Why the Magazine Publishing Industry is at its 'Shawshank Redemption' Moment

As covered in a recent piece by Richard Prince at The Root, Jet magazine has announced plans to make its print content more timely and relevant by adding opinion and perspective pieces to its editorial lineup. Perhaps it’s obvious to say that this is a savvy maneuver, but then why hasn’t Jet been doing it all along?

Today’s media consumer has a ridiculous number of options — online, offline and otherwise — for spending his or her precious few daily moments of downtime. And when I say “downtime,” even those moments are often spent wielding multiple gadgets, multitasking, texting, emailing and so on. We live in a pretty sad state, attention-wise, and competition for attention is exactly the battle each information outlet wages every single day. As media options proliferate, the battle grows evermore heated, and magazines in this era will have to work harder than ever before to bring in and hold onto a devoted readership.

Premium Channels in a Rabbit-Ears World
Print publications face many of the same challenges the three major U.S. TV networks were forced to confront with the advent of cable. Way back when, cable TV rather suddenly began to splinter the traditional oligopoly on televised content into dozens (and now hundreds) of choices for viewers. Today, though, all media outlets — including magazines — are up against a staggering number of potential online sources of nearly cost-free information, fun and distraction. That is the new reality, and there’s no sense pining for a simpler time. The battle for eyeballs can be brutal, and to succeed magazines will have to adapt or surrender — like it or not.

And for print mags, up against so many digital bloggers and 24/7 news outlets, the even more daunting challenge is maintaining relevancy without being able to respond to the latest events in real time. They are constantly operating, in effect, with two strikes against them.

So given that print magazines can’t compete with the web on speed-based relevancy, how can they shore up the loyalty of their reader base and keep their faithful coming back for more? The key, as is said so often lately, is consistently generating dynamite content — rising above the maelstrom of everyday news items and other background noise, wowing the pants off of readers, and elevating a publication into the realm of coveted premium content.

In short, magazines need to think, act and produce like the premium cable channels of the publishing world — to innovate to the point that a profitable critical mass of readers will happily buy in to their service because it’s just that damn good. Dominating the competition’s content should be jobs one, two and three, and any publication without a laserlike focus on content is probably ultimately doomed to find itself on the long and growing list of defunct titles. Before all else, magazines need to push their editorial and design staff to ensure that each and every issue is something people want. I’m in the magazine design business, so I can certainly attest to the fact that design can add a great deal to the visual appeal and readability of a publication, and design is an essential piece of the overall product. But even so, unique content and insightful commentary still take center stage and represent the vast majority of a publication’s value to its readership. The idea that “content is king” is fast becoming a cliche in the media industry these days, but it has also never been more true.

Print? Digital? Who Cares?!
Somewhat distinct from the content issue, much has been made lately of the print-versus-digital question in the magazine industry. All too frequently — and particularly in pieces about the rise of tablet magazines — authors regurgitate the notion that “print is dead,” that the bread and butter of magazine publishing is in the throes of yielding to a surging digital revolution. Clearly, to those with a vested interest in making iPads and other tablets a fixture in households around the world, and perhaps for those covering the latest technology trends, hastening the demise of the print magazine industry would be a wise objective. I’ve written at some length on why I think all the anti-print clamoring has been dramatically blown out of proportion. But whether you prefer print magazines over digital or not, is the whole print/digital debate truly fundamental to the success of a publishing venture? Sure, if tens or hundreds of millions of tablet users emerge in the next several years with a rapacious appetite for digital magazines (which certainly hasn’t happened yet), then obviously publishers will need to invest heavily in maximizing their digital delivery capabilities. But with tablets still in their infancy as a media-consuming tool, it seems many publishers are placing an undue amount of attention on their digital operations. With the troubles magazines have experienced the past few years (along with just about every other industry), some publishers may be looking to tablets to revitalize revenue streams and even “save” publishing as a whole. But they are completely missing the point.

Whether a magazine is delivered on paper, a tablet, a smartphone or otherwise, far more important than putting every new bell and whistle into the delivery mechanism is making sure that the content of the product itself is unquestionably superior, unique and valuable to a large supply of readers. The tablet market is growing, for sure, and readers who want their magazines delivered digitally will seek them out — so the ratios of printed vs. electronic distribution will inevitably adjust themselves naturally. But no matter how desperate publishers are to capitalize on the tablet trend, they simply aren’t going to win over hordes of readers without focusing on dynamite content first. A title’s delivery mechanism will always be far less important than its caliber of content to maximizing sales numbers and growing readership. Period.

Back to Basics
I’d be willing to make a prediction: If you’re a magazine publisher today, and your first objective isn’t blowing the doors off the rest of the mediasphere with insanely fantastic content, you’re probably not thinking about the right things, you’re probably not thinking boldly enough, and your publication probably isn’t going to fare too well — or as well as it could. Regardless of format, readers will always gravitate to — and stick with — a source they know will deliver the goods, time and again.

So yes, the move by Jet certainly makes sense. But why stop there? Each and every magazine out there should right now have a standing order with its editorial staff to think big, think bold, innovate the heck out of its content and find new ways to connect with readers. Anything short of that is tantamount to giving up eyeballs to the other guys — and that, in today’s media, is death. And to paraphrase Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, it’s time for publishers in this challenging marketplace to either get busy living, or get busy dying. Because there simply is no more time to lose in a battle that at the moment, for many publications, is unquestionably being lost.