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The very long tail – how magazines could make their archives sing

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If readers won’t pay for this month’s latest tablet magazine, will they put their hand in their pocket for a title’s entire back-issue archive?

To commemorate its ninetieth birthday next year, classical music monthly Gramophone has digitised all 1,000 editions of its legacy, comprising 110,000 pages, for its app and web subscribers.

More than just a technological feat, the resurrection and archival capabilities of digital copying and storage that have brought back value for music and video owners may also offer new long tail prospects for magazines.

The consumer value benefits are intriguing. Gramophone only launched on iPad a year ago – now 1,000 copies are available in perpetuity to subscribers for the same £3.99-a-month (£39.99-a-year) price as the mere dozen-or-so it has published digitally since launch.

Other titles have shown an interest in giving their archive a second life. Vogue magazine has made available its 119-year, 400,ooo-page history. Current New Yorker subscribers can also read all issues dating back to 1925.

But, just because modern-media storage allows it, should publishers call back decades-old content for hoped-for reward? That depends on whether their archive can be mined for what a specific audience might regard as gold today…

The Vogue and New Yorker archive plays are unapologetically geared toward historical research. Likewise, as someone recently urged by his parents to clear out his old collection of Wired magazines, documenting the important inception of digital culture, I would gladly pay to shrink their shelf’s-worth down to iPad size, kept safely in the cloud.

Condé Nast UK digital director Jamie Jouning told me in February: “Within the next five years or so, I’d imagine most of our magazines will have an archive of back copies. It’s a big process. We’d want to do it so it’s searchable, so it’s more than taking flat PDFs.”

But, to leverage an archive 20 or 50 years from now, other publishers today might want to start conceiving content in a way that is distinctly evergreen – valuable even in the future. Gramophone‘s articles are, relatively uniquely, already timeless – most classical music is, by definition, old and the magazine has always had a knack for presenting it in the present tense. Others may need to work harder and change tack.

But publishers are already behaving this way on the newsstands, which are becoming dominated by highly-paginated bookazines and magbooks on key topics, issued at less frequent intervals like half-yearly, if not as one-offs entirely. Here, instructional and commemorative content excels. An instructive example might be a monthly cooking magazine that recognizes that, today, many of its recipes will remain relevant to future generations.

If publishers can achieve similar value in the bottomless digital realm, they could end up accomplishing the notion of magazine-as-service – a massive archive of content that is not just a historical curiosity but which has everlasting relevance, and an ongoing reader payment relationship like cable TV enjoys.

The economic pay-offs are also attractive, flipping the production cost base from one in which so much hard work and cash is spent on producing content that will soon be stale to one in which costs are considered an investment in a future-proof content repository that can keep on giving.

In other words, is there a profitable seam to tap in recasting the publisher as content database?

17 Responses to “The very long tail – how magazines could make their archives sing”

  1. Jill Tomich

    It seems the back content offered to consumers, so far, is made available from a publisher only on that publishers site. But what if there was a central place for consumers to access content across all publishers, and be able to create (remix) their own collection? Full disclosure…we have developed tools for publishers (mostly ebooks right now, but any PDF or ePub will work) to slice content into sections, chapters, articles – and then remix (or create) custom collections (ie. ebook) made up of slices from different sources. Publishers have the option to offer the slices and remixes on our retail marketplace. Soon, we’ll be releasing a consumer version of our remix tool where publishers can put it on their own sites as a service to their customers.

  2. PCreader

    There is no goldmine here – there are plenty of digital archives available and there’s plenty of incorporation of older material into newer on publication’s sites (and indeed in print). The realities are:
    (a) Older content is simply not as appealing as new content. Any news site could tell you that 90%+ of interest is to the most recent news. (That’s why the product is called news.)
    (b) Making older material just piles onto the problem of over-supply of content/inventory in the media market.
    There is no untapped goldmine: just more stuff you can make available, but no corresponding demand.

    • My experience has proved this out. Spent over $100,000 digitizing the 75 print issues of critically acclaimed No Depression Magazine (roots music) when we transitioned online 4 years ago and it’s driven very little traffic to the site and people want new content. Probably helped strengthen the brand online, but at this point it seems unlikely that the investment will pay off.

      • Ketharaman Swaminathan

        @Kyla: The target audience for digital archives is very different from that for the current digital issue, so digital archives will never generate the kind of traffic that you might expect for a current issue. However, this does not imply that your investment is unlikely to pay off since narrow as the target audience for digital archives is, their need and willingness to pay for it is much higher – US$ 100-250 per search are not uncommon in this industry. Trick is to identify the right target audience, compile a target account list and go after them by using a combination of traditional and digital marketing techniques. Please feel free to contact me if you need more information.

  3. If done correctly, this could be a goldmine for some magazines. A subscription to the archives of National Geographic, eg, could be the new Encyclopedia Britannica. Remember, every parent bought the set of encyclopedias for their kids to use as reference doing schoolwork. That could be replaced by access to history and culture-rich magazines like NatGeo.

  4. The most fundamental mission for content companies is to create unique, engaging and relevant experiences for their consumers today. Your observation that,”..other publishers today might want to start conceiving content in away that is distinctly evergreen” is nice in theory, but not practical in most cases. Even with evergreen subjects like food and recipes ingredients and taste profiles change over time. That’s why perennial favorites like the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook in America is regularly updated. Regardless, archives are a wonderful resource and brands that have them should exploit them to the benefit of both themselves and their readers. In some cases, like at Women’s Wear Daily they can be a source of incremental revenue and in others such as Reader’s Digest they serve as a touchstone to keep the 90 year-old brand true to its roots.

  5. Noah Chestnut

    Two quick thoughts:

    (1) Build a tool to link relevant archives to new content. Within a CMS writers/editors should be able to automatically preview relevant archives and then choose to publish them along side the new article. Then provide subscribers with access to read these archives. You need to guide users through the archives and relevant curation would be a smart tool.

    (2) Avoid the Netflix library. Offering too many issues, articles will push away readers. The Atlantic does a nice job via Facebook to feature archival content. It would be a mistake to throw out archival access and assume readers will come. There needs to be an editor(s) to manage this community.

    • Agree with both points! licensed, digitized, and has been offering for almost two years the archives of several prominent magazines–with minimal interest from members or visitors. Viewing/reading requires registration, but no fee. Unfortunately, “curation” is only via a timeline; a reader can sort by month and year. Searching by topic on the site does bring up mags which include related stories or photos, but a reader then has to flip through the pages to locate if the topic isn’t referenced in the table of contents. Curation–to address relevancy and volume–is key!