R.I.P. American Magazines

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 MSNBC.com 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 pportunity 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.

Do you read magazines' Internet sites?

: The news industry got a jolt when the New York Times announced that moderate layoffs were coming. Even more jarring, though, Banc of America Securities cut its rating on New York Times Co. to sell from neutral. According to the report, the start of even a mild recession could send New York Times' 2008 pretax earnings 19% below current Wall Street projections. Analyst Joe Arns wondered aloud whether investors "have been lulled into a false sense of security." .

: "I appreciate your comments regarding the amazingly poor response of McCain to the question referencing Senator Clinton with the 'B' word. The only way the tone of politics is going to change in this country is for our leaders to spearhead the change. He essentially ignored a wrong when he could have jumpstarted a national discussion on the appropriate respect and treatment of fellow human beings, even when we don't agree with their stance."

-- Clyde Hague

"I have long admired Karl Rove. He is an intelligent original thinker. He is vilified by the Liberals, most of whom if they ever had an original thought, it would blow their brains out, out of envy. I fail to see anything he has ever done to wrong them except outsmart them."

-- John Hemmer

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By Jon Friedman
  • CBSNews

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