There’s an obvious option for these magazines, and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about it: Ruthlessly collapse the print and online staffs, run everything online as soon as they write it, except one or two cover-length, long-form glossy pieces. Those will anchor the print issue, rounded out by the best stories from online. Then cut the money spent on trying to court new subscribers, shifting the entire marketing budget to promote the Web or real-life conferences and branded events. You could even use reader comments to flesh the online pieces out more for the print edition, driving more engagement in both the print and online versions. Voila! One publication, not two pretending to be one. And guess what? One publication is a hell of a lot cheaper, even if it’s printed on dead trees.
Now a lot of these publications will tell you they’re all one staff now. But go through the staff boxes and see how many of those names blog, write breaking news online or write anything online with any frequency. Hint: If the question “Is this for print or online?” keeps coming up in your organization, you’re doing it wrong. Aside from one investigative piece per issue, there shouldn’t be a difference between the two. As a practical matter, it’s not that different from all of the magazine copy running online after the fact. But if you think about it, that policy elevates the magazine above online. It should be reversed.
Why not go the route of closing print completely and going online? First off, you’d kill the print ad revenue stream which is still the bulk of these magazines’ business. But it also abandons the magazines’ competitive advantage. For a lot of people magazines are different from newspapers. They’re printed on nice paper with glossy, glitzy photo shoots and painstaking graphic design for a reason. People in them like putting them on their coffee table—or better yet, framing them. Don’t underestimate the power reporters working on a cover have to convince a reluctant CEO to talk to them or give them exclusives. It may be one of the few advantages they’ve got over increasingly influential blogs. Similarly, there’s still a huge swath of readers who like flipping through a hard copy of BusinessWeek or Fortune on the plane, or even on a Sunday afternoon. The business world isn’t all tech, after all. And as a reporter, I have to be honest. There’s nothing quite like seeing your article printed in a glossy magazine. That can be a valuable retention and recruitin
g tool when used well. As can the implicit promise that the publication still values long-form, investigative reporting that has some shelf life to it.
It’s not that big, glossy, deeply-reported magazine stories are better than blogs. But they are a different way to tell certain important, complex stories, the same way a book is a different way to tell a story than an article. Not all news needs that kind of methodical, intensely-edited and graphic designed treatment, but I’d argue one or two per month do. And if newspapers keep crumbling, magazines are going to be the only places left that know how to do it.