Saturday, February 23, 2008

Why Aren't Magazines Themselves On The Web? A Letter To Publishers.

Every time I visit a magazine's website, I'm disappointed.


Because I don't get the same experience that I appreciate getting as a reader of the print publication.

Normally, that's fine. The success of a magazine's website isn't to emulate the print publication. It can't, too, since it's generally accepted that magazines can't be as easily replaced as newspapers in an online format.

So why am I disappointed, then?

Because most magazines' websites are cluttered. Obscenely so. Ads scream at you "above the fold" and keep on screaming until the fifth or sixth scroll down. Featured articles are rarely featured. Less-than-quality content is given the same weight as the cover story. And for God's sake, I don't even know where I am on this damn website.

Get what I'm saying? Magazine websites don't feature their content the way they do in the printed format. And that is what I think makes a magazine so enjoyable to read in the first place.

I understand that most big-time publishers haven't put "enough resources" (as their web editors might say under their collective breath) toward the development of the online platform. They pay for a template, a content management system, and a couple peoples' salaries to keep the thing going. The focus is still on the moneymaker -- the printed magazine. And I get that.

But they're hurting themselves so very much.

A website is the online face of the magazine. For most, it looks as if that face has way, way too much makeup. The problem with this is, despite a lack of significant ad revenue, there are on average five times as many readers online as there are for the printed publication. Five times as many eyeballs -- which means a vast majority who don't subscribe to the site (there is, on average, about 10-20 percent overlap with the printed publication). And what do these readers have to greet them?

An information overload, a vague identity and no reason to subscribe. When online subscriptions cost the publisher the least amount of money, what benefit is that, exactly?

Let's take an example of a magazine I read regularly: New York, a weekly publication.

The magazine serves a distinct purpose as a "in-the-know" magazine for a wide swath of audience living in the New York area. It's service-y, it's big-J journalism-y, it's trashy, it's classy.

In the printed pages, it's easy to see why New York wins all the National Magazine Awards. In terms of stories, the writing's usually top-notch, and when it isn't, they make the best they can of it with great art or infographics. In terms of design, the typography is fantastic, the use of white space is daring and it's distinctive. On the whole, it just drips the New York identity. Which it's supposed to.

But on the web -- even though it's come a long way recently -- it's a complete overload. The typography is there -- unusual for most magazines -- but there's no white space in sight. Ads fight for stories. The cover stories are not always the featured story -- and New York offers almost all of its content free on the web (most national magazines do not). It obliterates my senses -- in a bad way.

I like the New York magazine website, but I much prefer it on my RSS reader. That way, I don't have socialites and Diane Von Furstenberg ads fighting for eyeball attention with the latest story about John McCain. About the only part of the website I can stomach for long is the restaurant reviews, which aren't littered with as much distraction. The Intelligencer blog is wonderful, but it can't hold my eye too long before the ads and other stories overcome my attention.

The worst part about this is that, compared to other national and regional magazines, New York's website is fairly ahead of the game. About the only websites it can't compete with in terms of sheer usefulness are tech-centric magazines, whose audience is a natural transition from print to web (and in fact, they probably fight to move online readers to the printed publication and not the other way around).

But take a look at some national magazine websites: Vogue. InStyle. O, The Oprah Magazine. Elle. Esquire. The list goes on. On them all, their identities are not distinct. Your eyeball is having a hard time adjusting with each passing second. And if you already have something in mind to find, forget it. Have you ever tried to find a specific piece of content on the GQ website? It's like pulling your own teeth with a skinny striped silk-knit tie, sans anesthesia. Jesus.

Magazines, it seems, have given up on the idea that they can drive traffic from the website to the printed publication. And I think that's baloney -- so long as bigwigs give up the notion that such migration will only happen if people will come from the website to the printed publication for the exact same reason.

The website serves a purpose. The magazine also serves a purpose. They should be distinct; but they shouldn't be so different that the other wouldn't be attractive to read. In other words, we should think less in an "either/or" fashion and more in a "primary/secondary." Some of our readers are first printed edition readers, than online edition readers. Some are the opposite.

Many of our most celebrated national magazines have spent years and incalculable amounts of money marketing and positioning the mission of their magazine portfolio. Why aren't we doing the same for each publication's website?

For all of the labyrinthine webpages that magazine websites have, they sure can't manage their own content well. It's embarrassing. Really, they're ignoring the lessons they spent a century figuring out: how to draw and direct the eye with typography. How to keep it trained on something with white space. How to exude identity with design cues and pacing. Online, there is none of this. About the only thing that's the same is the writing, and I bet someone could make an argument that the online-exclusive content pales in comparison to the editorial triumph that the printed version has.

To bring it back to New York with a recent example: Why wasn't a nude Lindsay Lohan-as-Marilyn Monroe front and center for the last week and a half? She's your big moneymaker, right? The placement of her 100-by-200 pixels link was admirable, but the vast majority of the website's readers came for her recently. It took me two extra clicks to get to Lindsay, and when I got there, there was nothing on that page to take me elsewhere once I was done browsing the photo shoot. The original link that I described above should have been the one used to reap leftover traffic once the weekly switches content; not as the primary directive.

I'm the reader. Don't make me work.

Sure, magazine websites are still in their infancy. But I'd say that they're really in their teenage years -- misdirected, trying to be someone (everyone) else, and ignoring their own notable qualities.

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