NEWSPAPER CHIEFS GET WARNING BETTER TARGETED TO MAGAZINES

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Andrew grove has billions. I've got nada. Intel Corp.'s chairman controls millions of desktops. I can barely keep mine clean. But when one of the most powerful visionaries in the field of information technology says newspapers are close to death, I've got to respectfully disagree.

It's magazines that are in trouble.

Mr. Grove this month told the nation's newspaper editors the Internet would doom them within three years. With specialized online services providing him breaking technology news, and Reuters giving him general news, "somebody's already stolen a third to a half my eyeball time away from you," he warned the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

But the wrinkle in Andy Grove's dire prediction was the mismatch between his audience and his specifics. He was correct in claiming national media are threatened by the boundaryless-ness of Webbed communications. But the people listening to him toiled overwhelmingly for local papers -- rags that draw eyeballs because they traffic in high school sports, the police blotter and chicken thigh sales at the Stop 'n' Shop. With an infrastructure geared to such local service, the nation's newspapers -- providing they transition gracefully into new media and don't lose touch with their neighborhoods -- won't be collapsing any time soon.

The same cannot be said of national magazines, many of which still treat the Internet as an ostrich does a coyote. The industry remains woefully behind the state of the art in adapting to new communications technologies.

I was prompted to this claim by a hysterical piece last week in The Wall Street Journal. With the Internet driving advertisers to seek more accountability from their marketing communications, major magazines, said the Journal, are responding by introducing affinity cards, hiring agency people for senior executive positions, mining their subscriber databases and pretesting ads. Put another way, the periodicals industry is responding to late '90s problems with early '80s solutions.

The reason is no secret. Most publishing companies are run by salespeople, Salespeoples' careers are made by selling pages not products. Others are led by circulation boosters, whose expertise is moving copies not creating customers. For the industry to change, it would have to evolve out of these embedded precepts almost overnight. That's like Neanderthal man turning into Homo sapiens without the intervening Cro-Magnon stuff.

If that's the bad news, there's still good news. For example, magazines are nowhere near as threatened as broadcast TV stations, whose major programming source (no-cost network productions) and income stream (affiliate compensation from those same networks) are being squeezed out of existence.

Unlike TV stations, successful magazines have the advantages of their own proprietary content and a community of active readers engaged by that content. If they can ratchet up their community-building activities, transition into a commercial realm dominated by e-commerce and replace static print with multimedia offerings more appropriate to broadband, they will be able to hold off the competitive threat presented by such new-media companies as iVillage and Oxygen.

A glance at a few of the major publishing companies' Web sites gives a decidedly mixed picture, though. Hearst's HomeArts cleanly divides the company's offerings into useful channels devoted to food, home, family, gardening, health and money. But some of the content can't even be called repurposed; a "highlight" on last week's table of contents offered "Good advice from Good Housekeeping," but click on it and all you got was a suggestion to tune in Editor in Chief Ellen Levine's minutelong segments on CBS radio stations. Hey Hearst: You ever hear of streaming audio?

Conde Nast does a better job with interactivity. Its fitness and health site, Phys., uses quizzes and calculators to provide useful, personalized information engaging enough to keep a surfer returning. But its user forums, compared with HomeArts, are barely trafficked; and some -- such as those on its Swoon site devoted to "dating-mating-relating" -- skirt the near edge of Penthouse Forum-like pornography.

You find similar jumbles at Time Inc., at Hachette, at Mere-dith -- a few features that take surprising advantage of the technology and stale revivals of material that's already been in print. Much of it seems designed -- or undesigned -- to try to protect the mainstay print business until . . .

Until when? It's getting late, folks. If you don't want Andy Grove doing a postmortem at next year's Magazine Publishers of America conference, you better move a little faster.

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