More On the Magazine Tailspin

David Carr, in today’s New York Times, uses Tina Brown’s seemingly impossible task of reviving Newsweek to tell the continuing story of the mess magazines find themselves in.

It’s interesting that the truly precipitous decline in magazines is happening now. The first wave of the Internet had more of an impact on newspapers. Web sites and computer screens in the 2000s were relatively low-fi, and that was competition for newspapers, which offer news in a relatively low-fi way (grainy photos, mostly text).

High-gloss and well-designed magazines had an edge over the web of that era: They could present beautiful images in ways the web on computer screens couldn’t, and they could present longer-form stories (think The New Yorker) that proved clunky and unreadable on a computer screen.

But now the web on an iPad or even on a modern laptop screen is a beautiful thing. It looks every bit as good — maybe even better — than a magazine page. Long-form stories can be packaged and presented in elegant ways on screen, while Kindles have gotten us used to reading text as long as War and Peace on screen.

Print magazines not long ago could hold onto an edge over the web in the total experience they could present — but that edge is gone for most publications. The web now delivers as good an experience in a more convenient package. So the web wins. (I wrote about how that experience-vs.-convenience dynamic works across all kinds of industries in my book Trade-Off.)

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What does this mean for brands thinking of doing content? For one, it should make them think twice about delivering content primarily as a print magazine. Sure, there certainly are a lot of people who like a print magazine, and it might make sense to give them one. But the logic of what’s happening the market says that print should follow digital — not the other way around anymore. In other words, design a beautiful digital version first, and then turn it into print.

Here’s another take-away from the decline of pint magazines: The transition to digital is going to continue to be painful for magazine publishers. They’re going to cut pages, cut staff, probably even shut down magazines. That will send yet more journalists and designers into the marketplace — a talent bonanza for brands. And if publications disappear, that could open opportunities for credible, journalistic branded content to take its place.

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