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Good Timing: From Germany with Love… The Husni-Sacks Magazine Future Debate

September 23, 2007

I am in Germany this week (more on that later), but I was so fortunate that on the day the PBAA released its newsletter recapping the 21st Annual Convention that was held in Philadelphia last June, I was visiting the museum of the founder of the printed word Jonannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. Wow, what an experience and what a collection. From the first printed Bible to the world’s smallest printed book (the Lord’s prayer in seven languages) I was in awe. My belief in the printed word is now stronger than ever and the debate that follows will give my readers few more clues on this belief and why I do believe that as long as we have human beings we will have ink on paper. Enjoy reading the debate (it is lengthy) or just print the PDF for easier read by clicking here.

Brouhaha in Philadelphia: BoSacks vs. Mr. Magazine

Magazine industry observers Samir Husni and Bob Sacks may not be as entertaining as Muhammed Ali, but they come pretty close when they put on their “dead trees versus electronic paper” debate. Actually, Husni and Sacks resemble a long-married couple more than Ali and, say, George Foreman. The two share a mutual regard, agree about many things, and no one delivers a knock-out blow at their debates. They just really like to disagree. So, they did plenty of that as they highlighted the challenges of the magazine business today and offered some prescriptions and predictions for the future.

Samir Husni, Chair of the Journalism Department at the University of Mississippi and the self-styled “Mr. Magazine,” came out of his corner first, and recounted how he’s been hearing about the end of print journalism since he started graduate school in 1980. His main point was that magazines, as a medium, are alive and well.

The industry’s problems stem from not delivering the right message through the magazine medium to the right audience. That’s a problem with us – publishers, editors and circulators – and it’s one that can be solved. He challenged the audience to set about solving this problem forthwith, instead of pondering about what the media environment of the future might look like. If you’re not solving your immediate and near-term problems, Husni cautioned, you won’t be around to see the brave new world of media five or ten years hence. Oh, and one thing, don’t call anything that isn’t ink on paper a magazine. Nothing makes Mr. Magazine madder than that.

Bob Sacks or BoSacks for short, the magazine industry veteran and publisher of the electronic newsletter “Heard on the Web,” didn’t directly contradict Husni. He simply said that he would tell another side of the magazine story, whereupon he began outlining why it was a more important side than Samir’s paean to the printed page. “Print isn’t dead,” Sacks said, “but it has a sibling” in the form of electronic distribution. Sacks likened the print and digital formats to parallel universes with content serving as the bridge between them. To this point, Sacks brought special zeal. Today, when information is available in multiple formats, he maintained, it is vital for publishers to see that their franchise is content or thought and that their business is information distribution. To capture the business of publishing today, Sacks has coined the phrase El-Cid, which stands for Electronically Coordinated Information Distribution. He doesn’t discount a continuing role for printed magazines – they are “electronically coordinated,” too, after all – but his outline of “screen-agers” as a generation that doesn’t know a time without cell phones and the web strongly suggests where he thinks the publishing industry
is heading.

Really, the disagreement between Husni and Sacks comes, not from the head, but from the heart. Sacks revels in surprising the audience with just how many major corporations are working on the development of electronic paper and how our best efforts today are not even as refined as the Model T of the automotive world. For Sacks, it is a brave new world of wonderful ways to share content. Husni, by contrast, displayed during his presentation a cartoon of an information consumer surrounded by electronic gizmos that looked like a whirlwind collection of junk.

The next slide depicted Husni broadly smiling and sitting, Indian-style, in front of a mainline magazine rack. It was the Professor’s very idea of the good life. He doesn’t discount the growing importance of electronic information dissemination, even if he scoffs at the primitive nature of some web content today. And BoSacks foretells a reduction in dead-tree-paper magazines, not their disappearance. Still, Husni’s main argument (printed magazines are alive and well) leads him to one set of insights and
Sacks main argument (content is king; format doesn’t matter) lead him to another. Considering them both is a pretty useful exercise for anyone in the magazine business today.

In support of his main argument about the vitality of printed magazines, Husni makes a number of other claims. Among them: the pace of change and the flow of information has quickened, but all the new media hasn’t really changed what’s on offer to consumers. Blogs, for instance, are merely the modern-day equivalent of newspapers’ invitations for readers to write their own news. Web content is not so different from television. It’s suited for delivering nuggets of information to passive viewers. Printed magazines retain their special ability to deepen stories by delivering detailed narrative to active readers. One, important lesson print publishers should learn from their media cousins is in the area of taking payment. Cable TV companies and internet service providers don’t go begging for subscribers with after-term renewal solicitations. They cut them off.

