How the Web Will Save the Print Magazine.

It’s been long established that the Internet has not killed print. Yet. But magazines are on their way to coma.

Magazine sales recently took yet another major sales header, dropping 6.3% in the first half of 2008. They’re trying re-designs. Editorial shuffles. Cutting staff. Using stock or archive photos instead of doing shoots. But nothing seems to work. And when news magazine sales fall in an election year, something’s wrong.

People still want to read magazines—just walk into any airport, 7-11, or doctor’s office. Magazines have the widest real-world distribution of any print media, and until you can fold a Kindle, the most convenient form factor. Praise blogs all you like, but when it comes to generating accessible, up-to-date, quality, reliable (i.e. fact-checked) content, no other print media comes close to magazines.

And yet, content junkie that I am, I hardly buy magazines anymore. I became tired of paying six bucks for a couple of 300-1000-word features that may or may not suck in the execution, a bunch of articles I don’t want to read, and forty pages of ads.

I get most of my news and information from the Web via RSS readers, search engines, and web sites–including online versions of several periodicals. It allows me to pick and choose the content I receive, without having to spend tens of dollars and flip through hundreds of glossy pages each month.

Now, there’s a way for magazine publishers to improve that signal-to-noise ratio and make every issue make every issue exactly the issue that each customer will want: Personalize the content of each issue to each reader.


The magazine industry is well aware of its need to evolve. Publishers have wised up in the last decade, leveraging their wealth of content into web presences, nearly all of which feature online advertising. Most of those offer content via RSS, which makes their content consumable in a wider variety of ways.

But little or none of this is helping them turn their main profit center–the glossy paper floppy—into something that doesn’t bleed audience.

Personalizing online content is easy. Take a look at feed-readers Like Bloglines or Google Reader. You click a few check boxes to set it up, then get a steady flow of content from the sources and the brands you like best.

Obviously, print magazines can’t do this in real time. But with recent advances in Publishing On Demand (POD, also called Print On Demand) technology, a monthly basis is quickly becoming feasible.

And if magazines do it right, they’ll gain four major advantages (and yes, two of them are about increased sales):

  1. They’ll increase subscription numbers, which according to the NY Times, publishers rely on in times of economic slowdown.
  2. They’ll strengthen the relationship between the reader and the magazine’s brand with every issue.
  3. They’ll gain new, quantifiable insights about their users’ reading habits.
  4. It could give magazines a whole new line of customers at a higher price point.

The key to it is to offer a POD version of each issue. Currently, only books and vanity-pub magazines are economically feasible for this technology, and so far, not monthly periodicals. But that’s changing at a rapid clip.

And when it does, there’s a banner opportunity for subscription-based personalized magazine publishing.


In short: The subscriber chooses her stories from a monthly selection. A few weeks later, she receives her content choices via mail, written, designed, collected, and bound to that publication’s editorial standards and recognizable trade dress.

Now, let’s break it down a bit more. Let’s say you’ve signed up for the “personal edition” of ESQUIRE.


A few weeks before your next personalized issue of ESQUIRE hits the stands, you receive an e-mail or SMS that it’s time to choose your stories. You click on the enclosed link and are taken to a page that lists all the possible stories or departments for the next issue, with a title and synopsis of each.

Say you want the upcoming Barak Obama interview and Kristin Wiig photo spread, but could give a rat’s ass about the new season’s wristwatches or latest hangover cures.

You choose an allotted number of stories (or check off whole departments: “Style,” “Reviews,”), and a few weeks later, you get your personalized monthly copy of ESQUIRE in the mail—containing only the content you want. All killer, no filler.

Is micromanaging your personalized magazine too much hassle? Create a profile or choose a canned one (“Science buff” “Celebrity voyeur,” “Short attention span,” “Surprise Me”) to automatically filter your content choices every month.


With the advances in push-button publishing, digital photography, and new advertising models, there must be air that can be built into the lead times magazines have enjoyed in the past.

On-demand publishing has improved by leaps and bounds even in the last couple of years. There is currently one POD company that does magazines, MagCloud. Derek Powazek, of Fray and JPG Magazine, is a consultant for them. He talked about MagCloud in a recent interview. Here’s an excerpt:

Do you see larger magazine publishers eventually moving to POD, or will this be a niche option?

For the biggies, it’s just a matter of economics. As soon as the price per page for printing on digital is cheaper than traditional offset printing, the biggies will move. The quality of POD is already the same or better than offset…

…And once magazines move to POD, they’ll realize it opens up opportunities they never had before. When you can really tailor each issue for each subscriber, what will you do? Exciting, huh?

MagCloud is an HP pilot program, and currently in Beta. But imagine what, say, an HP/Hearst partnership could do to jump-start things to a larger scale.


Personalized magazine publishing has a chance at the same gold mine that Web advertising is finally enjoying. With POD, ads can be tipped in much closer to publication. Plus, advertisers have a whole new stream of data by which to target customers: the subscriber’s in-issue editorial choices.

Say a subscriber consistently chooses articles on cars, or sexy actresses…we’re talking no-brainers in terms of ad choices. If someone only chooses nugget-sized pieces of content, put an ad for a DVD box set or summer action movie.

Personalized editorial can foster a more collaborative relationship between publishers and advertisers than ever before. Increased ads could further offset the cost of the magazine. One advertiser could even sponsor an entire issue–look at’s sponsorship program.

Hybrid content/advertising articles like “Great Holiday Skincare Gift ideas,” Or “Portable Stereo Solutions for 2008,” could offer the customer a chance to offset the cover price of the magazine even more. It would also provide marketers with a direct route to sampling or product drawings.

(Or, mimicking the Salon model further, maybe the subscriber can pay a bit more for an ad-free version of the magazine. Sacrilege? Perhaps.)


Branded content has an important place in publishing. People trust an article about Eric Clapton more if it comes from Rolling Stone than We want our content from reliable, comfortable sources—and we’re willing to pay for it, month after month. But if sales drop too far, that brand will mean less and less.

Put another way, if the magazine’s familiar coffee table-/back porch-friendly form factor goes away in favor of computer screens, magazines like Vanity Fair, with their lavish photo spreads and 10,000-word articles, will get eaten alive online. It’s change-or-die time for magazines, and personalized publishing may be the shot in this anemic industry needs.

So long as print doesn’t give up on us, we needn’t give up on print. Yet.



One thought on “How the Web Will Save the Print Magazine.

  1. Once you realize that personalized publishing for major magazines is possible—maybe even within the next five years—it’s the starting point for all sorts of ideas. Here are just a few:

    • Issue rollovers: if nothing in this month’s checklist of stories tickles your fancy, ask to not receive it and instead have your subscription extended one issue.

    • Tiered subscription prices for amount of stories you want in each issue. 10 story choices a month for $4, 20 choices for $6, everything, every month, for $7.

    • U-Decide editorial. Let the readers vote on stories at the pitch stage.

    • Mutually beneficial content partnerships. Preview the latest Frank Miller comic in the new issue of Rolling Stone. Print a BLACK BOOK New York local guide in the College Music Journal when the annual CMJ conference rolls around.

    • Cheaper educational materials. Remember those magazine subscriptions we were offered in elementary school? What if you teacher could choose your content for you, tailoring it to his lesson plan?

    What other ways do you think Personalized Publishing could de-slump the Magazine industry?

    Posted by kengrobe | September 9, 2008, 11:22 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


May 2018
« Aug    
%d bloggers like this: