Sunday, November 25, 2007

Digital Divide

Digital Divide

Having learned to love the Web, former print editors urge magazines to carve out stronger online identities
Mark Golin, editor of, looks back with some humor on the early days of his Web career in the late '90s. He had proudly created some new features for Rodale's, only to discover people weren't clicking on them. "They were just beautiful looking," he recalled. "God help anyone trying to figure out how to use it."

For Golin, who spent much of his career in magazines including stints as editor of Maxim and Details before making the jump to the digital space seven years ago, the episode made him realize the complexity of building a successful site, with all the visual cues that are needed to keep users engaged and entertained.

"One of the immediate things that hit me is how much more complex production online can be," Golin said. "Content packages are planned months in advance. You almost start to think about a game of three-dimensional chess."

And while most magazine publishers now realize they have a bright future online, he and other former print editors agree that many of them have fallen short in adapting their magazines to one of the biggest threats -if not the biggest threat-to their existence.
To make their brands succeed online, magazine editors need to rethink practices and assumptions that are suited to print, these former print editors say.

"I think they need to think about the Web as a completely different animal," said Michael Caruso, a former editor of Men's Journal and Details who founded The Daily Tube, a site that trolls the Web for the best new videos.

Traditions that have made print magazines strong can be a liability online, former print editors said.
Given the interactive nature of the Web, magazines, with their "experts telling a large audience what to think and what's new," have a diminishing role to play, Caruso said.

Keith Blanchard, onetime editor of Maxim who worked on the sites of Wenner Media's Rolling Stone, Us Weekly and Men's Journal, sees print brands struggling to be responsible and authentic at the same time. "Perez Hilton was able to come up out of nowhere because he didn't care about the legality of what he was doing," pointed out Blanchard, now vp, director of programming at videogame maker Kuma Games.

Online, it's content that matters, not the source, he continued. "Newsweek, Time, don't mean anything, but Justin Fox does," he said, referring to Time's business and economics columnist. "I don't think people are very brand-loyal online."

Blanchard and others say too often magazine sites offer no unique value, have loads of information that's poorly organized and too closely mimic their print counterparts. They urged magazines to carve out stronger identities online.

One way is to recognize that sites don't have to mirror print editions, Golin said, noting that is more celebrity-oriented than its print counterpart.

"I think the main thing is for them to have a very clear mission statement," he said. "What is the need on the part of the user that you're fulfilling? I see a lot of magazine Web sites where I don't know why I've come here, I don't know why I'd come here regularly."

Given the Web's user-directed nature, Blanchard suggested magazines' sites do more to let visitors customize their experience, by geography or other factors.

Since making the jump to online, these digital denizens said they've had to adjust to a culture of heightened speed, intensity and technological change.

"The culture is a lot more casual, the hierarchy is a lot more fluid," said Jimmy Jellinek, who was replaced as editor of Maxim after its recent ownership change and is now consulting at, an entertainment site geared to young men. "There's not the sense of power derived from a masthead. But at the same time, there's pressure to grow profit. There is a constant intensity because the Web is constantly changing. Here, you're working on a day-to-day basis. You constantly have to be plugged in."

While digital defectors don't seem eager to return to print, they still see strong value in the service, long reads and escapism it provides. Said Jellinek, "The one thing the Internet doesn't do is provide context. You get instant information, but it's not analysis."

Price hikes hit Bauer titles

The once-seemingly unstoppable celebrity weekly category is showing more signs its growth is peaking. It started with Wenner Media's Us Weekly and Northern & Shell's OK! missing rate bases on multiple issues in the first half of '07, followed by American Media's Star cutting its rate base to 1.35 million in July, from 1.5 million.

Now, in the two weeks since its price increased by $1 to $2.99, In Touch Weekly's single-copy sales were at least 25 percent below their 1.3 million average for the first half of 2007, according to preliminary sales estimates provided by three industry sources. At sibling Bauer Publishing title Life & Style Weekly, which also raised its price by $1 to $2.99, single-copy sales were down at least 10 percent from its first-half average sales of 744,294, per the sources' estimates.

To be fair, two weeks is a small amount of time to determine whether or not a price increase has a long-term impact on sales, which can be affected by a host of factors. Fall is generally a slow time for celebrity weekly newsstand sales, for example. According to an industry rule of thumb, a title can expect a percentage decline in newsstand sales equal to half the cover price's percentage increase, however.

Cover prices have been trending up this year across the celebrity category, but Bauer's price increases were seen as especially risky because of the 50 percent hike and the company's reliance on low cover prices to support its newsstand growth. Ian Scott, president of Bauer advertising sales, would not confirm or comment on the latest newsstand sales, but did say Bauer would continue its record of overdelivering on rate base. "That's what we've done in the past and that's what we're committed to doing in the future," Scott said.

Meantime, newsstand sales of other celeb weeklies have stayed relatively even, according to source estimates. If anything, Dave Leckey, executive vp, consumer marketing of American Media and publisher of Star, noted, "I think [the Bauer price increase has] benefitted us."

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