When former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner spoke to our small group of magazine students, she shared her insights on why Gourmet Magazine folded, what problems the mag industry faces, and two possible solutions to make our future as magazine journalists just a little brighter.
Thanks to free content on the web, magazines and newspapers are having a tough time keeping their head above water let alone
actually making money. Recently Conde Nast folded a few of its newer publications–Cookie and Modern Bride–but the publishing house also decided, surprisingly, to fold Gourmet. For those of you who’ve never read Gourmet before, it was a lifestyle magazine that featured good food and wine, and had a niche audience with up-scale taste. It was famous for its beautiful food photography, unique thicker-stock paper, and for sending writers all over the world to get in depth international coverage on food and culture.
When she gave a talk to our magazine group, Christie Hefner used Gourmet’s folding to illustrate what happens when a good magazine undervalue content and doesn’t nurture its younger reader base.
As Gourmet grew, readers aged. Content remained the same and there wasn’t a huge editorial effort to reach out to younger readers. Especially in this digitally-driven world, young readers won’t read if content isn’t angled for them. Though it’s important as a magazine to maintain an identity, it’s equally as important to make sure that your readership isn’t an 8 thousand year old audience.
I’m not saying Gourmet should have refocused its content to target 20+ year olds (because college kids cook Mac N Cheese, not soufflé) but they should have nurtured the 30+ and 40+ year old readers. “Not to say everyone who read Gourmet was old, but simply that they weren’t getting any younger, and opportunity cost to keeping the magazine around without serious editorial adjustments was not beneficial to Conde Nast,” says Christie.
So what should magazines do when they run into this problem?
Christie says the biggest market fixer is figuring out how to charge for content on the web:
When the music industry shifted from producing 15 track CD’s where consumers bought the whole album, to iTunes where single tracks were available for download, it changed the way consumers bought music. Instead of having to buy an EP or a whole album, now you can hit iTunes to download your favorite individual songs. Christie says the magazine and newspaper industries may be headed in that direction. Maybe in the near future you’ll be able to purchase individual articles online instead of having the whole magazine PDF there for free.
World of Warcraft Fix
If you’re a gamer, you know what it’s like to play online: you get the basic version for free with decent graphics and beatable levels, but if you’re serious about the game, there is always a premium version available (for download and $$). If you don’t love the game, you won’t buy the premium version, but if you do, chances are high that you’ll fork over the extra jing. Same goes for magazines. If you love your magazine but you can see a free PDF of the magazines, you won’t pay for individual articles. BUT if you love the magazine and you can see a few articles for free, and purchase the rest, chances are you might pay.
Christie talked about integrating editorial teams on the Playboy staff. This means she took her web team that generated content for the web, and she combined them with the print editorial. Now Playboy’s editorial is consistent across the nation. She modeled this after ESPN’s business model, which makes its teams touch base with each other on a weekly basis to create editorial that is the same across the board, but shaped and angled according to the type of media (radio, web, print, mobile app etc.)
Most magazines have very separate, very distinct editorial teams, and therein lies one of the problems of the industry. While stories written for the web are not, and should not be the same as print, USA mags are behind in closing this gap.
Christie says magazines like Gourmet that struggle to renew their readership base should consider integrating web and print editorial teams. I’d agree and say that’s probably step one toward a brighter publishing future where magazines aren’t folding left and right.
Step two for the whole industry, is to figure out how to get readers to pay for online content. This will have to be an industry wide shift and it probably won’t happen for a few years given America’s slower rate of digital adaptation compared to the rest of the world, but it will. When she met with us, I think Christie could see we were all getting slightly discouraged because the industry’s future (from the outside) seems to bleak right now.
So she offered these words of encouragement: “You guys are entering the industry at a really exciting time right now. Things are about to change and if you keep your intellectual agility– your capacity and curiosity for learning–you’ll be successful. Don’t look at it in terms of getting a job in this crap economy, but look at it like you’re jumping into a big mess and you get to fix it, but every day we get closer and closer and the challenge is actually fun.”
Stay tuned for The Playboy Series wrap up about Christie’s advice on how to become a good leader, how to max out life’s opportunities, and why you’re in a different workforce than your parents and grandparents.