February 27, 2004

Magazine, Blog, Future

En route to Texas I got plenty of chances to browse the magazine racks. And what struck me hardest is just how out of date the content seemed. The rapid fire publication form of web and blogs in particular seems to have routed the news around the magazine magazine world. Once I used to devour dozens of mags a month, all in the name of information, and now I struggle to find glimmers of new information inside an overstuffed newstand.

Magazines aren't going anywhere of course, the demand for print is real and nothing digital in the pipeline will replace it. But content wise the mags are at an extreme disadvantage. The only thing they provide that isn't free online is the long form investigative piece. And how many mags offer that at all?

During last fall's Creativity Now conference writer and editor Carlo McCormick told an anecdote of his first meeting of his eventual wife's father, an old school British ad man.

The question of his work of course emerges and McCormick begins going into all the fantastic cultural events he's covered, interviews done, major magazines he's written for and so on. The father listens patiently. Finally he speaks:

"oh, so you write the stuff that goes on the back of the ads".

Ok, so its only a half true statement, but that half a truth is painfully clear. There is of course a degree of consumer demand for magazines and for high quality content to fill them. But the demand that is really pushing these magazines to the press is the demand by advertisers for a high quality space in which to promote their products. Nothing testifies to this fact more then the way magazines determine how much content to publish based on how many ad pages they've sold. The ratio of ads to content remains constant, so more ads means more content, less ads less content.

Now at the moment advertisers are far happier spending their money on high res tactile environment of a magazine then on the viscous ether of blog space. But as more advertisers get comfortable with the web and web advertising begins showing more clear results the balance will begin to shift. I wouldn't be surprised if the top political blogs this year pull in north of $100,000 in ad sales.

And if and when blog ads can generate enough revenue in the realm of real salaries we are going to see something interesting occur. Suddenly the blog space will begin generating stories that compete directly with the higher levels of magazine journalism. And that feedback loop just brings in more audience and more ad revenue and then more writers.

Magazines strength once was that they could be printed cheaply and quickly, read then disposed of. Unlike the even cheaper and quicker newspapers though, they were also highly filtered and focused. Weblogs hit at both these strengths simultaneously. There is no way magazines can compete on the quick cheap and disposable front, they'll get lapped by the rapid fire publishing of blogs every time. On filtration and focus magazines are on better ground, the art of the editor is a refined one and it works well in the magazine context. But the blog form has its own filtration dynamic, one that overlaps significantly with the magazine space.

So what happens to magazines when their chief value as a medium shifts from being a fast and cheap information delivery vehicle and towards a dense, hi res marketing tool?

The process of course is well underway and I think we can see a few trends. One is the all ad magazine. Lucky and Sony Style capture this dynamic well. The difference between editorial and ad? I wouldn't know I don't read those things. The question is does anyone? Lucky (a magazine about shopping) at least appears to be a smash hit. I'm not even going to try and guess what comes out of this space, other say: 1 - given how much demand there is from the marketing side for this stuff at some point something interesting is bound to emerge. 2 - the amount of money it will take for each interesting thing to emerge is going to be abysmally low.

There is fortunately a more interesting demand for magazines though, one driven not by the advertisers or readers, but by the producers. The cost of becoming a designer or photographer has lowered dramatically over the past couple decades, leaving us with a excess of wannabe magazine producers. The results are perhaps most visible in the space of fashion, which now churns out dozens of glossy expensive magazines. And for the most part what these multitude of producers want is use the magazine as a space of creative expression.

These are forces pushing the magazine towards being a work of art. For the most part they have not succeeded. Instead they collide with more material forces. The magazine as creative showcase has a tendency to demand expensive production. More gloss, more color, more resolution, better paper, die cuts, and onward. Suddenly the push is no longer towards art but towards luxury. It here that the creative push meets the needs of potential funders. Visionaire is the trailblazer here, and I suspect that trail is about to get paved over, and perhaps turned into a mini-mall, high end of course...

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