Why a Magazine is Like a Wristwatch

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Why a Magazine is Like a Wristwatch

Steven Lagerfeld

Some forms of print will flourish in the digital age.

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I spend a lot of time worrying about how magazines—and one magazine in particular—will fare in a world of ubiquitous WiFi and e-readers, and recently I got the chance to put some of those thoughts into words as a panelist at the Association of Writers and Writer’s Programs big annual convention here in Washington:

Like most of you, I got tons of catalogues and sales brochures in the mail during the last Christmas season. There’s something odd about the ones I’m showing you. These are wristwatches. Pages and pages of lavish ads for wristwatches. That’s very curious. After all, nowadays we all have cell phones that show us the time. We don’t need watches. Yet apparently, they’re still a big business.
 
So let me introduce myself. I am a wristwatch. Or, more accurately, a wristwatch maker. Okay, so I’m really the editor of a print magazine—the media world’s equivalent of a wristwatch.
 
Now, if you’re a wristwatch-maker and cell phones come along, you have some choices to make. You could go into the cell phone business. But that doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Or you could drastically reduce the quality and price of your watches—dumb them down—in order to sell more of them. Also not a good idea. Actually, it looks like it’s really not such a bad thing to be a Rolex in a cell phone world. A fancy watch isn’t just a device for telling time. But I don’t think I’d want to be a mass-market watch, like Timex.
 
So it appears that the only logical thing to do is to go on making Rolexes or Patek-Philippes or whatever while trying to adapt to the new era. Maybe you even make your watches more luxurious and expensive to distinguish them from cell phones, even as you do other things to cope with the cell phone challenge.
 
Since the WQ has been pretty successful in the past, my first reaction to the digital age is to keep doing what we’ve been doing at least as well as we’ve done it in the past, and maybe even better—making the magazine more intellectually and aesthetically luxurious. If we could afford it, I would make the magazine more physically luxurious, with nicer paper and color illustrations. Because I think print magazines like mine are already akin to luxury products, and in the future they will become even more so. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than being the print equivalent of a Timex—a newspaper, for example, or a weekly magazine.
 
What about those cell phones? What about the Web? We’re out there. We just redesigned our Web site for what seems like the umpteenth time. We have a blog, a Facebook page, an e-newsletter, we’re rolling out a digital edition, we’re on the Nook, we have a Twitter account—I Twitter too (@stevelagerfeld), and I really like it. We have video and a few podcasts.
 
So that’s my second reaction. This is great stuff. I don’t know where it’s leading, and I may not like everything about it, but, frankly, I’m still a little agog over it. I still remember the first day I ventured out on the Internet with a colleague—staring at that little blinking green cursor. It was memorable. I think when print magazines venture out on the Web, they have to do it with the same excitement and intensity and joy that they bring to print.
 
There are only five of us on the editorial staff of the WQ, and we’re all very involved in the Web site, but often it comes down to three of us—me, another middle-aged editor, and an assistant editor who’s in her twenties. In a lot of places, the editor would just hand it over to the twenty-something and say, “You handle it.” I really value what she and the others have to say, but in the end the site speaks for the magazine and the institution that publishes the magazine, and I feel I need to be very involved.
 
Finally, remember that the Web is a continuing experiment. We recently overhauled our Web site, but there were some things about the new design we didn’t like. So we changed them. Just like that. You can’t do that in print. I wish we could afford more experimentation. Writing is different on the Web too. In the magazine, we maintain a pretty formal tone. On the Web, we have a lot more latitude to play around—to be more chatty or funny or maybe even snarky.
 
When we launched the new Web site, and also the e-newsletter, we decided that we would think of it as a way to build an even stronger sense of community with our readers. That’s one of the great things about being able to speak in a different voice and to offer a little bit more. But from what we can tell so far, a lot of our readers aren’t coming to the Web site. People are coming from elsewhere. So guess what? That means we’ll think again about what we’re doing on the site.
 
So those are all the good things. But there are a few caveats. First, you can’t do so much on the Web that you forget what you are and how you became what you are. You can’t sacrifice the quality of what you do in print—which means you can’t put lower quality content out on the Web either. This is a tradeoff we face almost on a daily basis. Because almost anything we do on the Web takes away from what we do in print.
 
Second, the Web is quite literally a different medium, almost as different as TV or radio. It has its own forms, conventions, and needs. We put a lot of our print material out on the Web, but I’m under no illusion that it’s going to make us a big success. It might help us to a degree—our traffic now spikes when we get a link from an aggregator or a columnist—but ultimately to go anywhere on the Web you have to live there, and that’s why we do some of the things we do.
 
For writers, the Web has been a great thing in many ways—at least for young writers. There’s just a lot more ways to get your writing out, and I would say that the discipline of writing for the Web is itself a good thing, another way to learn about writing.
 
But that brings us to another problem. Hardly anybody is getting paid for what they do on the Web. I know the WQ isn’t, or at least not much. Until that changes, it’s a big limit on how much we’ll do. Subscribers pay us a lot of money. More than most people in the nonprofit world, I abide by the age-old principle: Show me the money.
 
Finally, the Web is an incredibly faddish place. I remember back in the 1990s, somebody who was involved with the business side of the magazine came back from a conference and said, “Oh my God! There’s this thing called the Web and we have to have a Web site and start giving away everything we do for free!” In fact, we already had a Web site, and we couldn’t see then any more than we can today any sense in giving away everything for free.
 
I recently fell victim to this sort of mania myself. When the iPad came out, I thought, “Oh my God, we have to have an app!” Well, I cooled down and it turns out it really didn’t make sense to go to the expense of creating apps right away. You’ve just got to keep your head.
 
Will the iPad and other tablets be the salvation of magazines and books? I don’t know. What I do know is that print-based people like me need to be prudent, but not gloomy or defensive. It’s a scary time but it’s exciting too. We need to throw ourselves into it with the same dedication and passion we bring to print.
 
In sum, you could say my position is that we need to embrace the web but wear a condom. Thank you.
 
Photo credit: flickr