It’s small consolation for magazine publishers that the industry can at least say it’s doing better than newspapers. In terms of the transition to digital, most of the main players in print get less than 10 percent of their revenues from online. At last week’s American Society of Magazine Editors magazine awards, I spoke to David Carey (pictured, bottom), Condé Nast group president/publishing director, and Chris Anderson (pictured, top), editor of Wired — which took home three Ellie awards. Both had a lot to say about the current landscape, including the demise of Portfolio, figuring out the right mix of free and paid content, and whether publishers should be getting into the e-reader device business. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
paidContent: Newspaper publishers are doing pretty badly, and judging by the Publishers Information Bureau’s data (mag ad pages dropped 26 percent in Q1), magazines aren’t doing that great either. Is it hyperbolic to worry about the death of print these days?
Chris Anderson, Wired: Print is not just about newspapers or magazine, you need to think of books as well. What we’re seeing is a distinction between different kinds of print. We’re now slowly figuring out what kind of print adds value in the internet age and what kind doesn’t. The kind of magazines that we do, which are long-form, photography, all the qualities being celebrated here, are the things that add value to the internet. And while magazine websites are also being honored here, print still does these things better than anything else. You’re not going to want to read 8,000 words on your screen. And we just won an award for design. HTML does not do justice to really innovative design, to what we won for tonight. And so, that kind of print is not dead, it is still thriving. And our company, in particular, focuses on mostly monthly, high-production, high-design visual artifacts. That’s got a long future. More after the jump
paidContent: Was Condé Nast Portfolio’s mostly just a victim of bad luck — that is, being a new magazine in a spectacularly bad economy?
David Carey: The Portfolio piece is interesting. Consider that anything that required a huge investment back in 2006, 2007 — for example, a hotel — has found it hard to match expectations then to the reality of today. To Chris’ point, the two magazines in our company that did the best tonight — Wired and The New Yorker — have circulation stories that are rock solid. The renewal rates are so high. And when everything out there is free, and digital is consumed in small bites, there is still a large audience for long-form print. Look at Wired’s current issue with JJ Abrams. It features two dozen puzzles that you have to hold up to the light and have to be cut out. We thought good luck, no one’s going to solve it. And Chris said, readers will take the magazine, they’ll crowdsource it online and recognize the design elements that are a little off, figure out the clue. Lo and behold, within 48 hours, readers solved. And that’s an example of how print and the web can live side by side.
paidContent: All this rich, intricate design costs a lot of money. With advertising pullback both in print and online, will readers really be willing to pony up more money for a magazine? Newspapers are talking about where to create the pay wall and whether micropayments work. Is there a good model for magazines?
CA: There are two elements to a successful business. One, you make something people want. The other is you find a way to make people pay for it. It’s a work in progress, frankly. If you’re going to ask what our model will be in 10, 20 years time, I suspect it will be different than it is today. But I don’t think it will be radically different. Print will still make sense. Right now, we have free online and paid — at a relatively low cost — in print. There’s other revenue streams you can imagine: events, e-commerce, magazines are experimenting with retail, there’s subscription models based on something other than an annual basis. And others are examining selling individual stories. I suspect ‘freemium’ (a blend of free and premium content) is something that will define our business models over the next few years. Dave and I were meeting on this today and something that Condé Nast hopes to lead on.
paidContent: Hearst has been investing in e-devices. That’s a very different kind of business than publishing. Is that an area Condé Nast is exploring in some way?
CA: I can’t speak for the company, but it doesn’t make sense to me.
DC: We’re happy to work with all the e-reader providers. But our core competancy is creating these beautiful magazines. Hardware is not our business. We’ve seen the demonstration by Plastic Logic. The prototype is terrific. And just fast-forward two generations, and it will be even more terrific. And it’s all very exciting and Plastic Logic can do that really well, and we’re happy to leave the hardware business to them, because they can’t do what we do. But one or more of these electronic readers will break out. If these electronic readers take off, like Kindle subscriptions, that could give us the opportunity to become a little less ad-leveraged and more consumer-leveraged.
CA: If somebody will invent the device that has the portability of the Kindle, the color and vibrancy of print, when that day comes in 20 or 30 years, I’ll give up print. I’m not wedded to dead trees. I’m wedded to what we can do with dead trees.
paidContent: Chris, during your acceptance speech for the design award, you referenced an editorial meeting for what eventually became the February cover. It was a white cover with black letters for an obscure mathematical formula called the “Gaussian copula function.” When you presented this at an editorial meeting, you conceded that this might not be the best choice to move magazines off the newsstand. SI Newhouse’s approving reaction was to shrug and say “Oh, It doesn’t matter.” You said whether you believed it or not, it was important to hear that at the meeting. How did the issue do?
CA: As it turned out, it did sell pretty well — better than average, although not our bestseller for the year-to-date. But the important thing for me is that to SI, it was a powerful idea, presented in a novel and innovative way. Who knows what would have happened if it did indeed tank on the newsstand, as conventional wisdom would have had it, but our confidence that SI meant what he said — that swinging for the fences in terms of magazine-making ambition matters most — is what gives us the courage to break convention and experiment with radical concepts, like our current JJ Abrams issue on Mystery.