Last week Conde Nast’s departing chief executive officer, Bob Sauerberg, revealed plans to put all of the company’s U.S. magazines appearing online behind a paywall by the end of the year. (WWD Jan 23)
This was an important and overdue announcement. As Benedict Evans noted: “Fascinating that this decade-old conversation is still going on.” Conde Nast has been slow to recognise and accept that the 20th century model for magazine publishing profitability no longer applies. Display ads can no longer be the saviour and profit generating motor for magazines with massive print circulations; and digital advertising is not going to come to the rescue. Newspapers (the New York Times, Financial Times, etc) have been showing for years that digital subscriptions work; and perhaps the best example of a magazine paywall working is Condé Nast’s own New Yorker. The New Yorker’s steady climb to over 1 million paid digital subscribers has been a long-time in the growing (over 10 years). So, its not that Condé Nast did not know what was going on. Building digital circulations takes time. Slapping up a paywall is not a quick fix and the New Yorker’s slow and steadily climbing digital circulation should remind us that “Paywalls” are not necessarily the best way of thinking about digital subscriptions.
‘Paywall’ is a notably bad term because the key point about a digital subscription service is that it is not really about ‘keeping people out’, which it is what the metaphor suggests. Digital subscriptions work and are attractive because users wish to have the choice and freshness of content that becomes available when the user joins the service or signs on to the community. This is why most news and magazines that run paid-for subscriptions, offer a kind of ‘half-way’ house, through which the reader can get access to a generous ration of content for free by registering for the service first. Exact Editions, for example, provides free access to tables of contents and some pages for every digital issue, and similarly provides free search to all content. This is a model for effective sampling or generous fencing not for paywalls:
Condé Nast are not expecting their move to work equally well with all their magazines. Vanity Fair and Wired have already been moving in that direction. GQ and Vogue will soon be following. It is no accident that the titles that are moving most directly and purposively to a paid content subscriptions approach are those with the most compelling and valuable archives. So Condé Nast will soon be in a position to offer compelling institutional subscriptions to libraries and colleges that will find educational and research value in this content. Exact Editions is ready to help them to deliver that service. Wired is a title that would readily find 100s of institutions that need and will pay for complete archival access.
This change of direction for Condé Nast comes hard on the heels of its decision to shutter the US printed edition of Glamour magazine. That brand will now continue as a digital only web service. A complete archive of that storied magazine’s 79 year history would be a great cultural resource. Lets hope that a Condé Nast executive spots that opportunity before the digital and print files are placed in deep storage. Again Exact Editions can help, we have experience of turning piles of back issues into fully searchable and saleable archives.
When magazines become digital their relationship to time is profoundly altered. Paradoxically their relationship with time and our experience of time changes because the magazines themselves, even with a complete archive, are relatively unchanged; they change much less than other forms of digital media in the transition to digital. Magazines in print, with their issue by issue publication pattern, are good at trapping time and when they are transformed into digital databases they store our culture in ways that make the past very accessible and reusable. In the 19th and 20th century, magazines, with their regular new issues, were ways of gaining and consuming current information. But digital magazines are becoming increasingly indispensable as ways of preserving current information so that it becomes part of our cultural record for the present and the future. Digital archives are tools for accessing the past even more than they are silos for preserving the back issues.
Librarians classify magazines, along with newspapers, annuals, weeklies, reviews, journals and proceedings as periodicals (and note all the temporal connotations we find in those classificatory terms) and they are extremely useful in a print culture because they are a source of predictable and locatable news. The latest issue of a magazine carries news, and the previous issues are quite likely to be discarded even if, by the keenest collectors, they will be kept, probably in an ordered stack or on a shelf, so that they can be consulted to remind us of what was news then.
Fifty years ago magazines were very good at bringing their subscribers news of the latest developments in a field of specialist interest: for example Opera. The current issue of the magazine would have been urgently awaited and it would, for many subscribers, have been a primary source of current information. However the back issues would be relatively inaccessible (indeed quite possibly stored in the attic if there were too many of them) and they would have been very hard to search, so the current issue was the main focus of attention. This is not how digital magazines now work. Very few opera lovers will today rely primarily on a monthly magazine for news. We have so many more instant resources: blogs, Twitter and social media, Operabase, Google search. YouTube, and all the forms of live broadcasting. Magazines were fast moving sources of news 50 years ago, now, by contrast, they are relatively slow moving and that turns out to be a good thing. For their reports and reviews may be more carefully published than too-fast digital news. Magazines that are careful with their reputation are perhaps trusted more than ever before; no longer fast, magazines are a slow-ish medium that commands the respect we give to reliable sources.
