Media for a New World

The rumor mill has been rife lately with news of’s becoming Salon the print monthly. Can it work? Well, tried to be a magazine and lasted six months. However, if Salon does things according to magazine publishing conventional wisdom (a likelihood that is almost seductively inescapable), I suspect it will suffer from several of the better biblical plagues. But assuming it deploys a strong, well-defined editorial package, Salon has a halfway decent chance of avoiding pestilence, and maybe even prospering.

Two of the biggest forces affecting magazine success are the aftermath of the great consolidation and the mysterious reluctance of publishers to market to consumers.

The great consolidation changed the distribution system so that chains no longer were served by myriad regional wholesalers but instead by a single larger wholesaler. This simplified billing and other administrative processes. It also altered the overall economics of the magazine business, because large wholesalers who wished to acquire or retain retailer accounts had to make the proposed deal interesting. And it did something else.

Previously the publishing conventional wisdom was along the lines of “display it, and they will come." The traditional model was "print three to sell one." But this notion proved to be a luxury that wholesalers could no longer afford, and they started to impose sometimes painful disincentives on poorly performing publications. These disincentives included service fees as well as altered and perhaps inappropriate distribution patterns. Some independent, marginally productive and/or inconveniently located retailers were dropped.

Publishers have had great difficulty in coping with the change. The basic reaction has been to use more creativity, ingenuity and perhaps dollars to figure how to get into and stay in stores and be displayed more prominently. This is good as far as it goes, and it certainly neatly supports the “field of dreams” business model. What seems to be missing (and this too is a general statement) is a willingness to abandon mass marketing techniques in favor of more targeted and appropriate approaches. For example, Barnes & Noble uses scan data to compile a thorough, dynamic database of sales by title and cover date for each and all of its stores. It offers to share this information with publishers, but apparently publishers have not been making great use of this information.

And then there's this thing about marketing consumer magazines to consumers. What an interesting concept! Magazine publishers do precious little of that. The most conspicuous example of consumer marketing is the expensive and increasingly less productive direct mail subscription solicitation. This is not to be sneezed at (OK, go ahead and sneeze if you want to), except that ultimately the prime selling point is price and not product — not exactly a great move in the annals of positioning.

So where does Salon fit in with this? If from the get-go it works closely with Barnes & Noble (probably its best fit anyway) to develop and refine distribution patterns, it will have a head start on keeping printing and distribution costs in line with sales. And using the formidable plus of a popular website for brand marketing, it has a head start in making the magazine known to its consumers.

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