SXSW: The iPad will not save magazines; magazines must save themselves

I went into the "Could the iPad have saved Gourmet?" panel frankly expecting to be contemptuous of it. (My standard joke leading up to it was to give the title of the talk and then say "SPOILER ALERT: No.") Gourmet, if you don't know, was a venerable and much beloved cooking magazine that was shuttered in the fall of 2009 due to declining ad revenue. It's since been held up as a sort of symptom of the collapse of the market for consumer magazines -- if it could happen to Gourmet, it could happen to anyone. The iPad, meanwhile, has gained a sort of buzz within publishing circles as some kind of magazine savior, with a belief, based on nothing more than hope that I can tell, that somehow advertisers will pay more for the ads in the iPad versions of magazines than they will for ads on those magazine's Websites. Especially after seeing the media apocalypse panel, in which arguments over the sourcing of the New York Times' WMD coverage got more play than its ad rates, my expectations were low.

But panelists Rachel Sklar (of Mediaite) and Jacob Lewis (former managing editor of the New Yorker) took what struck me as a remarkably clear-sighted and hard-headed look at the problems in the magazine industry, which are frankly not a secret. For one thing, ad sales are dropping due to overall economic problems, despite fairly strong continued subscriptions at most publications. (Fun fact! Magazines don't have a cover price because they make a significant amount of profit from sales to readers; they have a cover prices so that their ad sales teams can show advertisers that readers have money to spend.) Lewis went so far as to say that Condé Nast, which publishes the New Yorker among other high-end magazines and published Gourmet, is primarily an ad sales company. The problem is that ad sales staff sell the illusion of the affluent reader to advertisers; the advanced statistics available to Web advertisers destroy this illusion.

There are other problems as well. Magazine editors are used to fancy perks which are unsustainable. The Web sites for most magazines have been neglected because magazine editors hold them in suspicion and contempt, leading to a substandard product that advertisers won't pay for.

All in all, Gourmet was almost never mentioned, and the iPad didn't rear its head until fairly late in the talk. This caused some antsyness on the Twitter hashtag feed for the panel, but I honestly I found it refreshing that people were looking at their problems in a structural way rather than just hoping for a tech solution to them. One attendee tweeted "that neither of the panelists went to Wired's wicked iPad demo just killed this entire panel. Wired's panel showed future of mags." Well, the Wired demo was a look at what magazines might look like, not how they might be paid for.

And how might they be paid for? The answers here were less concrete. One possibility that I didn't buy was that a new advertising structure might be brewed up for iPad versions of magazines, based on the better metrics available in that context. But didn't better metrics result in the collapse of online ad revenues? Another possibility is simply the emergence of the iPad as a potential "newsstand" for creating sales revenue. GQ recently created iPhone versions of its last couple issues; while these only sold around 15,000 copies -- very little in absolute terms -- that still made the App Store the magazine's number one newsstand. And Websites can serve as the third leg of a triangle with print and tablet versions, offering not just copies of the magazine's content (or, worse, less content than the magazine), but an array of services that would be interesting to readers (diet programs for a fitness magazine, say).

One of the big themes I felt like I encountered at SXSW is panels that didn't necessarily offer panacea solutions, but worked at the successful identification of problems. Making the jump from print to something new is a big problem for everyone in publishing; hopefully people will at least see the problems as clearly as they were presented here, as a first step towards solving them.

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