandatory for all "old style" publishing management seniors to attend the Indy publishers sessions to network with today's genuine free thinkers and tomorrow's magazine leaders. Here is where and why Jon Friedman is wrong - the revitalization of the industry was actually in Boca, but it was, as you might expect, a day early while the other events were a day late. What I am saying is that the Independent publishing sessions that took place the day before the big event were inspirational and exciting. Jon and many others who should have been there weren't.

Note to the big guys for next year's MPA Indy meeting: ATTEND.

"Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quotes (German Playwright, Poet, Novelist and Dramatist. 1749-1832)

R.I.P., the American magazine, 1923-20__
Commentary: Welcome to an industry choking itself to death

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- I was alarmed by what I saw and heard at the recent American Magazine Conference in Boca Raton, Fla. Simply put, this industry seems intent on choking itself to death.

These days, I half-expect to open the New York Times* and see a story by Richard Perez-Pena saying, "The magazine publishing industry has died after a lengthy illness. A prolonged advertising shortfall triggered a massive crisis of confidence. The modern magazine industry in the U.S. began with the creation of Time in 1923, and it remains on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C." (*Unless the New York Post's magazine-beat ace Keith J. Kelly gets the scoop first, as is his habit.)

When I headed to the industry conference in late October, I had hoped to encounter editors and publishers brimming with ideas, enthusiasm and optimism. Yeah, right. With an air of desperation, this group resigned itself to spouting cliches about "embracing the Internet" and touting their cosmetic redesigns, which is something like covering an open gash with a skinny Band-Aid.

I know the industry leaders paint me as a thoughtless doomsayer. I see them as the embodiment of Kevin Bacon's character in "Animal House," who, as he is being trampled to dust, continues to shriek, "All . . . is . . . well!"

I get no pleasure from writing gloomy stories. Magazine professionals are mostly good company. They're delightful raconteurs about the good old days (of way back, during the 20th century). They've been good to me, as a columnist. Sorry, folks.

Changing roles
The folks I encountered in Boca Raton are creatures of magazines. They love to hold them, gaze at them and admire the splashy headlines and colorful photos. Sometimes I can't fathom why, though.

Aside from Adam Moss's New York and Rick Stengel's Time , not many magazines today seem to maximize the potential of the cover. I don't see much evidence that the spirit of George Lois, the most adventurous, creative and just the greatest magazine designer ever, is alive and well in 2007.

The editors at the conference were a beleaguered bunch, weighed down by a numbing workload. As one Rodale editor who was younger than 40 (and no, it was not David Zinczenko of Men's Health!) lamented, "Once my whole job was to edit copy -- now it's a part of the job." Another editor grumbled, "I wish my job consisted solely of editing copy."

Their roles have changed substantially because of the advent of the Internet. For some reason, the industry's biggest problem is that magazine editors and publishers still view the Web as more of a curse than a blessing. To them, it's an occupational hazard and a necessary evil. Creatures of magazines, right?

The biggest weakness of most magazines' Web sites (and those of newspapers, too) has been their insistence on hiring longtime colleagues or other mainstream-publishing folks to edit them. That has been changing, which is an encouraging sign. Now the publications are leaning more heavily on established Internet pros.

Making progress
Fortunately, most (though not all) magazines have moved past the prehistoric practice of merely slapping copy from their publications onto the Web. They're incorporating more video and audio products as well.
But they have a long way to go before they establish distinct identities for their magazines' sites. When they can do that, I'll be impressed -- and, crucially, they'll all make a lot more money.

Helpful, as ever, I offer five ways that magazines can improve their Web sites:

Take a page out of the playbook of what differentiated from the pack. Have almost as many graphics and design experts as writers on staff.

Provide a feature that you simply don't have space for in your newsstand product: namely, the back story. Readers love to know the Inside Story on a big event. Let your reporters explain HOW they covered big news, and give them an opportunity to tell their stories. Yes, some blogs do this, too, but not often or well enough.

Make the sites as interactive as possible. Time took a good step in this direction by having its readers pick the questions it asks celebrities in its regular feature.

Use the Web to explain the news as comprehensively as possible. Don't simply report the story on the Internet -- give such information as a chronology. The Wall Street Journal's Web site routinely does this, and it pays off.

Keep the staff nonbelievers as far away from the Web as possible. If editors or reporters are ambivalent about or hostile to the Web (like many have been at Time Inc., and you can't fire them all), don't let them corrupt your site with their lethargy or disapproval. Listen, the Web is the most exciting part of a modern journalism enterprise for ambitious writers and editors. If they haven't figured it out by now, to hell with them.

A recent cover blurb on Newsweek declared: "Books Aren't Dead." Whew. That's a relief, if not a bit of hyperbolic blather.

But the better question to ask is: Are magazines dead?

If you think so, then you'd probably agree that the wounds have been self-inflicted. Check out the remains at the Newseum.