Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Magazine, passed away this week at the age of 91, and his passing made me think about the changing publishing marketplace, and the rather dire prospects for the magazine industry, and in fact, print media in general. Keep in mind that these are simply my observations as a person of a certain age who really prefers the tactile feel of physical media to the sterile and fleeting idea of digital ownership.
Playboy, founded in 1953, was one of three magazines founded in the 50s that changed the face of pop culture and American culture for generations afterward (the other two were Mad Magazine and Famous Monsters of Filmland). The magazine struck a nerve with its clever balance of naked ladies, intellectual articles, cutting-edge fiction, naked ladies, liberal social politics and brilliant cartoons. You sort of have to mention the naked ladies twice to capture the essence of that balance.
While the joke for decades was that people claimed to buy Playboy “for the articles,” the truth was that the articles were what made Playboy such an important and influential publication. When the current editorial staff made the decision to jettison the naked ladies in March, 2016, the real crime was that the length of the articles was cut, they were dumbed-down considerably, and with no articles that ran long enough to be continued in the back of the magazine, they didn’t need any cartoons to fill up space and break up the page layout.
Playboy probably could have survived the loss of the nudity if they hadn’t also destroyed the very soul of the magazine. The increased distribution made possible by the elimination of the nudity might have actually meant that more people would read the articles.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get the chance, and the magazine is hanging on by a thread as I write this, even though they brought back the nudity, they still aren’t the magazine that they used to be. It was time to change the cringe-worthy aspects of the Playboy Philosophy, but it didn’t work to throw out everything that made the magazine worth reading.
This is far from the only example of a magazine self-destructing by abandoning the core concept that made them unique. TV Guide, for example, is a shadow of its former self since they revamped the magazine from a digest with over 150 local editions into a standard-sized national magazine with an ever-shrinking section of TV listings.
They’ve gone from a peak circulation of over 20 million copies sold per week to their current sales of less than two million copies every two weeks. To be fair, TV Guide has been moderately profitable since 2009, but the magazine has also had new owners five times in ten years, one bought the company for a dollar.
Of course, the major culprit in the downfall of the magazine industry is the internet. The free and convenient dissemination of information (or misinformation, as is often the case), has hurt magazine sales at a time when the cost of printing has gone up, and advertising dollars are also moving on to new technologies.
A big part of the problem has been the way the magazine industry has tried to deal with increased competition from the internet. Magazines (and newspapers too, we write as we prepare for the first Monday without a daily paper printed in Charleston) tried to do what the internet did…they started putting their content online for free.
Giving away your product for free is not a good business model. It never has been. Yet, the conventional “wisdom” of print media was that, in order to compete with free sites on the internet, they had to put all of their content online for free too. Some newspapers and magazines have tried to operate behind a paywall, but there’s just too much free content online now to make it effective to do that, especially because of the way that magazines have changed to compete with the internet. Years of giving away their content for free has trained the consumer to expect it for free.
That’s not the only mistake that print media has made. I’ve been writing for national (and international) magazines for more than 25 years. Over the last ten, I’ve witnessed a really disturbing trend: Magazines are trying to compete with the internet by becoming more like the internet. They want shorter articles, bigger and brighter graphics, and links to “exclusive” online content. As a writer, it’s annoying, even though it takes me way less time to crank out articles as short as my sidebars used to be.
The problem with this approach is that it’s completely wrong-headed. You do not compete with a new medium by sacrificing the strengths of your own. I pick up TIME, Entertainment Weekly or TV Guide now, and I’m done reading it, cover-to-cover, in less than five minutes. Most magazines published today are not worth their cover price.
As a consumer, when I buy a magazine, I want long, well-written, thoroughly-researched articles that can hold my attention and keep me interested for hours. I don’t want three-paragraph blurbs or articles that read like a Tweet or a Facebook post. I also don’t want a two-page spread with five large photographs accompanied by short captions and an infographic. Too many magazines today look like USA Today at its worst.
Back in the dark ages, twelve years ago when PopCult was one of the “Gazzblogs” at the Charleston Gazette, I sat in on some meetings as we tried to figure out how to configure The Gazz as an online presence that could be monetized (Spoiler: we didn’t). One major problem was that our ad sales staff had no idea how to sell ads on the internet, since that whole idea was still in its infancy. Another was that the Gazette, along with almost every other major print entity, had already decided to post most of their content online for free.
At one meeting I made a suggestion. I said, “What if you posted the first two or three paragraphs of a story online, with a note at the bottom that said to read the print edition for the full article?”
I was not exactly laughed out of the room, but my idea was never considered. Not even jokingly.
See, without that hook, why would anyone even bother paying for a magazine or newspaper. You can read it for free online. The consumer, when faced with the choice of paying for a complete product, or getting a nearly complete product for free by using a new medium, will invariably choose the free version.
One of the magazines that I’ve been writing for for over twenty years is Non Sport Update. They have maintained a strong newsstand presence as a niche hobby magazine about trading cards, and last year they were purchased by industry giant, Beckett Media. One of the reasons that Non Sport Update has not fallen victim to the fate of so many other magazines is that, for each issue, they only post one sample article, which is rarely the cover story, on their website. If you want to read Non Sport Update, you have to buy Non Sport Update.
Let’s contrast that with Rolling Stone Magazine, which is up for sale as I write this. Rolling Stone has devolved considerably since its heyday. They barely cover music any more, with only three or four album reviews each issue, but they do still run really good, long, detailed national affairs articles, many by Matt Taibbi, and all of which can be read for free online before the issues even reach the newsstands.
And they wonder why people aren’t buying their magazine like they used to. They still have well over a million loyal subscribers (some of whom get it for free as part of a promotion of some sort), but their newsstand sales are less than 80,000.
In their zeal to post their own articles online for free before “pirates” scan their articles and post them, they have effectively destroyed their own revenue stream.
When you combine this type of self-destructive behavior with the recent revelations that most internet advertising is ineffective and worthless, you wind up with print media basically barricading themselves in their house and committing suicide when there was no serious threat in the first place.
It’s true that hundreds of millions of ad dollars have migrated from print media to the internet, but now that internet advertising is exposed as essentially smoke and mirrors, there’s not much print media for those ad dollars to return to. TV Guide‘s chairman actually brags that they stayed profitable by cutting their circulation. Advertisers want to be seen by as many people as possible. They don’t care that almost a million of your readers weren’t “loyal” to TV Guide.
This diminishing of the value of their product is why the magazine industry is in such horrible shape. Add to that a seriously outmoded distribution model and add that on top of the newly-emerged technologies, and you can see why things look so bad.
One growth area for the magazine industry is the publication of “special editions.” These are basically softcover books, over a hundred pages and usually free of advertising, that cover one topic in-depth, usually reprinting articles from the parent magazine. These sell for upwards of ten and even as much as twenty dollars, but they’re sold on the magazine racks, not in the book section. The use of reprint material minimizes production costs, and the high price means they can make money by moving fewer units. These books have one other major advantage over regular periodicals…their content is not posted free on the internet. You’ll see them advertised online, and some are even sold online, but if you want to read them, you have to buy them.
Requiring people to actually pay for your product is a novel concept that might actually save print media. Let’s just hope that it happens before everything gets dumbed down to Buzzfeed levels.