Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Tale of Two Magazines.... Magazines Take Different Approaches To Digital Publishing

Zinio adds little to the print
publication format.
Layout and content are virtually unchanged

I've been a subscriber of PC Magazine for about thirty years. This fact serves to date me and place me among this magazine's longest, most loyal, subscriber base. What I think you will find interesting isn't specifically this publication's content but how Ziff Davis is addressing digital publication versus their mainstream competitors, especially, PC World. These two magazines are taking radically different approaches. Perhaps one philosophy will seem applicable to your company or industry.

First a general observation. Years ago, PC Magazine published multiple times a month and each volume spanned several hundred pages. A significant portion of the content included code snippets, or entire program source code, and technical details clearly directed towards IT Pros and "hardcore" techies of the era. PC World, on the other hand, seemed to focus on somewhat more mainstream content but still was a periodical for early adopters, gadget fans, and others who enjoyed personal computers (but may not have wanted to study the nuances of coding the latest free utility line by line in C).

I devoured each issue of PC Magazine, reading it from cover to cover most months. John Dvorak's columns were my first stop (John remains a hero and inspiration to me to this day, thanks you curmedgeon! You probably don' remember running into me at a bar in Atlanta's BuckHead area twenty-five odd years ago, but you made a lasting impression!), from there, I returned to the issue's first page and didn't stop until I closed the cover. Good material for a young guy just (barely) smart enough to know "this stuff" was going to change the world!

Time's change. Through the years PC Magazine "dumbed down" to my way of thinking. Great monthly utilities written by such seminal figures as Peter Norton, have been replaced by one page commentaries on the latest Sprint adopted Android tablet. (Before you start typing angry missives, the world does need to know about Sprint and Android Tablets, just not necessarily at the expense of more technically focused articles in this particular publication). The magazine itself went on one of the world's seemingly most successful diets, shrinking from twenty-six issues a year to twelve and three hundred page issues have morphed to barely ninety pages including classifieds. Twiggy got her groove on witnessing this transformation!

Meanwhile, PC World plodded along. It too has undergone numerous editorial changes and downsizings, but from where I sit, it has remained more steadfast to its admittedly less technical roots and less frenetic publishing cycles. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I only opened a PC World subscription about five years ago, but I regularly perused the publication over past decades and rarely missed at least skimming an issue over the past thirty years.)
PC Magazine's Digital "self" looks
very much like its print ancestors!

 Fast forward to around 2009. Ziff Davis, the owner of PC Magazine and numerous other periodicals and businesses, unilaterally decided to abandon print distribution and "move" current subscribers to digital delivery. Emphasis on the word unilateral. I received an email informing me that my subscription, which I believe at the time had around eighteen issues remaining, would be "converted" to digital. My somewhat hazy recollection is that I was granted a six issue "free" extension as "compensation" for accepting this publishing decision. In any event, the decision to "go digital" was the publishers, not the subscribers.

I was already unhappy about the obvious loss of content. Sheer quantity, and to my tastes quality to some degree, had been undermined in the years leading up to the "digital decision." Now subscribers were being forced to consume this magazine's content online using a third party platform, Zinio. This decision predates the tablet revolution brought about by the original iPad by several years. In terms of reader quality of experience this was a quantum leap in the wrong direction! For me, reading PC Magaine wasn't equivalent to skimming People Magazine while in a taxi or plane; this was a "serious read." I wanted to enjoy the experience in my reading chair, perhaps at a coffee shop, or even lounging around a pool or hut tub. Ziff Davis effectively tied me to my computer-- be it a workstation or laptop. Gone were the days of pools, deck chairs (how is your laptop or Kindle Fire for that matter in bright light!?), or bedroom reading. Crap!

Now to the experience online.... Zinio is interesting but already seems so last century. Short the stock (if you can find it). Zinio provides nearly the EXACT SAME user experience online that I received, and preferred, in print, with all the same trappings (pages and pages of print advertising and classifieds)  while capitalizng on few advantages of the digital world. Yes, you can add hyperlinking to an article and Ziff/PC Magazine does so, but without adding much beyond blatant linking to their own digital properties.

Strangely, Zinio has morphed little with the onslaught of tablets. While it is easier to read content, and the form factor makes it more natural, to read a conventional magazine on an iPad (no Zinio yet on Kindle Fire, what a shame!) I continue to read (more) watered down content (while distribution costs are approaching ZERO!, how much more does it cost to go back and "print" 200 pages!???), which was marginalized for the economics of accounting and Ziff's other business decisions, this is still largely the same magazine experience I enjoyed during the final days of PC Magazine's print life.

Talk about another industry that doesn't "get it!" What makes this more ironic, are PC Magazine's roots. This should be a cutting edge publication in every way (and Ziff's move to transfer current readers to digital doesn't qualify!!!). Meanwhile, PC World kept on track. I formally subscribed several years ago and have been receiving a copy of their monthly in my mailbox happily ever since. Until last week....

