Confessions of A Magazine Junkie

By Richard Truesdell

Like many of my colleagues, I have watched as our profession, automotive journalism, has been transformed, first by the Internet, and over the last four years by this relentless recession that has caused an unprecedented consolidation among automotive publications.

Every morning before starting my work day I read a half-dozen publishing, tech, and media blogs, trying to get a handle on the intensifying transformation of our profession. And it’s not just the automotive publishing segment that has been impacted. You name the genre – shelter, travel, culinary, sports, celebrity, lifestyle – all have seen titles contracting, going all-digital, or simply closing down.

Richard Truesdell: AutomotiveTraveler.com
Richard Truesdell, Co-founder and Editorial Director, Automotive Traveler magazine and AutomotiveTraveler.com

Just last week the Dow Jones publication SmartMoney announced that it was going all digital and was laying off 25 staff members. SmartMoney is not a magazine with insignificant readership; it has a paid circulation of more than 800,000. This reminded me of a couple of years ago when Conde Nast shut down Gourmet when it boasted a paid circulation of almost one million. You can see all the bad news on how magazine advertising is declining by clicking here.

Last year we witnessed a seismic event that directly and indirectly affected us all, the Borders bankruptcy and the closure of its 600+ newsstands. What’s so funny is that I haven’t seen much of anything written on its impact on the magazine industry. But rest assured, it’s had a major impact on single-copy sales coming in the aftermath of Walmart’s well-publicized 2008 reduction of 1,000 titles it carries. With many other retail outlets, like supermarket chains, reducing their assortments and the space dedicated to displaying periodicals, it all paints a pretty bleak picture for those of us who write for a living.

Where is this leading to?

Of course there’s the Internet, but few of us have found the way to fully replace good-paying magazine work by writing primarily for Internet properties. There’s a pretty simple reason for this. The advertising that typically supported automotive magazines, mainstream and niche, has not migrated to the web in a meaningful way.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at any of the four mainstream automotive magazines with huge circulations and compare their advertising packages today with their 2008 counterparts. The number of ad pages are down sharply, especially those double-page ads from the car manufacturers.

It’s not much better for niche publications. Magazines that once enjoyed robust ad packages of 40 pages or more, now struggle to sell 20 pages of ads. I suspect that some of those ads are sold at a deep discount from the magazine’s rate card or are packaged together with ads in other titles. The net result is that magazines that were once 100+ pages now are published with less than 70 pages between the covers.

One report I recently read said that only one dollar in 27 is migrating to the web. I’m not sure I believe it’s that bad. But the difference of the loss of ad dollars in print magazines that hasn’t migrated to the web is significant. The question that begs to be asked is where all those dollars are hiding? I don’t have an answer.

Good journalism, automotive or otherwise, is expensive. Expensive if contributors are to be paid a living wage. We all bemoan that we’re working harder and getting paid less today than 10 or 20 years ago. That’s a fact, the reality that we all struggle with.

A while back, in answering a blind Craigslist ad seeking experienced automotive writers, what I found was a well-funded web publisher seeking contributors to produce 500-word “articles” for $10 a pop. Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather write for free for my own website and hope that at some point I’ll get the breakthrough I think I deserve and find the necessary advertiser or subscriber support. But I know it’s going to be a struggle.

What keeps me going every day is that even with all the success of the iPad, no publisher, large or small, has really been successful in monetizing their digital properties. I know of few digital-only publications that are self-sustaining, Automotive Traveler included. But I know we are making progress and have invested heavily with my two partners to develop a platform – we call it a viewer – that is well-suited to present magazine-quality content to any tablet or computer.

What’s great about the approach I’ve taken is that I have complete editorial control over what I publish. The content – automotive and travel – can be viewed on any device running a browser (but I think it works best on devices with screens nine inches or larger, like an iPad), that whatever I publish is indexed by search engines and shows up as text and image searches when you Google a search term. This is not true, to my knowledge, with any device-specific app.

I will acknowledge that apps do have their advantages in certain instances. I’ll cite the British motoring magazine Octane. I think that many of you will agree that Octane is a top-tier print publication and that any of us would welcome being published in its pages. And it should be noted that Octane has not one, but two digital editions.

One digital edition is what I call a magazine replica. This is where the pages and layouts from the print version are simply carbon copied to the app with the addition of active links. This version suffers from the problem of when reading text – since it was originally designed for a vertical page layout with small text – requires zooming and scrolling.

But the publishers and editors of Octane have taken a second, separate approach, what they call their interactive edition. They have redesigned each new issue of the entire magazine with fresh, horizontally-oriented layouts that take full advantage of all the iPad’s capabilities.

