Media in 2011: The (Real) Year of Living Dangerously

On Print Survivors, IPad Glossy Sales, Paywalls and Beautifully Low Budgets

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CHEAP AND SMART: FX's 'Louie' was made on small budget.
CHEAP AND SMART: FX's 'Louie' was made on small budget. Credit: Eric Leibowitz/FX

Media people love bad news -- everybody knows that. But what's been surprising over the past couple of years is the extent to which journalists remain enthusiastic ambulance chasers even when they, themselves, are riding in the back of the ambulance, strapped to a stretcher. Has there ever been a boomier time for The Decline and Fall of Media stories, and Death of Media reports, than 2009-2010?

Yes, there have been a lot of media-industry casualties. But I think there's also been a certain death-wishfulness to much of the coverage. Not only because so many journalists are self-loathing trend-mongers (i.e., business and technology reporters are all too happy to buy into the view that if you're not Mark Zuckerberg or Biz Stone, you're a dinosaur), but because it's easy to miss the big picture when the sky is generally falling across the entire economy.

Now that many media and marketer ships are beginning to rise again, we can finally begin to understand what's really happening to the media industry. If you're a media person who survived the last couple of years -- whether your ambulance ride was because you scraped your knees on the rough economy or because you had a bona fide coronary -- well, God bless you.

And Godspeed, too, because 2011 is the year that will actually matter. That's right: I hereby declare that 2009 and as much of 2010 as you want, you can wipe off your permanent record, provided you lived to tell about it. (Just do us all a favor and stop telling about it.)

All that said, a few notes about some of the dust that's been settling on the falling and rising ambulance-ships of my media metaphor-apalooza:

Hey, you know what? Magazines did not die, actually.
In retrospect, it was idiotic to proclaim that magazines were dead because of major declines in glossy advertising during the Great Recession. Because, for one thing, magazines are deeply dependent on bedrock economic sectors like car manufacturing and financial services. As those industries recover, magazines are, in fact, recovering. (Min Online reports that 99 of the 149 monthlies it tracks increased ad pages in 2010 vs. just 10 in 2009.) Along the way, the magazine industry euthanized a lot of titles, but the American newsstand, like the American real estate market, was overbuilt, plain and simple.

Declining iPad magazine sales are, right now, entirely meaningless.
In late December, I tweeted a link to a nymag.com blog post titled "People Just Aren't Buying Magazine iPad Apps," which summarized a report in WWD by John Koblin with some hard-and-fast numbers (e.g., "Vanity Fair sold 8,700 digital editions of its November issue, down from its average of about 10,500 for the August, September and October issues"). I tweeted, and then I sort of regretted it -- not only because of the hyperbolic headline (Twitterers, including, I confess, me, love nothing so much as a hyperbolic headline) -- but because a huge bit of context is missing: The magazine industry and Apple still haven't agreed on a workable, sustainable subscription model. Vanity Fair is an awesome, seductive thing in print and it costs me under 20 smackers a year to subscribe, and it's totally worth it. Vanity Fair on the iPad is also an awesome, seductive thing, but it would cost me $4.99 a pop (nearly $60 a year) to buy issues individually, and I'm not subscribing until I get a discount that's comparable to what the magazine industry has trained me to think I deserve.

The NYTimes.com paywall will be a success.
Not necessarily a huge success, and not necessarily right out of the gate, but it will be a success with a critical mass of subscribers. My old colleague David Carr, the media columnist at The New York Times, recently wrote of his paper's metered model, "Most visitors to NYTimes.com will not notice a difference, but frequent visitors will be asked to subscribe."

I'm a frequent visitor to NYTimes.com. I will pay. (The paper paper costs roughly $700 a year; I will gladly pay, say, half that.) I would be, quite simply, an asshole -- and, existentially speaking, as a writer, a suicidal schmuck -- if I'm not willing to pay for the goddamn New York Times.

Cheap can be beautiful.
I've rambled on quite a bit about print, obviously, so let me say one last obvious thing, and then one cautiously hopeful thing, about media in general: Fat margins are, of course, history. And given that fatty diets cause coronaries (here I come full circle to my ambulance metaphor; cheers!), let's celebrate the fact that lean diets are healthy. Or to put that another way: Cheap can be beautiful.

My favorite case in point from 2010 comes from TV: "Louie," the FX series created by and starring comedian Louis C.K., which ended up on plenty of critics' year-end best-of lists. (In its first season it was, often, pure genius: sweet, profane, hilarious, heartbreaking, and unlike anything else on TV.) How did it get made? Cheaply. Here's Louis C.K. in an Onion A.V. Club interview:

"My manager, Dave Becky, had me meet with John Landgraf, who runs FX, and he said 'You can come do a show here, which will give you a lot of freedom, and it would just be a very cheap show.' He said he would give me $250,000 per episode to do a show there. That's an enormously low number. It's a gigantically small budget for a TV show. Most TV shows are around a million or so, and that's cheap. So I didn't really want to do it, because I really didn't want to struggle."

In the end, though, C.K. says that he told Landgraf, "The only way this is interesting to me is if you literally wire me $250,000. I'm pitching you what the show is about. I don't want to write a script for a pilot, and I don't want to show you anything until it's finished. So if you give me $250,000, I'll give you a pilot in two months."

And so that's what happened. And it turned out brilliantly. What's missing from this story, other than $750,000 or more of budget per episode? Network overhead -- specifically a bunch of clueless network suits holding endless meetings and giving endless "notes" to the "talent."

Forget ambulances. More and more, hacks like that (or their careers, at least) will get carted off in hearses.

In other words, let's admit -- celebrate, even -- the fact that some of what died over the past couple of years deserved to die.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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