The Skiff May Not Be a Magazine Industry Life Preserver

January 11, 2010

TechCrunch’s “Can the Skiff Save the Magazine Industry?” strikes a good balance between hope and reality. Media giant Hearst, like other publishing outfits, are looking for a digital alternative to paper. If you are going to float an industry, you need one heck of a life preserver. TechCrunch said:

Skiff isn’t in this game to make hardware. They’re in it to save their industry from imminent demise. Magazines, as they exist now, are expensive artifacts of an industrial process that has been refined over the past century. They are eye-catching pieces of typographic art and they contain some of the best writing of any generation in a package that appears on a monthly basis and is sold or mailed to readers in paper format. But – and here’s where Skiff comes in – there is no perceived value in print magazines anymore. They are expensive to produce and circulation is falling drastically, resulting in a panic in the industry. The solution? Subsidized ereaders and reading services that will keep the subscription model from failing. The Skiff is the first of these efforts and, if first mover advantage remains true, they may be the winner.

Maybe. But the problems of the magazine industry were evident when Bill Ziff, a pretty sharp magazine guy, decided that magazines were not a good business in the early 1990s, an e reader is not going to reverse what seems to be an irreversible decline. TechCrunch identifies the obvious problems: the environmental costs of paper, declining circulation, and advertisers who want more than a 32 page publication mailed to a person like me who rarely looks at magazines any more.

I would add to the TechCrunch comments one point that few like to talk about; namely, the killers of the magazine industry are the children of publishers, lawyers, and other white collar types. Magazines fail to enchant the teens in my dentist’s waiting room. Last visit, the three teens waiting for a check up ignored the pile of magazines with big names like National Geographic and Motor Trend. The teens were thumbing and finger tapping in tune with a digital world that has little interest in magazines.

My hunch is that a magazine on a dedicated reading device won’t create too many new magazine readers. A percentage of the upper income, 40 somethings will buy a reading device. What the magazine needs is readers, not gizmos. The problem is that the children of upper class, white collar workers are not following in their parents’ footsteps. My son (University of Virginia) and wife (Duke Law) subscribe to the New Yorker. I do too. I like the cartoons and some of the essays but not as many as I did when I was younger. I can’t figure out some of the ads either. The last time my son and I were in an airport together we skipped the news stand. Neither of us buy magazines while traveling. The offerings are expensive, out of date, and an extra thing to carry.

When I commuted from Louisville to New York and San Francisco, I used to load up on the magazines that looked interesting. Now the cover stories don’t have much magnetic appeal.

Maybe government subsidies will work? Maybe magazines can be operated by a charity? Maybe magazines can be owned by Warren Buffet who funds them out of a sense of social significance? Maybe governments will tax Google and use the money to keep ink-on-paper publishing afloat.

The Kindle clones won’t have the buoyancy the magazine industry needs and needs quickly.

Stephen E Arnold, January 11, 2010

Yep, another freebie. I suppose I need to report this to the US Department of Navy, an outfit with some skill in keeping giant things afloat.


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