Monday, December 07, 2009

Magazine Publishers are Getting Organized (Desperate)

This last week two separate (?) ventures were announced to help solve the problems of the magazine industry. First, a still nameless new company to build a kind of Hulu for magazines, the company is being 'organized' by Jeff Squires, a Time Inc, veteran and apparently has backing from Time, NewsCorp, Conde Nast, Meredith and maybe Hearst. The flurry of objectives and business models whirling around this venture are summarized by PaidContent.

This venture is about dual revenue streams and selling content from the start—add the sale of content from the magazines or newspapers their corresponding sites and content created for digital editions to ad revenue and expanding options for advertising. Executives from most, if not all, of these publishers at various times have stressed the need for agnostic solutions that can be used across devices, platforms. Given the fragmentation in the device market, the dominance by walled-garden players like Amazon and the split we’re heading toward in gray-scale and color e-readers, anything less and I’d suggest stopping this before any more money goes in. (Staci Kramer in Paid Content).
The second proposition designed to save the magazine industry is Skiff, a new venture which Hearst have been brewing for a couple of years. They have a nice diagram summarizing its business model and projected revenue streams:

These projects are gaining a hearing in the industry, because they appear to solve the problems of the industry at one bound. They have a deep appeal because they appear to offer a digital future in which the magazine industry continues to be supported by a rich advertising stream, whilst also capturing an audience to digital subscriptions. In effect this dream appeals to the ancien regime because "Everything changes and nothing changes." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The Skiff project is almost impossibly ambitious in simultaneously 'ingesting, optimizing, delivering and rendering a wide array of content' to Dedicated Readers, smartphones, tablets and PCs. This is a tall order.

One wishes that they had picked a somewhat less comprehensive target to begin with. How about: designing a platform whereby digital editions can be supplied at very low cost to all existing print subscribers? An industry wide initiative to do this, would do much to encourage a culture of digital magazine reading and digital subscriptions. But one fears that in trying to solve all the problems of the magazine industry (and the fall in advertising budgets is the most painful of these problems, and the one which the magazine industry is least able to tackle on its own), there is every chance that the enterprise will fail.

And the real problem with that, is that too many people in the magazine industry will think that the efforts of these 'Big Boys' (and they dont come bigger than Time, Hearst and Conde Nast) will save the industry. The truth is that these big 'experiments' are not going to provide a solution, that is much more likely to come from rapid innovation and experiment at the grass roots. Let a thousand flowers bloom! That way there is a better chance that solutions will be found. I have a nasty feeling that with these big propositions on the drawing board, (subject to many months of prototyping and focus-group reactions) Time Inc, Conde Nast and Hearst are going to be even slower to innovate through the publishing activity of the magazines themselves: their publishers, editors and their existing readers have to be in the picture and enjoying the digital proposition if it is to have any chance of success. Conde Nast's recent effort to launch an iPhone App for GQ is a much more promising approach, in that way they can get feedback and a chance to offer a second iteration of the iPhone App proposition within a month or two. Have the Skiff investors taken on board how quickly the App market will be evolving whilst they spend many months, testing, manufacturing and launching their new proprietary eReader?

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