Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Publishers: Don't Just Lay Off Journalists—Execute Them

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

Here's my new favorite quote about the media revolution:
One of the problems is newspapers fired so many journalists and turned them loose to start so many blogs.... They should have executed them. They wouldn’t have had competition. But they foolishly let them out alive.”
This sardonic valentine to print publishers comes from Alan Mutter, an ex-newspaper editor and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur.

He's quoted this week in a New York Times business story, "Adding Fees and Fences on Media Sites." Mutter's dig about executing journalist-bloggers is at the end of the article, but I think it's the lead.

While magazine publishers dither about selling digital content, blogs are running away with the readers, and it's not clear that the brand-name glossies will ever recover. Partly it's because blogging is becoming a legitimate outlet for writers in desperate times. But it's also about vision—or more pointedly, the lack of vision demonstrated by big magazine publishers.

What is an online magazine, anyway? Does it really matter if it no longer resembles a print tome packed with slick ad spreads? Publishers are understandably obsessed by the money question, but focusing on pay schemes rather than content keeps them stuck in the visionless mud.

Times reporters Richard Perez-Pena and Tim Arango open with an evocative lead of their own:
Over more than a decade, consumers became accustomed to the sweet, steady flow of free news, pictures, videos and music on the Internet. Paying was for suckers and old fogeys. Content, like wild horses, wanted to be free.
They go on to say this sweet spot for readers will likely change in the coming year with various new pay models online for magazines and newspapers ("including this one," they write). But publishers are afraid to take the plunge.

The Times piece is well worth a read as a snap shot of an industry caught short and terrified. It evokes shivering publishers on an icy cliff, decked in nothing but polka-dot shorts, waiting for the first brave soul to dive into paid online content. It includes the requisite nod to the Wall Street Journal's payment model and fighting words from Rupert "quality content is not free" Murdoch.

Maybe magazine consumers will start paying, if forced. Part of me wants to believe that a new joint venture of publishing power players—Murdoch's News Corp., Time Inc., Hearst, Conde Nast, and Meredith—really will build a new "digital storefront" that entices readers to become electronic subscribers.

If only these publishers weren't so cynically out of step. I love magazines, and I want to see at least some of the big slicks thrive online. But watching publishers creep instead of fly into a new medium—then come on with belligerent business talk—is more than depressing.

It makes me root for the bloggers with nothing to lose. To paraphrase the management mags of the '90s, the world belongs to those nimble, entrepreneurial souls who aren't hypnotized by their own brand image.

This yet-to-be-named joint venture has been called Hulu or iTunes for magazines. By banding together, the publishing partners will supposedly hang tough on paid content and force the online world their way.

Yet the publishers seem far too wedded to online editions that are essentially digital analogues of print journals. The real innovation for magazines may come in consumers purchasing individual features or specialized content rather than entire journals.

Here's a wacky idea: What about subscribers at various payment levels, creating personalized versions of, say, the New Yorker? You, the consumer, choose which New Yorker content in a given issue you like and how you want it packaged (a digital version, print-on-demand, or both).

At level A, for example, you might get one feature of your choice, all the reviews, and no cartoons; at level B, you get three features, all the reviews, and cartoons + "Talk of the Town"; at level C, you get everything.

Or perhaps you can specify which channels you'd like (health, style, literary, politics) or which writers you want to read. Or maybe you can opt out of ads, going for text-only editions on electronic readers. The point is the freedom to choose is part of what you pay for. Rather than providing more content—more blogs, more lists of most popular articles, more podcasts and other online blips that clutter the screen—you get a manageable chunk of stuff you want.

I'm just riffing. I don't know how much of this is possible or feasible. Yet I do know that the New Yorker's experimental digital edition—click here for an opening shot—was simply an online version of the print magazine, a pain to navigate, and not the answer to magazine publishing's woes. It's an argument for the wonders of print magazines, not a new vision of how online magazines might make our reading lives better.

A glance at the Atlantic Wire, Atlantic Consumer Media's new aggregation of pundits and political commentary indicates another approach. According to editorial director Bob Cohn, as quoted in FishbowlNY:
"As readers face an overload of information and a deficit of free time, they can now visit one site to easily follow the topics they care about and the opinion-makers who fascinate them."
Will such online features get readers to pony up for the Atlantic proper? Possibly. The blogosphere is so crammed with political and social commentary, my eyes glaze at the notion of a site devoted to "opinion-makers." But I salute the effort to jump out of the print box.

For "newsosaur" Alan Mutter, producing good unique content is key. That could favor magazines like the New Yorker or the Atlantic, if their money people ever pay attention to who's actually reading the gold they already have. In a post titled "How to Charge for Online Content," Mutter writes:
The lesson here is not that free content trumps pay (though, all things being equal, it will) but that there has to be much more to a pay strategy than a publisher’s desire to want to be paid.
Which brings us back to all those journalists who are now blogging on their own dime and producing the kind of quality content that just might, possibly, I hope, net them, not Rupert Murdoch, an audience and financial support. Wouldn't it be nice if they had the last laugh?

This piece has been cross-posted on Open Salon.

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