Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The problem with magazines à la carte

When Time Inc. first announced its plans to offer its magazine content à la carte, called "Mine," my first thought was that it was catching up with the times. After all, isn't that what people do on the Web? Pull what they deem the best from several different (and sometimes competing) publications?

But instead of posting, I thought I'd sit on the idea for awhile and let it stew on the backburner of my brain. It's never wise to rail against or praise a business model in a knee-jerk kind of way -- these things are often more complicated then they appear, and business models are chock full of competing interests.

Now that I've had some time to think about it, it occurs to me that with "Mine," certain magazine staff are getting the short end of the stick.

First, let me explain how Time's offering works. The consumer gets to pick five titles from the Time Inc. stable -- the largest in the business -- and soon that reader gets tailored issues pulling content (or stories, in the printed parlance) that matches his or her interests. 

Interested in the executive life? You'll probably get material from Time, Money, Golf, Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure. If you're more a fashionable jet-setter, perhaps a combination of Real Simple, InStyle, Travel + Leisure, Time and Golf

You get the idea.

Curiously, some titles that would match others are left out of the mix: Fortune. Coastal Living. People. Essence. Entertainment Weekly. Wallpaper*. Cooking Light. This Old House. Et cetera.

I suspect that decision is threefold: to avoid pillaging the company's entire portfolio; to keep subscribers of several magazines (it's likely that a Money subscriber already also gets Fortune; a similar possibility exists for Travel + Leisure and Coastal Living) subscribing to distinct publications; and to make sure that advertiser dollars are coming in without them trying to shortchange established rates for individual publications. 

Whatever the reason, though, I don't like it. It seems to be a massive convenience for the user, but it really takes away from the point of a magazine. And that's what gives me pause. 

Magazines are powerful because they are packages. Whereas newspapers are intended to deliver information quickly, magazines are intended to be leisurely read, analytical (or, at the very least, big picture) and a form of entertainment. They are less an information vehicle as a leisure activity, so much as information can be entertainment.

A big part of that "package" is the design, layout and story selection of the magazine. A big part of editors' (and publishers') jobs is to make sure that the magazine flows from cover to cover. It's not a piecemeal exercise. Magazines are, by their nature, a curated collection.

So while magazines a la carte seems appropriate in a world of RSS feeds and customizable content delivery, it's really at odds with the very nature of a magazine. It turns magazine content into, well, content -- separating it from the infrastructure that a magazine issue provides. And that's a problem for the editorial and business departments alike.

I've previously criticized magazines for not jumping on the Web sooner and in a better fashion. My argument was that they were missing a great branding opportunity, a great chance to extend the brand with far less overhead than a spinoff publication (Vogue Living, I'm looking at you). There's no reasonable limit to how much content can be produced on the Web. And the price of ink and paper doesn't even factor into it.

Of course, the challenge of the Web is in reproducing the perfected magazine form in a new medium. So when I look at this a la carte service -- which eschews planning altogether, reducing magazine content to words -- I cringe. 

And that's exactly what Time Inc.'s "Mine" is -- unplanned. It's offered to you in printed form or via online delivery to your inbox. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing either form (Time Inc. doesn't offer you a preview without you handing over all of your vitals), but I can't see it being a successful publication in its own right. The content is generally disconnected from itself, it may overlap and it, in all likelihood, has little flow to it. It's a very utilitarian approach, which is at odds with magazines as entertainment. They're simply not necessary to live. They're just nice to have.

The "Mine" endeavor smacks of marketing, and very little of editorial. There's nothing wrong with that on the face of it, but if the company wants to effectively create a new publication, it will need oversight. And it takes at least half a traditional magazine staff just to curate previously-published content in a way that it could fit together. Even then, the fit isn't perfect.

Above all, new endeavors must pass a simple litmus test: does it solve a problem? (Or does it make enough money that it doesn't matter?) I see neither of these options. By offering "Mine," Time Inc. is backhandedly shunning the work its editors and art directors for the (likely freelance) writers. It doesn't solve the magazines-on-the-Web problem; it doesn't solve the declining print circulation (and thus ad revenue/pages) problem. 

So what's a publishing house to do? Well, in a global economic downturn like this, it's to make sure its portfolio (and thus its staff) is lean and mean, both in printed and digital forms. "Mine" just strikes me as fatty excess, even though it appears to be a cost-saving way to reuse content.

With such limited appeal, exposure and choice on the part of the consumer, I doubt any "magazines à la carte" solution has the legs to stand the test of time. With "Mine," you can have it.

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