We noted that magazines as experienced fifty years ago were relatively inaccessible and barely searchable. But now a digital magazine with a databased archive is easily browse-able all the way through and down to the first issue. We can view the archive in the Exact Editions system at the top level by navigating an array of front covers:
This point and click interface to a complete archive of the magazine is incomparably easier for browsing and exploration than cartons full of 850 individual issues of the print magazine.
Not only is a digital magazine archive much more browse-able, it will surely be fully searchable:
The curious result is that magazines have been transformed from being a source of current information into a much deeper and long-lasting source of memory and record. The current issue, in 2019, will still be for many subscribers the ‘easy way in’ but the full archival database gives us something that a print resource cannot match. Digital magazines gradually acquire a cumulative authority, largely because they are a way of taking the past with us. We may not need them so much for the instant opinion, or the latest rumour, but they are rolling up our past and our present to make an ongoing record for our cultural present and for our enjoyment in the future. It is this potential for carefully archived magazine resources to become even more valuable and informative in an accumulation of content that should be one of the most exciting developments of the digital turn that all our media are now taking.
Taking our Opera example, we find that the Opera Twitter account is happily mining the riches of the archive to chime with present interests:
When a Twitter account uses a historic archive to comment on new developments or to commemorate forgotten composers or unforgettable stars (Callas) it is reversing the normal role of the archive, which is no longer a mere repository of old news but is in course of becoming a source for new thoughts and new interpretations. The future of the past, and from the past, is one of the things we can expect from digital magazines, echoing T S Eliot (Four Quartets):
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Luciano Floridi, an Italian Professor at Oxford, is one of the leading philosophers of information. He is also interested in libraries and archives and has recently proposed a valuable use for the concept of “semantic capital” in relation to archives. His explanation was given as a lecture to the National Archives at Kew, and is available from their site.
I propose to summarise and simplify his explanation of “semantic capital” and apply it to the topic of digital magazine archives (very close to our heart at Exact Editions). For our purposes semantic capital is:
a stock of content growing and extended through time (a sequence of magazine issues published on paper monthly and held in library stacks would be a perfect example)
the stock of content is held in a stable form where it can be subjected to new readings and new interpretations (a contemporary digital database of a magazine issue by issue, with new issues appearing as they are published, for example)
the content should be held in a canonical form so that new readings or interpretations can be compared with previous readings (so it is rather important that the content should be complete and searchable. It would be inconvenient if the digital archive was different in different institutions. Leaving out the advertisements or the illustrations from a magazine archive will not do)
finally the semantic capital, is truly “capital” to the extent that this stock of preserved stuff can be used for new and unexpected applications. The capital can appreciate in value or depreciate, through damage or obscurity. It can be hoped that the capital will grow and so creates more cultural value.
From our point of view it is this last point that is key. In a digital culture, usable semantic capital needs to be searchable, cite-able, re-uasable, and share-able. Our print culture survives but it is vulnerable and needs to be transformed into reliable digital resources. Magazine archives in fact exist in great profusion, they are usually to be found as bound volumes in the offices of the publisher, or sometimes in boxes ‘off site’. They are also found as print issues held in institutional libraries — but in this form they are almost useless to contemporary students or researchers who increasingly depend on digital access to library resources. The point is that in a digital culture, cultural resources and assets now need to be digital if they are to be truly useful. Cultural capital is simply much more valuable if it is digital. I am not sure that we have yet recognised — magazine publishers especially — how much long term value can be created by moving content to a digital archive. Magazines archived and digitised in an appropriate and intelligent way will become much more valuable than the print-only source, and this is where the third point is also vital. The digital version really should be canonical so that very little will have been lost in the transfer from paper to digital memory. This is a very important and urgent point because the magazines that are digitised and databased whilst they are still published in print form are much more likely to survive and to be used in our growing digital culture.
Print archives from magazines that have ceased publication or which have morphed into websites or where the ownership and provenance of content is unknown will very likely be lost. Archiving magazines is a way of preserving their value — not only for the long term, but now for the present, for the readers and the libraries who will be able to use and enjoy semantic capital that we have to an extent been ignoring whilst it is held only in paper formats. In a digital culture, semantic capital is of great potential value, for this reason we should be optimistic about the potential for digital culture, but it is also much more fragile so we should be careful not to neglect it. As Floridi points out ‘if semantic capital is not used productively it depreciates’.
