What would Google do? I think that the CEO of any magazine company should ask themselves this question. We are now in a really tough recession. Advertising is getting scarce, shrinking in print and going to the web. Subscriptions are tough. News stand sales are tougher. Magazines and periodicals are explicitly excluded from the scope of the Google Settlement with the Authors and Publishers. But what would Google do with magazines?

The short answer is that Google would not be doing what most magazine brands are doing. Google would not be building something other than the magazine which tries to capture, enshrine, repurpose, reposition whatever it is that great magazines do really well. Google, if it had its way with magazines, would be doing with magazines what it has won the agreement of the publishers to do with books. It has started doing this with newspapers (also excluded from the settlement), digitizing historic newspaper archives. It would be building a database system which coherently and elegantly puts magazines on the web exactly as they are and then selling digital subscriptions to those digital magazine properties. That is exactly what Google is planning to do with books and that is what the magazine publishers should be doing with their magazines. Working with Exact Editions consumer magazines can sell digital editions with no upfront costs. Just new revenues. The conventional magazine wisdom is that the magazine’s web site needs to be somewhat like the magazine content but somewhat mixed up, that customers don’t buy subscriptions to digital magazines and that magazine ads do not work on the web. Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

Magazine publishers who see their magazine coming out of the recession stronger than they went in, will realise that they need to build digital subscriptions and build them fast in a pure web platform. Make sure the magazine works on the web. Make sure that it works on an iPhone and Android. Make sure that Google searches it and that anybody can link to it.

This is a matter for CEO’s. Its a matter for owners and for those who care and see the magazine in its total consumer space. The conventional wisdom that consumer magazines will somehow ‘morph’ into web sites needs to scrutinised very carefully. In few cases does it really work. A lot of consumer magazines are building themselves expensive and irrelevant web mausoleums. Portfolio, a great new magazine launched in 2006 has recently fired most of its large web staff. For a while it had a cool but unprofitable web site. But you still cannot subscribe to a digital edition of the magazine. The magazine is in most cases the best possible vehicle to put itself on the web. As a digital edition. Do that and then supplementary resources (blogs and competitions, newsgroups and communities) can be built around it.

If magazines get their act together and start offering themselves for inspection and for sale on the web, they will be in a good position to work with Google when it has finally got its act together and is selling millions of book subscriptions. That could be 2010. Get ready for the other side of the recession. The upside and the out-side. It will be more digital.