Do you know what it costs to start a national magaizne these days? Multiple million at the very least, depending on whether or not Tina Brown or Jann Wenner is on the board. Â Where does that money go? Not to writers or designers (they account a tiny fraction of the cost). Maybe a little to the sales team (gotta get all that ad revenue), but that stuff can’t account for half the cost of a magazine.
I bring this up because I’m getting sick of Fast Company. Not the web site, but the magazine. What once was a glorious beacon to those work 2.0’ers who understood the weight of Tom Peter’s “The Work Matters” manifesto, one that discussed new models in working, new ideas in getting things done, and trying to cross-pollenate ideas from one industry to the other is now In Style for the laptop-and-business-class set.
Recent covers: McGee, director of Terminator. Sure, he’s got an interesting history but… shouldn’t that be on movie magazine? Skater/surfer kid Shawn White? The current issue some cleavage-bearing woman with hair bigger than Montana. Skin on the cover of Fast Company? This is the same magazine (technically) who’s August 1997 cover was simply “Brand You,” a model just getting traction (And note that the magazine really fell down hard when it stopped putting just typography on the cover and started finding pretty people for the cover… Ning anyone?).
Ask any pro in the publication world and you’ll hear the same thing over and over again: in order to cover the sunk costs of starting up and the hard costs of printing and delivering a magazine, a magazine must sell X number of copies to justify the real engine: subscribers. A magazine doesn’t make money because you buy it, it makes money because it call sell your eyeballs to someone else.
Thus, magazines are a numbers game. If you can’t keep your circulation above certain point, it almost makes more sense to mail all the subscribers a booklet of ads.
But why buy a magaine? Is it for the ads? (Maybe it is for Vogue, but not why I used to buy Wired, Spin, Business Week, Fast Company, The Industry Standard or the Red Herring.) No.
It’s the content, stupid.
You build a customer base by having good ideas, well written and well-presented. That creates fans, increases the circulation base to justify ads. (I swear, the ad model makes as much sense as owning a grocery store not to sell produce put to collect coupons.)
But everyone seems hell-bent on skipping steps 1-5 that they make nothing but crap magazines.
So here’s the solution.
Web-based magazine (duh!). Â But it’s more than that. It’s turning the model around. Â Instead of building a print magazine that makes money and you build a seperate website to remind people how much they love the printed magazine, make the web site first. Â Create great content. Open submissions to anyone. The crowd picks the best articles (and helps copy-edit it), adds great comments and you pick the best stuff (and the comments), package it up with ads (yes, you have to re-write the ad contract to say you are buying web ads, and that the paper ads come free) and ship it to newstands and people who are willing to buy a paper-based subscription.
How does that work? Well, everyone gets the content for free (plus ads). But in the process, everyone helps build the magazine. Crowd sourcing determines the best ideas (you know, the ones that would sell best on a newstand). You only pay for stories that make it to press. Ad buyers will pay a higher web rate knowing that their ads are also in the print peice.Â
The best part is this: if you want it on the newstand or a subscription, each issue is $30. An annual subscription is $200. No one would buy it? Â Wait. Who buys magazines on a newstand? People in airports waiting to fly business-class. People who can afford it. People who don’t have time to read a whole community site. People who buy subscriptions to summerized business books. Execs who have more money than time. If it’s an amazing magazine that’s built a reputation for bringing new ideas to light first in a well-managed forum (and that’s exactly what the website would be), they’ll pay for it.
The best part? Costs are like nothing. Server space and a couple of drupal managers and a team of copy-editors and designers with an editorial lead. You pay per word relative to the sales, so if no one buys the first few issues, you don’t pay the writers much. But if sales go crazy, writers get paid big bucks, thus drawing more people and ideas out of the woodwork. Print costs are unit-based just like writing, and you can even say that the first year the magazine will be web-only just to get things going.
It’s already been said: Journalism isn’t dead, newspaper are. The model must change.