Marc Benioff’s purchase of the magazine Time for $190 million seems to be part of a trend: billionaires buying prestigious magazines and newspapers. The trend includes Michael Bloomberg buying Businessweek, Laurene Powell Jobs investing in the Atlantic and Jeff Bezos buying and investing in the Washington Post. So why are these software billionaires buying such challenged assets at prices that are at least respectable in comparison to the valuations that might have been offered by traditional media investors? Billionaires are not buying prestigious book publishers or TV channels. What is so special about magazines?
It is suggested that one reason for acquiring these opinion-making publishers is that their owner thereby gains a degree of political and cultural influence. But this surely is not the whole story. $190 million spent on lobbying and pressure groups would buy the Benioffs a lot of direct influence in Washington and Brussels — if that is what they really seek. Cultural influence is another matter, but cultural influence is only guaranteed to the owners of these publications if the publications continue to thrive (and have influence) in a digital environment. These publications have, and are surely seen by their new investors to have, a promising digital future. That is why they are buying.
So, the more interesting conclusion is that software billionaires understand that magazines in the digital age have a reach and a momentum that may not be accessible to other common forms of digital content. Consider the alternatives:
as a digital asset music is wonderful but short on cognitive content and it is really only owned by its composers, performers, and the audience
social media, has enormous leverage and currency (Marc Benioff was after all keen to buy Twitter ). But social media is anarchic, potentially polluting or reputation-wrecking, as Facebook is discovering. So if Salesforce owned Twitter it might have bought itself a lot more grief and no direct political leverage (which justifies the Salesforce investors who vetoed Benioff’s moves).
blogging and podcasting are dynamic and cognitively rich forms of digital culture, but they share with social media the problem that they are somewhat anarchic and lack staying power, predictable cultural direction and cognitive position.
Why might the Benioffs, Powell Jobs, and Bloomberg value the cultural direction and cognitive position of the magazines that they have bought? The answer to this question (and a similar question about the Washington Post) is obvious. These media properties have a reasonably stable, desirable and persistent character — not just in their editorial, also in their style and audience. Time has a predictable, long running (recall the archive is 95 years deep), and persistent effect on the political climate of the USA and to a degree the Western alliance. Investing in Time is much more politically and culturally focussed than an investment in a social media or blogging platform.
But I think there is another issue here. Magazines and newspapers are reliably persistent (if no longer strictly periodical) in a way that reinforces and clarifies their cultural and intellectual position. Most digital media is not predictably positioned and influential in a specific cultural niche. When you buy a magazine — whether as subscriber or owner — you know what you are buying. So we should expect to see more premium titles being acquired by wealthy patrons who understand that a properly curated cultural icon (the New Yorker, the Economist, Vogue etc) is bound to increase its influence and its brand value in the super-fluid mix of digital content that we now inhabit. Precisely because the cognitive and cultural direction of these properties is well known and reliable, they have a centrality in the digital mix that is now quite hard to achieve and maintain. From this standpoint it perhaps makes sense that the Meredith corporation has found it hard to sell Sports Illustrated or Fortune but Time has found a savvy acquirer. There is nothing wrong with those two brands but they perhaps do not have the unusual position or depth that Time may promise to retain.
If this analysis is correct, it follows that brand values and reputations attaching to magazines are even more important in the digital age than they were in the print environment 30 years ago. Perhaps this explains another flurry of outrage from the last week. Ian Buruma was rather summarily and unexpectedly fired from his job as editor of the New York Review of Books for publishing (and perhaps offensively defending) a controversial and ill-advised essay by a #MeToo culprit. Firing the editor for his poor editorial judgement (a first offence) hardly fits the reputation of the NYRB, but this is an area in which the reputation of the publication might have been even more severely compromised by the essay concerned. In Reddit or Twitter the Jian Gomeshi/Buruma offence would have been an insignificant moment, for the magazine it was — the owners deemed — unpardonable. There is irony in the instant and viral outrage around the affair largely taking place on social media, and this is perhaps a warning for those elite reputations that make a stellar magazine brand. These billionaire owners should be hands off but they might advise their editors in the following terms: “try to avoid mixing your editorial approach with the climate and emotions in the hottest digital content maelstrom. That maelstrom churns every day and it might burn out brand”.
This question occurred to me when I saw a suggestion that the mooted, not yet launched, Apple magazine aggregating service will include newspaper content:
Earlier this year, Apple got into the magazine business by buying a digital magazine distributor. Now it wants to add daily news to the mix. Peter Kafka at Recode
Well, this is only a rumour and Apple’s new magazine-inspired service has not been launched, but it is surely unthinkable that the big newspapers (New York Times,WSJ, FAZ etc) will allow all their content to be bundled into an Apple service in which they have no direct stake. They have been seeing encouraging success with their own audience building for digital subscribers, and that is bound to be a longer term concern for them. But one can see them offering, via Apple, a premium access to news items and some of their content. So much has news content and news distribution been comodified that a deal for just-in-time stories or streamed articles is surely do-able, and if Apple want those stories I am sure they will be available.