The text in the interactive edition is bigger – important for those of us who now own shares in reading glasses companies – and this interactive edition includes outstanding videos. One case was a time-lapse film of a full day’s studio photo session of the cover story on the four significant cars introduced in 1962 (the Ferrari GTO, Shelby Cobra, MGB, and Lotus Elan), that are fully integrated into the issue.

In the case of Octane, I think the digital interactive version is even better, more compelling and engrossing read than the already excellent print version.

As automotive journalists, we have to stop complaining and take our digital destiny into our own hands. We have to band together and innovate, coming up with our own fresh editorial concepts. One of the beauties of the Internet and the digital age that we are transitioning into, is that in many instances we have eliminated the need for traditional publishers. With the tools available to us, it’s possible to publish directly to our readers.

The issue remains how to support ourselves as we move to this new and exciting publishing model. This will require a leap of faith on the part of advertisers and sponsors. Because we’ve grown up in an era where our readers expect content on the Internet to be delivered free, we need the support of advertisers and sponsors to publish the same level of high-quality, properly edited, and fully vetted content that serves our needs, those of our advertisers and sponsors, and most of all, our readers. That is the reason why most of us got into this business in the first place.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I cannot quantify this, but I made this observation last week at a huge Barnes & Noble: It’s located in a major destination shopping mall near my home, with an enormous magazine section. The magazines are in a lounge-like setting next to the cafe. The sofas and lounge chairs are invariably full of people with two or three magazines on their lap, just leafing through them. I realized last weekend that I’ve never seen any of them buy anything. Are the coffee and scones more profitable to B&N than the magazine sales? My publisher, and many others, pay a lot of money to get positions on that newsstand. Is it being wasted?

  2. Great article, Richard…thanks.

    I still find having an untethered magazine IN MY HANDS makes for a more pleasurable content-digestion process. I value my ability to flip through previously scanned pages while not losing my place in an article when I’m looking for something else that’s relevant…basically: random access.

    Granted, the global reach of the ‘net, and Google’s pin-point search accuracy is truly a game changer, so we must evolve.

    Trouble is, most grey-haired folks (like me:) in the decision-making positions haven’t adapted…or they go kicking and screaming since almost everyone initially resists change.

    Today, it’s all about TARGETED eyeballs when delivering valuable content via the ‘net. No longer is the shotgun approach useful for anyone interested in delivering the high click-thru rates that now pay our bills.

    Instead, the new paradigm dictates PRODUCT PLACEMENT since embeds and copy/paste techniques have all but neutered copyright rules.

    So, if our content is easily “repurposed” (read: more pass-along eyeballs), then sponsors need to realize that product placement is the new home run.

    Mind you, this is coming from an MPG member whose first paid story was authored on a typewriter. BUT, when STREAMING video (vis-a-vis progressive download) became a reality at the turn of the century when most were still on dial-up, it became obvious to me that video would soon become king…and it has.

    Unfortunately, the image-conscious grey-haired decision makers have yet to realize the true value of “behind the scenes” videos that allow their viewers (potential buyers) to witness the valuable content –>that sells product<– and lies waiting to be discovered in their halls.

    The Internet is definitely not the place to put high-dollar whiz-bang Hollywood clips about their products, either. These can look too much like paid ads which turn off buyers who are looking for "inside info" with social networks' confirming feedback.

    Instead, high-quality video, with clear images and good sound, tells the viewer that a product can stand on its own merit without the smoke & mirrors.

    So, as journalists we need to start using video cameras to add rich media to our stories…just make sure the company's banner or logo is in the background!

  3. Richard, you have identified a number of transitional touchstones that any automotive writer and publishers should head.

    Let’s step back in time for a moment and consider the traditional publishing model’s origins and why it is no longer viable in today’s world of free content.

    Media companies with massive printing and fulfillment capabilities enjoyed enviable revenue sources of subscription and unit sales and paid advertising. Budgets included the essential editorial component including art direction and photography to support the quill pens of many a noted journalist. Demand for this form of information distribution sustained and the model worked fine for, what, centuries?! Great writers of our world come to mind: Dennis Jenkinson, Dick O’Kane, Henry Manny, Ken Purdy, Brock Yates, David E. Davis.

    Enter digital media. No longer are media companies the sole purveyors of information. Anyone could step up and dispense news, well-crafted or otherwise. Message boards and later blogs were credited for the market’s early phase disruption. Consumers embraced these sources for reasons ranging from low cost to conveniences and time. What’s the point of race reporting the next day let alone four weeks out when web-based sources are at the finish line? Advertising content begs to be timely, no more keenly represented than by classified advertising. Ad-based publications like Hemmings Motor News that hold back digital delivery in lieu of print are the poster children of distribution dysfunction. Craigslist, eBay, and soon others with low cost and rapid delivery are today’s resources of choice for the needs and wants of automotive consumers.

