Magazines Online: A Brief Essay

I wrote the short essay below for a report we co-authored with min called “The State of Digital Media,” focusing on the magazine industry’s digital moves. Slightly naive now that I read it after six months, but I still strongly believe that “magazines are about communities of interest.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

For the magazine industry, online is finally coming into its own, as the companies understand to creatively mix the print and native-Web content, and as online advertising has roared back, helping the revenue side move from being just a rounding error in overall revenues. The buzz about magazine launches (and stories within magazines) has never been higher, amplified by the ever hungry blog-machinery, RSS feeds, widgets etc, looking for things to feed off. This is certainly true for certain subsections of celebrity and lifestyle magazines.

But, at the same time, some inexorable trends against the magazine industry continue. If magazines cater to a niche, other online competitors are in super-niches, continually cutting into online readership. Competition comes both from big portals like Yahoo and AOL, and on the other hand, from bloggers specializing in a specific subject. Online advertising is still primarily low value, and not enough to replace the economics of print advertising, at least not in conventionally measurable ways. Also, magazines brands work in silos within a company, and across mediums, when more nimble online companies are blurring the lines constantly, much to the delight of their advertisers.

Meanwhile, a growing issue is a shortage of talent for online, both on the business as well as the editorial side. Ad sales people who have experience selling online and can think natively in the medium are hard to find, as Google and others gobble up every sales talent in sight with, among other benefits, bigger salaries and stock options. The same is true for product and brand talent. On the editorial side, journalistic talent is harder to develop and hone, both on the junior side, as well as more experienced side, where journalists have to balance learning new skills and unlearning older skills to adapt to the online medium.

And while all of these are the longer-term trends, some short-and-medium-term trends bring in a lot of hope and advantage for the magazine industry. Developing extra and daily content online has never been cheaper and faster, with the tools becoming cheaper and easier. Magazines by definition have a loyal community, and with social media tools and services proliferating, they have a chance to experiment and expand on the communities like never before. You’ll see more and more magazines become stewards of communities of interest in the coming years — and the hybrid jobs as well as business models that come out of it.

Developing bigger audiences online also means investing, both in organic growth as well as through M&A. The activity in the M&A market has never been hotter. Some of the representative deals in the online magazine space are buying out other niche community and content sites to get bigger audience quickly. Of course, that means more inventory to sell advertising against. The deals volume will continue to rise over the next year or so, driven by online advertising and excess cheap money to finance the deals. (One change since this was written: investment money isn’t as cheap.)

At the end of the day, magazines are about communities of interest, whether professional or lifestyle driven. If magazines keep that driving mantra in mind, and use the Web for all its is worth, things could begin to look brighter and bigger on the monetary side soon.