Hey, Magazines, Are You in or Are You out?

Time to Step Up and Declare Whether You Still Believe in Publishing

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I've got a few questions for American magazine publishers:

Are you in or are you out?

Do you still believe in the very act, the very business, of publishing?

And do you still believe in presenting carefully selected words and pictures -- expertly produced information -- for a targeted audience?
No shelter: Time Inc. shuttered Cottage Living as part of a companywide cutback.
No shelter: Time Inc. shuttered Cottage Living as part of a companywide cutback.

Lately, some companies seem to be answering yes -- for instance, Ziff-Davis, which announced last week that it is discontinuing its PC Magazine as a print product but has been investing in its internet strategy and is therefore ready and able to continue publishing the title on the web.

Other companies seem to be answering no -- for example, Time Inc., which, in the midst of a massive, companywide reduction in staff, entirely folded its once-promising Cottage Living last week. That's it. The brand is dead. The magazine's sizable audience (the rate base was 1 million) will be abandoned, and even the website will be shuttered. That's not exactly a surprise given Time Inc.'s previous half-hearted attempts at transitioning brands from print to web. When it shuttered Teen People, for instance, it briefly pretended to be interested in keeping the brand alive at teenpeople.com but ultimately killed that, too.

That big publishers can't manage to sell enough print ads, in a post-print media economy shadowed by a larger economic meltdown, is not exactly shocking. What is shocking, though, is that they're essentially saying to scrappier, upstart online competitors: Take our business, please! We're throwing in the towel! If we can't play by the old rules of publishing -- the profit-soaked, imperial model with endless layers of coddled management ensconced in luxe trophy offices -- then we don't want to play at all! (As for Cottage Living and Teen People, keep in mind that, housing crisis notwithstanding, there is still a large audience interested in the shelter category, and there are still millions of teens who are obsessed with celebrity. And those audiences are on the web, looking to be served editorially.)

Again, I'm not talking about print vs. online -- the slow death of print is beside the point here -- and I'm not talking about necessary recessionary belt-tightening. I'm just asking: Are you willing to radically adjust your business model precisely because you still believe in the act of publishing?

And when I say "radically adjust your business model," I don't mean radically amputating so the patient bleeds to death faster. I don't mean cutting all the front-line content producers -- the editors and writers and art staffers who don't make million-dollar-plus salaries -- in great brutal rolling waves so that soon you'll be unable to produce any content anymore. I don't mean changing your business purpose from editorial brand building to, basically, editorial brand hospice care -- abusive, inadequate hospice care at that.

Retrenching during an economic contraction is one thing. But starving and killing off your brands one by one -- and refusing to invest adequately in the transition from print to web -- suggests that you're simply abdicating. You've lost faith in what you do. You've lost faith in publishing.

Recently, my colleague Nat Ives asked the Magazine Publishers of America for an estimate of online ad revenue for the industry. An MPA spokesperson, rather astonishingly, e-mailed back, "We don't track. Don't know who does." As MediaWorks Editor Ann Marie Kerwin put it, "How do you not track that? How do you not try and set some benchmarks there?" (Then again, she said, maybe they are tracking the number -- but it's so pathetic, "they just don't want to share it.")

A few weeks back, MSNBC talk-show host Rachel Maddow appeared on "The Colbert Report" and noted that the governing failures of the Bush administration -- its failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina, etc. -- were inevitable, because George W. Bush stocked his government with people who were ideologically anti-government. "I mean, I like vegans," she joked, "but it's like hiring a vegan to be your butcher. If you have somebody who is really against the idea of providing you the service that you have hired them for, they're going to be bad at providing that service."

Looking around at some of America's largest magazine publishers, I see something similar: publishers who are anti-publishing.
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