    The “Fab Four,” as I have termed Road & Track, Automobile, Car & Driver, and Motor Trend, contain all the elements of a perfect storm. They offer little or no content you can’t get elsewhere. Do their publishers truly believe repurposed print (Zinio) is a viable long term strategy? If I am forced to endure another diatribe on some pub’s cool redesign complete with font and color codes I will surely gag. As we all know, R&T has entered the final lap of its noble existence suffering a seismic decline in, well, relevance. Within twelve months expect two pubs of this universe to survive: R&T combines with Car & Driver; Automobile simply goes away; Motor Trend is left as the yin to C&D’s yang. Then I’ll give that scenario another two postponed years of declining brand relevance before their respective publishers close shop.

    In my view, Richard, this new world order is driven by a profound change in the underlying business model of distribution. Today anyone can be a “magazine” and anyone can make enough noise to garner some measure of authority in a corner of the market they choose to inhabit. Strip away print, direct mail promotions, postage, newsstand draws, the massive administrative overheads and, yes, editorial, how can old world media possibly compete with lean electronic pure plays in every form?

    I predict the new face of publishing will be a peer-to-peer model where vertical automotive communities contain a wide variety electronic homes for enthusiasts and consumers to share information. This model will lack the heavy expense associated with editorial and other forms of information gathering. Given the choice, the vast majority of consumers will opt for free versus twenty five cents all day long. Advertisers will enlist these legions of consumers as brand ambassadors to persuade others within the context of social media to buy their products. Web owners, staffed solely by a handful of techies, will earn handsome fees for managing API relationships and referrals. These advertisers seek massive audiences containing data-rich profiles from which to target sales.

    In the five years I’ve tracked automotive publications at http://www.carpubinsider.com, the body count has dropped from 300 to 170. Many died of natural causes, yet most due to the same hubris of Kodak and what will eventually consume another 30 or so automotive titles this year: a failure to respond to consumer needs.

    But perhaps the most maddening of all missteps are that of publishers’ delusional belief that a “multi-channel strategy” of print and corresponding print-centric websites are what consumer want. Magazines have a start, middle, and end. Web formats are boundless, just look at this blog. LCD eyeballs simply cannot digest page after page of long copy. And while those stunning photos are nice, like, so what? Already the iPad is proving to be a financial horror show for publishers both from a revenue and production standpoint. Nothing new here as best stated by Intel co-founder Andy Grove back in the 1980s: “Cannibalize your own business or others will do it for you.”

    For those of us smitten by the romance of print, let’s all take a reality check: We are not the market. Look no further than your under-twenty something family members to fully grasp their pattern of information gathering. Last I checked, iPads and smart phones were their conduit to a world more vast than we can imagine. A newsstand, what’s that?

    We’re entering the new gold standard of audience development. Communities of like-minded souls with voices of their own. 50-word sound bites, crude photos, car crash videos, all manner of auto merch for sale. Yet there’s a powerful new opportunity for automotive writers. Find a vertical community to call home and hang your shingle for all to see. Write little and often. Use unique imagery to help tell the story. Engage the audience and build a brand. Say something newsworthy and be the one CNN calls to interview. Hmmm, an entirely new “business model” for self!

    So is “content still king?” Sure, content it’s so valuable it’s free.

  4. The three gentlemen above have already said everything I would say, so, I’ll be brief: great, provocative article Richard. Thanks for providing this venue, Glen.

    I can add just a couple amplifications: in answer to the question where are those advertising dollars migrating to, the answer is, data and analytics. CMOs want to know EXACTLY who is reading, when, why and what they are wearing when they do it. Not sure this isn’t overkill, mind you? Does it really matter in their purchase decision whether the toilet paper dispenser is on the left or right? No matter, it is headed toward drowning in data but this is what the decision makers are buying–ultimate rifle-shot marketing.

    Personally as a trained journalist (who did not write for a living, my business was the automotive experiential marketing agency AMCI for 20 years) I desperately mourn the loss of magazines dearly departed. I LOVE holding them, marking pages, tearing out “save” articles, etc etc. But sadly, our children do not share this affliction.

    I am sure you’ve all seen the stories about how there are fewer young drivers today because the young teens are playing video games not dreaming of their first Lambo!? Lord help us, journalism, and the car hobby.

    Gordon Wangers
    gwangers@gwangers.com

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