PC World introduced an iPad only App. My initial thought is, wow. They have weaved  this App into the paid, subscription model, which has kept this periodical alive all these years. Whoever spearheaded this iPad platform, deserves plaudets! 

The App is heavy on cutting edge content, interactivity (including a floating Twitter feed stream). In other words, it bears little resemblance to the print version and takes advantage of the iPad Tablet's form factor and capabilities. (PC Magazine, an opportunity lost!)

Content is still king in my mind. Delivery of medicore material in an innovative way isn't going to sway my opinion or pocketbook. However, I am more excited by PC World's iPad app introduction than anything PC Magazine has done in years (and if John Dvorak ever retires and nothing else changes, I am finally finished!). Good companies, and magazines, can go bad. This is just a fact of life.

PC World is strattling two worlds. Subscribers still get a monthly print piece, but now also have a dedicated app which capitalizes on the timeliness, interactivity and layout options afforded by modern tablet design. By creating their own App feature set, PC World maintains complete control of content and layout, while exposing itself to a secondary subscriber group including a generation growing up consuming media primarily digitally (versus dinosaurs like me who may still prefer an old fashioned newspaper or magazine in certain circumstances).

Interestingly, another long time contender in this universe, Wired Magazine (owned by Conde Nast), is making a push for new  (and renewed) subscribers using a hybrid model. Wired delivers traditional print copy to your mailbox and allows print subscribers to receive digital copies of the same issues. The online content may contain interactive videos, slideshows and music. In other words, Wired online goes beyond being a clone of the print version. Wired is also reaching out to users of the Kindle Fire and Nook Color/Tablet. The magazine's approach seems to have feet in both camps-- PC Magazine's near complete replication of print copy and PC World's reliance on digital distribution to provide a truly enhanced experience for its print subscribers. 

Wired is distributing on the iPad via Apple's Newstand. Newstand was introduced in a recent iOS update and is intended as a "one stop shop" for print material curated by the folks at Infinity Circle. As I understand it, Newstand is highly contentious among magazine publishers. Apple insists on taking their percentage from any online subscription purchases. Typically, they claim a thirty (30) percent  fee for the privalege of selling products through their gateways (including Newstand). Secondly, by utilizing Newstand, publishers lose the "direct relationship" and the associated demographic information they traditionally enjoy with their subscriber base (as a subscriber, you may, as I do, find this "relationship" with magazine distributors less than optimal) .

Collection of fees and related personal information flows through Apple to the publisher in a one way stream.  Regardless of how you feel about who has the right to your personal information, Newstand adds another layer to the equation. Wired does not require print subscribers to pay incrementally for access to digital content (nor does PC World at this time). This is a welcome, and to my way of thinking, common sense approach, to access. It does not fully capitalize on the tablet's innate strengths. Even publications focused on technology trends seem bound to the layout and design rules which have dominated periodicals for the past several decades. Wired still isn't fully wired to all the possibilities, but they do recognize the need to distribute content in mediums that meet their subscribers' needs and wants (a good and appreciated step).

One of my duties around the turn of the century was to act as Senior Category Manager for a chain of approximately seventy large (70) regional supermarkets.  For a period of time, one category I personally managed was books and magazines. I had the (extremely) good fortune to work with the finest book and magazine distributor group in the country, Anderson/Austin News out of Nashville, Tennessee. The store group I was affiliated with had the highest per store sales volume in this category in the country for my chain. The vast majority of the  credit goes to the Anderson/Austin group. They merchandised and managed each and every sale with professionalism and pride. They supported nearly all of my marketing and pricing ideas (even the ones they no doubt disagreed with through the years) and made every effort to remain the premiere innovator in a category better known for tradition and medicore service, not excellence.
Wired Online....

I mention this because what happened to Anderson/Austin in subsequent times is a harbringer and microcosm of what periodical publishers are experiencing today. Even Anderson/Austin, whose national customer base allowed it the greatest economies of scale, could not survive the archaic, inefficient, world of print distribution. The expense of delivering this material directly to each store, merchandising it on shelves and checklanes and returning unread/unsold copies to their facilities (crediting the retailer and charging back the publisher in most cases), was so inefficient the entire system required radical overhaul. Seismic changes in distribution channels and customer consumption alternatives, force a reevaluation of your business model. Those who fail to foresee and embrace change are destined to lose their profitability, importance,  and ultimately perhaps, their very business.

So what is your company going to do? Move forward in the digital age and find relevant ways of communicating with your current and potential customers or are you going kicking and screaming into this new age of media creation and consumption? You can always digitize that tri-fold brochure into a PDF and ask people to download and print to figure out "who" you are.... If you aren't thinking about the best way to distribute and "talk" with your customer, you may be left behind.

And as a consumer, if you just want to read what is going on in your areas of interest, do you want this information on your tablet, would you rather pick up the magazine off the coffee table, do you prefer getting a curated stream of articles through Pulse or Zite (see this earlier post for more on these alternative news sources), or do you want choice!?

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Companies:   Anderson/Austin, Apple, Conde Nast, Pulse, Ziff Davis, Zite

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