Pondering the Role of the Printed Page

And Why Magazine Publishers Must Adapt to Encroaching Digital Formats

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FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- I once confessed -- on a video shown before several hundred people, no less -- to a habit of reading magazines in the shower.
Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'

I'll explain. I often fall asleep reading, and when I did so in the middle of an interesting article I'd finish it in the morning, as I got ready for work -- the water hitting my back as I held an arm in front of me.

Bathroom iPod
Now to confess to a new habit: I keep a small rabbit-ear speaker system in my bathroom, and many mornings before I shower I nestle my iPod into it and listen to a chapter or two of an audio book downloaded off the Internet.

And, bam, like that, another of print's "unique strengths" -- portability -- is gone.

As I write this, I'm sitting in a hotel ballroom in Puerto Rico listening to magazine-industry executives hash out their issues. I've been coming to this conference for longer than I care to admit, and there have been years when these publishers were clearly in denial, when this gathering felt like a cheerleading camp frustratingly detached from day-to-day reality.

Not this year. Speaker after speaker urged those in attendance to figure out how magazines can adapt to digital formats, extend their brands, confront pressure to play in the branded entertainment space, or simply fight for their fair share of an ad dollar being split into ever-smaller parts.

The new reality
The outlook is neither gloomy, nor upbeat. Simply realistic. Publishers know what the questions are; they just haven't worked out the answers. They realize they have to change, even if they don't know how.

Here's one hint: Immerse yourselves in new media. Although many audience members were hunched in the increasingly familiar typing-on-Blackberries position, only about a dozen or so of the 400 people in the room raised an arm when Technology Review Editor Jason Pontin asked how many people read a daily blog. Along similar lines, the better part of a chat with Sirius chief Mel Karmazin was spent on a basic primer of what satellite radio is and how it differs from terrestrial radio.

Karmazin was able to underscore why digital represents both a threat and an opportunity for traditional media. He first outlined content deals Sirius has cut with the likes of Cosmo and Maxim, then warned publishers the national footprint of satellite radio makes Sirius a serious competitor for ad dollars: "People in this room have something to concern themselves about."

What IS a 'magazine'
At heart is the definition of what it means to be in the "magazine" business. Is a magazine an ink-on-paper product, a platform-neutral editorial environment or a brand capable of selling subscribers life insurance door-to-door (as Grit actually does) and licensed lifestyle products?

"It's the consumer experience that's at the heart and soul of it," Hearst's Cathie Black said from the stage. It's a nifty idea, but not yet a reality. And if magazines are able to realize their full potential as builders of communities of common interests, are they still actually magazines? What role for the printed page?

In the past couple of weeks, Nerve's Rufus Griscom and magazine-journalist-cum-blog-icon Jeff Jarvis independently voiced similar theories. Each believes magazines will ultimately serve a secondary role to Web sites, pretty catalogs to remind audiences to visit a Web site for a deeper interaction. That concept stuns many publishers, who still view it from the other side, seeing their Web sites as tools to drive print subscriptions.

Magazines reduced to the role of mere brand flags waving people to another medium? It's enough to scare a lover of print into reading in the shower again.

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