Iceberg Dead Ahead
Let me see if I can sort this out. Benjamin Franklin's General Magazine, usually considered to be the first magazine published in the United States, appeared in 1741. It is difficult to nail down the start of the Internet (since the military had it under development in some form since 1957) but let's randomly agree on the start of the Web, as we have come to know it today, as 1994--when Pizza Hut offered pizza ordering on its Web page. That's a 253-year head start for magazines. Yet, in a 12-year blink of a timeline eye, the Internet will pull in more ad dollars than the glossies.
Bravado and spin-control aside, were I the head of the MPA, I'd be shitting a brick right about now.
This is not to say that magazines haven't already put some serious effort into their online plays. The ill-fated Pathfinder tried to give Time, Inc. pubs an online presence early on in the game as, more successfully, did Conde Nast's CondeNet, which used content from its titles to try and build communities around themes like travel and cooking.
Most publishers choked on the notion of giving away online what they were selling on the newsstand, and drove traffic away in massive numbers. Others used online as an "added value" to print buying, essentially giving away their inventory as a "negotiating" tactic to close offline deals. The net effect was to gravely devalue the online ad space. The magazine industry's blundering along to try and find a way to attract visitors to content no one wanted to pay for (and which couldn't yet be monetized, because advertisers were still largely sitting on the sidelines) only confused and pissed off the public--ESPECIALLY print subscribers, who felt betrayed by publishers they'd been paying renewals to for years and years.
Now print magazines find themselves in the same unfortunate transitional stage as newspapers. Readers are aging, and younger people won't read anything that can't be downloaded to an iPod or cut and pasted into a term paper. The offline content can't be searched, customized or pulled off a server story by story. Advertisers aren't sure who sees their ads--and if readers do, how they react--putting the dead-tree industry behind a massive accountability eight ball. No matter how many bodies are tossed into the moat below the castle walls of Time Warner, Hearst, Meredith or Hachette, print magazines are expensive to compile, produce, print and distribute. And when the advertising goes (with GM at the head of the retreat) you will see a blood-letting of titles unprecedented in American history. You don't need to be Jack Kliger to understand the savings of producing an online publication versus one that gets crammed into a mailbox every month.
All economic evidence to the contrary, there will still be those trying to make the "bathroom" or "engagement" arguments long after the ship has sailed. It is time for the magazine industry to realize the inevitability of online-delivered, customized publications--and to use the brand loyalty they still enjoy to transition their readers to electronic platforms.
Even the Titanic turned out to be sinkable.