Pubs Should Design the Next Printing Press: Part I

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press_smallADOTAS – I am sitting at the airport bar in Dallas, trying to get back to 2010. After attending the Dallas Ad League’s Magazine Day event at the Fairmont Hotel, I feel as though I journeyed to 1995 and back again.

Not that I have anything against attractive, skirt-suited Southwestern sales directors and their handsome, eminently polite male counterparts.Nor do I have contempt for the magazine industry in general, as many “new media” bloggers seem to. I came from a magazine background, and love magazines.

But the atmosphere was decidedly 1999: folding tables stuffed with magazines, sharply dressed sales reps talking about “custom opportunities” and “special sections,” and not a computer display in sight. The lunch itself promised a lively panel discussion that would inform the more than 200 attendees what the “digital future” of magazines would be, but the forum was a panel discussion, bookended by two gigantic monitors featuring a single, non-interactive PowerPoint title slide for most of the two hours.

A large portion of the day’s panel discussion was dedicated to the new, $90 million “magazines” campaign, designed to make advertisers feel better about spending money in their products (the “interactive” portion of the event featured the “magazines” video where Jann Wenner, the legendary editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, and Catherine Black president of Hearst, get all feisty about audience engagement.

Did you know that, during the 12-year lifespan of Google, magazine readership increased by 10%? Or that “ad recall” has increased by 13% over the last five years? Neither did I, which is why this campaign is so important. Despite the bloodletting of the past several years, magazines remain a highly relevant part of the media landscape.

“Magazines have enduring values for readers and advertisers that have gotten a little neglected and misunderstood in the era of Internet instant buzz and chatter,” said Wenner. “Magazines are beloved and powerful in people’s lives for very good reasons that need to be remembered and reinforced. That’s what this campaign is about.”

Although, I am not sure how one can “misunderstand” a magazine, Wenner’s point is well taken.

The panelists (David Carey of Condé Nast, Michael Clinton of Hearst, and Stephanie George of Time) all did an admirable job of toeing the line. That being said, anytime you see those three so buddy-buddy on stage, you better watch out. Obviously, this new industry love-fest has a lot more to do with survival than pure affection. If their consortium can produce more than a print advertising campaign (irony alert — the best concept these guys could come up with to save their industry was a print ad campaign), they might actually be dangerous.

The takeaway? These companies were training their employees for the digital age (“Some are really adapting, and some are struggling with making the transition,” according to George). They are doing oodles of “custom media” for their advertisers — and even acting like agencies for many of their clients (something that I am sure the WPPs and Omnicoms of the world are enjoying), according to Clinton. And all of them are “building apps.” Lots and lots of apps.

Sounds good.

I wondered, however, when these guys all decided they didn’t want anything to do with the platform itself. The “power of the press” was always based on the fact that the average Joe didn’t have much of a voice, because he couldn’t afford a multi-million dollar printing press. Sure, he could shout from the rooftops and rabble-rouse in the local coffee shop, but that was basically it.

The major publishers controlled the loudspeaker, and they could decide to what purpose they would drive their message (start a war, make scads of cash, anoint a president, etc.). Sure, print’s voice got diluted with the emergence of radio and television, but print journalism (the real stuff) still drove the message and shaped the conversation.

Anyway, there is really no need to dig up this old conversation; we all know how the internet gave everyone their own printing press (blog), television station (YouTube account), and the means to capture “stories” as a “citizen journalist” (mobile phone).

When did the publishers decide to give up their platform? Why aren’t they leveraging everything they have to standardize the content creation business, and building the next great platform? It’s because they were focused on being sales organizations, rather than content organizations, or even technology organizations.

Tune in tomorrow for more analysis…

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