Newspapers can no longer view themselves primarily as edition-based periodicals. Once Google news was possible, newspapers needed to make a decision. Either they were primarily news channels freely available through the web, in which case they would be in perpetual and instant competition with every other free digital news channel, or they had to consolidate their audience around a subscriber base, preferably a subscriber base that would be willing to pay for the content that the editors and journalists formed and curated. But to do this well, to build an audience for news in the digital era the news has to be instantly updated and in real time. Digital newspapers are no longer periodicals, especially if they are behind paywalls.
In their hay-day, periodicals, whether newspapers or magazines could reasonably aim to serve their audience with three distinct functions:
(1) opinion via editorial and articles
(2) news via stories or reports
(3) product or service awareness via advertisements
The publication was literally built from these distinct sources — and the staff also would be segregated into these different teams. This three-fold plait of content, carefully woven into each page and issue, was — as it happens- matched by three distinct and yet corresponding sources of recurring revenue:
(1) subscriptions (content delivered by post, paid for by quarterly or annual subs)
(2) newsstand sales (content delivered by the kiosk paid for episodically by $ £ or cash)
(3) advertisers (who paid for pages of content, in advance, so that they could ‘reach’ readers)
After about AD 2000 this three-pillared system of content packaging and revenue harvesting can no longer be relied on. Digital technology has separated the threads, and the idea of a package which weaves these separate commercial strands into periodical issues, editions that appear on a daily or weekly basis, makes less and less sense.
Advertising is the first pillar of content to be knocked away. Magazines or newspapers of the conventional kind simply do not have the precise targeting and broad audience that is needed to make digital advertising work for consumer content.
Very few magazines have been able to stem the digital tide aimed at ad revenue. There are one or two exceptional examples of magazines that have moved successfully to majority funding from digital ads, but the magazines had to be made into databases to take advantage both of product differentiation and audience differentiation: Auto Trader 25 years ago a rather boring magazine for the second-hand car market in the UK has turned itself into a spectacularly successful and effective transactional platform. It is no longer a periodical but a digital second hand car marriage bureau (sometimes orphange?).
Many newspapers, especially in global centres, decided to become news streaming enterprises with news and comment updated 24X7. Digital papers such as the Guardian or the Washington Post are no longer in any strict sense periodicals, their content is organised primarily for their webservices, their sections are sections of the website and their videos are videos for the digital reader. In consequence, much of their content will not be registered in the daily editions that they still print (for how much longer?).
When it comes to retail distribution: magazines and some newspapers are still uncomfortably dependent on physical newsstand sales. But newsstands, kiosks, are steadily disappearing and supermarkets are not a good alternative. Newspapers or magazines that expect to charge readers for news have recognised the need to find the equivalent of a digital newsstand, and an audience that is willing to pay for better and reliable instant information episodically, in dribs and drabs. Because the news feed has to be continuous (to keep pace with the evolving story) there is little justification for separating the content into artificial ‘issues’ or ‘editions’. So newspapers and newsy magazines have been eager to experiment with new distribution or audience building aggregators (Flipboard, Facebook or — no doubt — the new Apple magazine solution), but they do so by syndicating stories or parts of their internal workflow.
But where does this leave the magazines that concentrate on opinion forming and deep content, often for niche audiences? These are the sort of magazines that have always relied on their subscribers (preferably annual and renewed). There are many such magazines covering all areas of culture: politics, religion, hobbies, art, music, technology, professional engagement etc. In many cases the communities and the expert audiences rely on the deep content that they get from their specialist periodical. Increasingly these serious and committed publications, occupying a well-defined niche, are throwing their efforts into building the subscriber base.
Print subscribers continue to be important to securing this revenue pillar, but if the deep archive of the magazine can be turned into a searchable and continuously improved database they have taken advantage of the digital turn. Thoroughly digital magazines such as The Wire, Sight & Sound, Art Monthly or the fashion title Dazedare now databases just as much as they are ‘periodicals’. All their content is available to all their digital readers, all the time. Right from the first issue.
The only thing that is ‘periodical’ about them is that they periodically get bigger.
This last weekend the Benioffs, founders of Salesforce, have personally bought Time magazine “….a treasure trove of our history and culture” for $190 million. Since the new owners view themselves as “caretakers of one of the world’s most important media companies and iconic brands”, my guess is that Time will soon find a more compelling way of presenting and growing its rich archive.