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October 22, 2008

It’s time for the digital barbarians of consumer publishing to show their hand

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

In B2B publishing, local newspapers and on the nationals, the web skeptics were pinned back a while ago. For the most part, they’ve gone quiet, having seen what has happened to others who poked their heads above the parapet too enthusiastically.

For some reason, consumer magazines are different. Here, the web skeptics are still alive and kicking.

Week in, week out, there are countless bits of proof. They float by in the form of half-committed nostrums tossed off for media reporters.

(You know the kind of thing: “Our web properties continue to operate as a valued extension of our print brands.” Or: “We believe that print has massive appeal and plenty of longevity as a medium.” Etcetera, etcetera.)

Then there are the signals of internalised stress. Take Stefano Maruzzi, president of Conde Nast Interactive, who discussed the divide between “digital barbarians” and “editorial purists” in his company at the AOP’s conference in early October.

“Inside the company all the digital content was driven by editors. Nothing against editors, I am a journalist myself, but I thought we needed specialists. . . We changed so much of the culture within the organization that some people decided to leave. . . “

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You can bet that the departures to which Maruzzi refers are just the tip of the iceberg. Behind them sits an ice cliff of passive resistance.

Surely consumer magazines should be beyond that by now?

In one way, it’s puzzling that they’re not. These are media platforms with passionate users. (Do they have something to say? Of course they do — if they’re encouraged to do so on the read/write web.)

Conspicuous consumption of beautiful objects looms large on the agenda. (Anyone for video? When the web lands on your TV screens in a few years’ time, Conde Nast and IPC will need to be ready for it.)

And then there’s shopping (You might think that price comparison engines sit oddly with luxury ads for handbags. But even India Knight at the Sunday Times is babbling on about The New Thrift.)

How-to advice? It’s a natural for the web. Mascara application techniques, wallpaper hanging tips, whatever: stick ’em into a database, make them searchable — and promote the hell out of them. (Think Martha Stewart. Or Delia. Or maybe a version of Lifehacker for Vogue readers. . ?)

When it comes to the digital future of consumer magazines, no one stirs ’em up quite like David Hepworth. He was at it again this week, winding up attendees at a debate organised by the British Society of Magazine Editors and the Editorial Design Organisation.

Now I happen to disagree with Hepworth’s suggestion that audio — rather than video — will matter most to consumer magazine publishers in the near future.

But that’s small beer. What Hepworth offers in spades is imagination, curiosity and — important this — humility. As he suggests, the latter will be needed by the tonne in the face of the web’s coming onslaught on the final redoubt of Big Media.

The depressing thing is how Hepworth’s barbed insights seemed to elicit more than a bit of hoary conservatism from the audience.

‘I don’t think the web will ever be the final destination for women. . . I think that women prefer to pick up magazines for an emotional attachment.”

“Today more than ever we need high brow, high-thinking [content].”

Humility? You couldn’t call it that. Coded? Almost certainly. Nimbyist? Quite probably.

Admittedly I wasn’t present last night. So I’m trying to read between the lines of Paul McNally’s report for Press Gazette — always a dangerous thing.

But the notion of David Hepworth talking to the BSME reminds me of David Cameron addressing the serried ranks of white faces at a Conservative party conference.

Deep down, you suspect that some (or many?) of the audience really would prefer to see their hero have a right old go at the immigrants — digital, illegal, or otherwise — who are ruining a fondly-remembered green and pleasant land.

But Hepworth knows that the consumer magazine industry ain’t going back to 1986 or 1997. He knows that a return to the equivalent of that mythic England created by the producers of Heartbeat isn’t possible for the industry.

Perhaps, then, it’s time for the sector’s digital barbarians to really push on. Recessions, after all, have a way of bringing long-buried fault-lines to the surface. . .

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