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New Yorker Cover on iPhone a Signal to Business Execs

When historians get around to chronicling the convergence of print and mobile technologies in the media industry, they'll duly note today's development. Artist Jorge Colombo drew the cover of this week's New Yorker magazine on his iPhone, using an app called Brushes, "while standing outside Madame Tussad's Wax Museum in Times Square." The magazine playfully calls it "Finger Painting."

But the magazine's business execs need to find similarly creative ways to adapt their product to what we'll dub "the age of the iPhone," while remaining fully aware that Apple's mobile device is simply a transitional technology itself, and one that will inevitably be surpassed by coming iterations of cellphone/keyboard/digital readers.

One way to approach this strategic challenge would be for publications like the New Yorker to create their own app for the iPhone, just the way they created their own websites for the web. This sounds good to publishers, and it is consistent with continuing to think of themselves as nice little walled gardens of content, where they can harvest whatever ad revenue they can attract all by themselves, and where they can charge readers for subscriptions.

There is a serious flaw in this thinking. As publishers are discovering with their websites, online ad revenue provides only a fraction of what they are used to collecting against their print publications. In the case of Conde Nast, which owns the New Yorker, online ads account for only 3 percent of the ad revenue collected by the company's portfolio of 27 magazines, each of which, BTW, has its own separate publisher.

(As a side note, the New Yorker's ad revenue was off by 31.9 percent in the first quarter this year.)

None of the emerging solutions for placing ads on iPhones or other mobiles seem likely to perform much better at first than the magazines' websites have performed, so by establishing their own app, magazines are simply continuing the walled garden approach.

But this is a time when social media have truly taken over the zeitgeist, as even Google's leaders have recently acknowledged. The new publishing paradigm has to take into account the viral nature of sharing content and develop plans for how to monetize that incremental distribution.

At the very least, optimizing for social media like Twitter can drive a lot of traffic to publishers' websites, so they have a good shot at increasing their online ad revenue substantially.

All of this requires a revised way of thinking by print publishers, and I have to say, on the basis of dozens of conversations with high-level executives inside many of the largest media companies in the country these past few months, I am not sanguine that they are getting it -- yet. So, the first New Yorker cover produced on a cellphone gives a glimmer of hope that the business side just might learn something (about business) from the creative side -- perhaps by watching the video of Colombo as he made his cover drawing.

Thanks to Joseph Esposito of the [read20-I] list for alerting me to the New Yorker cover.

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