As the agonizing newspaper death watch continues, it’s easy to forget that magazines too are going through a slump that will see many titles close.
Newsmagazines in particular are struggling to retain readers by frantically attempting new formats and approaches. As Newsweek’s editor John Meacham told the Financial Times last week, “You can keep doing what you have been doing all the time and march nobly off a cliff or you can adapt and change.” He’s right about that, but there is reason to believe that newsmagazines, burdened by their own proud and stale legacies, won’t reinvent themselves fast enough to avoid extinction.
Against this gloomy backdrop, new online magazines are being launched, presumably in the belief that they can offer readers a fresh approach to news, opinion and analysis.
Slate and Salon were first-movers in this space. A British online magazine that has caught my eye is The First Post, a smart, crisply written product underwritten by ex-Carnaby Street hippy-turned-billionaire Felix Dennis, who in the early 1970s was convicted on obscenity charges when running his counter-culture magazine called Oz. Dennis also owns the printed mag called The Week, whose subscribers are mainly ex-pat Brits looking for a witty and entertaining digest of news and opinion from the UK. I am among its readers who enjoy the clever way it is assembled.
The First Post describes itself as “a free and independent daily online news magazine – a place to find out what the news means, a place to read about the issues of the day in short, sharp, informative articles. Most articles are presented on single pages which eliminate the need to scroll. And, as you will discover, it is a very easy site to find your way around.”
Note the word “free”. The First Post website does feature contact information for advertisers, but it would be interesting to have a close look at the magazine’s P&L. In journalism, nothing beats having an eccentric moneybags as your proprietor.
I quite like The First Post, which describes its politics as “all over the place”. The magazine insists moreover that it’s not just a collection of links: “Many news-based sites are merely the by-product of newspapers or broadcasting organisations; some are nothing more than a series of links to articles on other sites. The First Post is independent and exclusively online; we commission all our articles.”
Another online magazine that hopes to differentiate on quality is Smart People. Launched only last week, Smart People, produced in the United States, is available in three online formats: HTML, PDF, and flip-reader.
Here is how the magazine describes itself: “Smart People was developed in collaboration with 60 some volunteers –- many coming from the leading social networks –- whose contributions shaped the content and direction of the magazine. It’s an interactive, new media approach to publishing, learning and communication that has just begun and you will participate in the development of something much bigger than a magazine.”
My colleague Soumitra Dutta and I contributed a piece called “Politics 2.0″ — on Barack Obama as America’s first digital president — to Smart People’s inaugural edition. We have no personal or business links with Smart People’s editors, who requested the article from us. I have no particular knowledge about the magazine’s business model, though it appears to have a clearly defined differentiation strategy.
I wish Smart People well, especially given the tough economic climate into which it is launching. Journalism today offers us a real-time case study of the laws of creative destruction. And so as I follow online magazines like The First Post and Smart People to see whether they grow and prosper, I’ll be keeping an eye on printed magazines like Newsweek to see if they manage to survive.