Do magazines matter? Yes

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During the last recession in 1990 and 1991, which in the media world was pretty much a depression, laying waste to anything that supported itself with advertising, I found myself offering advice to three improbable start-ups. It never once occurred to me that any of these magazines would succeed. They were what you did as you waited for something else to do.

Ever since, I've been wondering what it says about the magazine business that, a decade later, not only are these three unlikely enterprises-Out, The Source and Wired-still in business, having created hundreds of millions of dollars in value (and having spurred the creation of billions more), but that each, in its way, became a seminal, culture-shaping, zeitgeist-moving force.

What does it say, too, that each of these magazines was created by absolute novices-Out by an art director's assistant, The Source by two teen-agers in their college dorm room, Wired by an ex-pat living in Amsterdam?

What it means, I'd argue, is that the magazine business is a business where, dollar for dollar, you can accomplish the most for the least, where the very act of articulating the market can create the market, and where you can truly leverage heart and imagination-where a great notion is worth more than plenty of capital.

If you can spot a trend, if you can see an intersection of culture and commerce, if you have a feeling for what's coming down the road, the magazine business is where you want to be. Michael Goff launches Out and helps move the gay world mainstream (making gay an enviable demographic); David Mays and Jon Shecter start The Source and ride hip-hop music to what might be the biggest magazine success of the past decade; Louis Rossetto creates Wired and articulates the precepts and world view that inspire the digital revolution. (They join a pantheon that includes Hugh Hefner creating Playboy and a sexual revolution, Jann Wenner starting Rolling Stone and a cultural revolution, and Clay Felker founding New York Magazine and changing our very idea of who and what a city is for.)

But magazines are not only cultural monuments, they're also one of the great get-rich (or get-even-richer) schemes.

In 1982 Bill Ziff, knowing little more about the personal computer than that the industry would probably get very big, buys PC Magazine for some pocket change. Within less than two years, it's carrying more ad pages than any magazine ever. Even the recently departed Industry Standard is testimony to what happens when you catch the wave just right. (Riding the wave safely into shore requires further talents.)

This isn't just about the psychology of a "hot" book-that is, the faddishness (and fickleness) of young media buyers. I'd argue that magazines that have caught the wave-those that have articulated a universe of desire and sensibility and need-are consistently the most powerful advertising medium. It is the only medium where the advertising is a natural, enhancing part of the package-it's the only medium where you're buying it, at least in part, for the advertising.

What's more, readers are willing to pay for magazines. If the silly years of the Internet have taught us anything, it's that we ought to highly value what people are willing to pay for.

It's a great business. The cost of entry is a lot smaller than everyone thinks; it values a good idea higher than any other enterprise; and its upside is staggering. On a return-on-investment basis there may be no other business that offers as much as a successful magazine.

As recessions begin, everybody always announces the end of magazines. But before you know it, a sure sign of recessions ending, you get a FedEx with a lovely new prototype.

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