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With the iPad only weeks away from shipping, it’s an odd time for magazine publishers to spend $90 million to very publicly throw their digital editions under the bus. But that’s exactly what a current advertising blitz will be doing, blasting 1,400 pages of ads throughout magazines like People, Vogue, and ESPN: The Magazine, trumpeting the “power of print.” Messages include:

  • “The Internet is fleeting. Magazines are immersive.”
  • “We surf the Internet. We swim in magazines.” (This one offered by Michael Phelps)

According to the Wall Street Journal, cheerleading for the print model is happening despite the fact that a similar coalition was formed just a few months ago to prepare for the migration to digital devices.

What’s prompting this dramatic shift?

A slight uptick in print advertising.

The campaign is orchestrated by Jann Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone and, judging from his Web site, a man with an ego. Apparently, he’s also a man who has rubbed some people the wrong way, at least if is any indication:

And of course who else but the troglodyte Jann Wenner to “orchestrate” this campaign, the guy whose magazine Rolling Stone can’t figure out how to keep a domain name up; and oh wait, who outsources the running of the mag website to RealNetworks, until late last year.

The “can’t figure out how to keep a domain name up” comment refers to an incident last month when the domain disappeared from the Internet, prompting observers to speculate:

  1. that Rolling Stone had gone belly up
  2. that Rolling Stone isn’t committed to its online version
  3. that Rolling Stone might not be missed when it’s gone

It seems the reality was somewhat more shameful — they let the domain name lapse. You know, they forgot to renew it.

I can’t blame magazine business people for following the money, but perhaps they’re following it too closely and with an anachronistic mindset. There’s an argument to be made that the “uptick” these major magazines are seeing in advertising is just lost money looking for a home after it was orphaned when a host of other titles closed up shop. Basically, they’re sopping up the spills and thinking it’s free drinks for everyone.

As Bo Sacks states in a blog post today aimed at the people behind the campaign:

Perhaps you missed the report that the web is now the 2nd most trusted place for news – second only to TV.  Perhaps you missed the news that 57% of the webs social media users are over the age of 35.  Perhaps you didn’t know that Facebook has more than 400 million active users, and of those active users, 61 percent of Facebook’s users are middle-aged or older.

Not to mention the fact that the level of investment — $90 million — makes it less likely they’ll see a positive return on investment. I mean, that’s a lot of dough.

While the leadership at major magazines, seeing a twitch in print ad spending, are ready to spend $90 million to run ads promoting print, are they willing to spend enough money or time structuring and editing their online editions to make them truly viable? Some are, some aren’t, according to a recent study from the Columbia Journalism Review.

The study surveyed 3,000 consumer magazines and received 665 responses. Interestingly, it was led by Evan Lerner, home page editor of SEED magazine. Findings of interest included:

  • Fifty-nine percent of respondents said that there was no, or less rigorous, copy editing online than in print.
  • Forty percent said that when Web editors, as opposed to print editors, are in charge of content decisions, fact-checking is less rigorous (17 percent said there was no fact-checking online when Web editors made the content decisions).
  • Fifty-four percent said that when errors were eventually pointed out, on sites where the Web editor made content decisions the errors were corrected, but without any indication to the reader that there had been an error in the first place.

It’s worth noting that blogs were excluded from these considerations. It’s not exactly clear why, especially since blogs are usually the best traffic magnets, but I imagine it’s because blogs are viewed as individual efforts (the work of a single talent) rather than “editorial” output. Still, 64% of the magazines included in the survey have blogs on their sites. Independent Web editors like blogs, and use them significantly more often than print editors or publishers do when they run things.

A major driver of these editorial choices seems to be the mindset that speed matters more online than quality. But there are cultural divides between online and print teams as well, including a greater focus on the customer in the online teams as opposed to a greater focus on editorial superiority on print teams, as this telling quote from the survey indicates:

[The online version is] largely seen as an inferior product, compared to what runs in the magazine, in part because we play for audience more, and I think there’s a vestigial elitism as to its being more important if it runs in print.

I have to say, I’m enamored of the term “vestigial elitism.” I may trot that one out a few times this year. I can sense its utility.

From a business perspective, profitability wasn’t tied to gatekeeping practices. About 49 percent of unprofitable Web sites gave away all of their content, and 65 percent of profitable Web sites did the same. However, more than 80% of the profitable Web sites (and 68% of the total set) relied mainly on advertising for revenues, a factor that would trump the pay tolls.

The higher a magazine’s circulation and monthly Web traffic, the more likely it was to have an independent Web editor making budget and content decisions. Who made budgetary decisions did seem to matter. If publishers or independent Web editors made budgetary decisions, sites did better. If the print editor made budgetary decisions, sites did worse. This suggests to me that publications that have better brands and bigger budgets are transitioning more effectively online. There’s really no surprise there, but also to me somewhat a loss of the promise of online changing things up.

Profitable vs. Non-profitable

However, being in touch with your customer does help. Sixty-one percent of profitable sites use traffic statistics to drive content decisions, while only 34% of the rest do.

Advertising teams tend to work on both print and online properties. Given magazine publishers’ tendency to alternate between print and online strategies, as described in the first part of this post, these teams must be especially stressed by this strategic indecision.

Among the magazines surveyed, the editor-in-chief of the print magazine was most often responsible for the overall editorial tone.

Most Web training for editorial staff is accomplished on the job.

In rating the effectiveness of social media sites, Twitter and Facebook came to the fore, with 60% rating them as effective. Respondents were quite uncertain of the effectiveness of the others, with more than half doubting the effectiveness of MySpace, Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, Delicious, and LinkedIn.

The CJR study is worth a close read. You can download the entire report free as a PDF. There’s a lot more in it than I’m going to report on here.

The bottom-line message from these two related stories?

It seems the print/online cultural divides still exist, and may be even widening.

Perhaps these chasms can be bridged by a unifying device like the iPad, but I think the pathology runs deeper than a surface rash. I think there’s something about the love of paper, layout, and tradition that is holding these two worlds apart (maybe some “vestigial elitism”?), and these differences may separate them fundamentally forever. But because more people will continue to see the online versions and because online editors pay more attention to customers, the print editors may lose their connection to the audience.

And losing touch with your customer could lead to bad decisions — like spending $90 million to resurrect the past.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "Cultural Upheaval: It’s Still Print vs. Online As Major Magazines Go Digital"

..perhaps a prehensile elitism, clinging to print?

a large problem with print, is that the back-issues stack can grow very large. then what. then it will fall on you and kill you?

the backfile may be fun to browse, but what if you’re looking for a specific article? seriously, electronic (web, downloads to a reader, even CD-ROM or DVD for heaven’s sake) is the only way to go for back-issue management. those magazine box-thingies you can get at office depot are ugly, expensive, and never seem to take up less space on the shelf over time. if a publication is ‘important’, mightn’t it also be worth keeping? since print is always late anyway, shouldn’t the content remain relevant for some time — even as a snapshot of how we were thinking when it was published? seriously. since when does ‘more important’ mean ‘stuff you have to throw away before you have to rent a storage unit’?

numerous models for managing this exist in our world. those publications that don’t choose one are almost certain to be featured at some point on the ‘magazine death pool’ blog —

How about the youngsters that are in their 30’s and don’t buy newspapers and are letting their magazine subscriptions lapse?

Flipboard and Pulse on my iPad are amazing ways to read about all the subjects I care about (content aggregation) and print just can’t do it.

As creatures of habit we will eventually only want to review our documents/news/magazines in one spot and the iPad is dang close.

Thanks for introducing me to “vestigial elitism” I will use that again 🙂

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