That magazines retain their special purpose (in spite of their subscription pricing anomalies) can be seen in the evolution of the celebrity news category over the past seven years, according to Husni. People has been joined by more than half-a-dozen, direct competitors – not to mention countless web sources – and still the title thrives, as do its biggest competitors. Husni sees other signs of magazines’ health – from an almost doubling of new title introductions over the past 20 years to the proliferation and greater specialization of titles to Condé Nast’s lavish launch of Portfolio just this year. “Book-a-zines,” “mooks,” and custom publishing are also testimony to the medium’s strength and versatility. But we should be doing better.

Despite its successes, Husni seems to think American periodical publishers are too timid. He characterizes the American scene as “static, stubborn and sad” while our international competitors are “smart, sexy and surviving.” The most glaring contrast is between newspapers. While newspaper readership and circulation in North American continues to decline, it’s growing everywhere else. “In the rest of the world newspapers are becoming daily magazines and have even begun incorporating daily and weekly magazines in their editions.” They are creating and strengthening addictive relationships with their readers, in other words, not shutting down the presses and waiting for a technological solution just over the horizon.

Husni ended his presentation by delivering kudos to one magazine that is using technology to good effect. JPG is a plucky, new title that accepts photographic submissions via the web and subjects them to on-line peer review before editors make final selections and assemble theme-based issues. It’s published six times annually – on paper.

Though he didn’t comment on it, BoSacks would likely approve of JPG as the kind of niche, small-print-order publication well suited to dead-trees-paper form. He certainly would approve, along with Husni, of the title’s straddling of the print/digital divide. (Photographers can submit their work at (http://www.jpgmag.com) But the big story, according to Sacks, is the migration of content, advertising spending, and people – especially young people, under 30 – to digital delivery formats. He recounted ten headlines from 2007, such as “Online Ads Have Overtaken Magazine Advertising,” to underscore this point. He also reminded audience members that U.S. magazine sales, which grew from 245 million to 366 million in the 20 years leading up to 1990, has stagnated in the 17 years since. The story for newspapers is even worse, with household penetration and daily circulation numbers showing precipitous declines. These trends pre-date, and seem to have been little affected by, the growth of the internet. They owe their origins to a proliferation of media outlets dating back to the advent of radio.

BoSacks sees the digital delivery of printed content, not as the continuation of print’s decline, but rather as its savior, a trend that holds the potential to usher in a new golden age of publishing. Technological advances that Sacks believes are coming in the near future will ” . . . make all of the world’s information . . . available for immediate distribution in any format.” Chief among these advances is electronic reusable paper, which will combine the virtually limitless storage capacity of computers with the low-cost portability of traditional paper. Model T versions of the concept, like the Sony EReader, may be clunky and costly, but global technology giants, including Hewlett-Packard, BASF, Bridgestone Corp., and Eastman Kodak, are working on improved versions that will allow commuters to read web content during their train ride, and then toss the device into the trash can like a rolled-up newspaper.

BoSacks ticked off current, early-adapter uses of electronic ink and paper, from restaurant menus to hospital ID bracelets. He allowed how widespread use of the technology depends upon easy access to the web – and then he reminded people that that was already taking place. Philadelphia is creating a city-wide web hot zone. Georgia has committed to making the entire state WiFi accessible, and rural areas everywhere may soon benefit from Broadband over Powerline (BPL) service, which will enable devices to access the web through their electrical power cords. The key point is that the costs for all of these technologies are coming down, while the cost of traditional paper, printing and postage is going nowhere but up.

Printing on paper is a 600-year-old technology, and “all technologies are eventually replaced or at least superseded by newer and more efficient technologies,” BoSacks reminded audience members. He is terribly excited about exactly what form that technology will take. Samir Husni really isn’t all that jazzed about it, and may well be the sort to pay a premium so that he can receive his content on good ole paper, thank you very much He perks up when discussing all the exciting things happening in print right now – even if many of them are happening outside the U.S.

Though their academic interests differ and they may be loathe to admit it, key observations and recommendations from both Mr. Magazine and BoSacks were strikingly similar. Both see the trend of increasing numbers of more narrowly focused, special interest titles continuing. Both regard “addictive content” as critical to the health of any print journalism outlet. Both caution magazine publishers to eschew the example of American newspapers, who have allowed their offerings to become less addictive over time. Lastly, both lament the continuing newsstand policies that result in more than a Billion Dollars of waste each year, although they did so without offering immediate solutions. While their pugilistic natures make them well-suited for their role as conference debaters, Husni and Sacks might also make a good pair atop a masthead as co- CEO’s of the “BoSacks Mr. Magazine Publishing Company.” Any takers?

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