Magazine Formats and Business Models

Jeff Jarvis who has been predicting dire things for the newspaper business (some of which are coming to pass) is now becoming the Jeremiah of the magazine business. He has a very gloomy moan on his blog Magazines don’t look so slick now

First, the grim reaper came for newspapers….Now magazines are looking bad and worse by the day. ….

And magazine advertising is falling in the dumper – and it’s sure to get worse as the impact of the crash deepens. The Wall Street Journal reports at 17% plunge in ad pages in the fourth quarter against a year ago. For the year, they were off 12%.

Things are in some ways as bad as Jarvis says. Costs are going up and advertising revenues are plummeting. But Jarvis’s outlook only sees more of the same. His vision of a digital future is of a world of the web as we know it now, where the only form of content distribution that works is free access paid for by Google-style ad-management. But the web is changing and the way in which it changes is giving new opportunities to publishers. In Jarvis’s comment-stream Rex Hammock points out that there is a distinction between magazines-as-formats and magazines-as-business models.

The trick for magazine publishers now is to figure out how the changed circumstances of the web and a search for sustainable cultural values can support the magazine format. The great advantage of the magazine format is that it is ideally adapted to niche markets and so special interest content packages should thrive when a new business model is adopted draws strength from the web and internet distribution. Special interest consumer magazines (superior dress design, specialist cuisine, extreme sports, poetry, ecology, jazz and other musical genres, etc) can easily acquire a paying subscription audience on the web. It will be much tougher for magazines which are simply mass market and mass circulation — they really do need the mass advertising, low subscription audience that is fragmenting and vanishing. Magazines of real quality and passion will work, and as their digital audience develops new models for attracting and delivering value to advertisers will emerge.

Jarvis is right to emphasize the urgency of the challenge, but the formats will be saved if the publishers steer to the appropriate business model. For many magazines that means developing a digital subscription audience.

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