The Future of Magazines & Newspapers: A Conversation

Not long ago, at the airport, I had a conversation with John – a business man in his early 40s. 

Since I consult in the highly-challenged paper media industry I asked him how he feels about reading magazines and papers.

I assist a major firm identify the fundamentals of the media of the future, facilitate a culture of innovation and accelerate the reinvention of their business model. For those of you less familiar with the challenges of this industry in the US  let me tell you what they are in this digital age:

– increasingly, online destinations attract the attention of large audiences
– most paper magazines have a hard time retaining their audience
– advertising dollars shrink as a consequence
– media company try desperately to expand revenues on the web repurposing a somewhat irrelevant editorial legacy

So let’s come back to my conversation with my fellow traveler at the airport. He’s a best selling author, considered as a thought-leader in his field of expertise. To respect his privacy, I’ll keep his name and further details about his profession confidential.

He tells me that he has not spent a dollar on a newspaper or a magazine for months, probably years!

So I asked him to share with me his reasons for this. He tells me that he already has access to more information than he could read: he receives the
NY Times online newsletter everyday, as well as the Economist weekly; he checks the news on Google and the Daily Beast. Three times a week, he watches CNN at the gym for 45 min. as he runs on the treadmill. He browses the web constantly.

Overall, he prefers e-newsletters over online subscriptions because of time constraints – with a subscription he has to wait for the entire digital edition to download on his screen, but with an e-newsletter is only one click away from the information. Time is of essence for him and much more important than the marginal information he can only have via electronic subscriptions or paper versions.

Besides, he flies internationally very regularly and enjoys access to more magazines and newspapers – both US and international – than he could wish for.
He tells me that he prefers electronic information because he can save articles and send them easily to his clients or his assistant.  Simply put, he does not need to buy any general information – a pretty gloomy statement for traditional media owners!

But further into the conversation, I find out that
he pays $150 to receive the McKinsey Quarterly.For $150 he can get a yearly online subscription with Newsweek and receive in the mail GQ, Car and Driver, and FT everyday!

So, where’s the solution?

As always, the solution will not come from a financial equation alone – there is no imagination in 2+2 = 4 – yet most traditional business thinking comes back to : “what’s the business model?” meaning “how do we make money?”

These questions are obviously necessary questions but they’re also paralyzing! That’s the conventional north-east quadrant approach in the Intuitive Compass™.

The appropriate questions are: “how do i bring value to my readers?” and “what is my reader trying to achieve?”

Let’s go back to the roots. What does “media” mean? It means “in the middle” – media stands between people and information and facilitates news and information sharing.

If we come back to my conversation it’s not difficult to see how to bring value to John, i.e to stand between John and a world of information in a way that’s relevant and significant! He needs:

– cutting edge information to keep ahead of the curve in his business
– quick access and very easy repurposing of information
– a search engine that is customized to his very specific profile (profession, cultural background, revenue, age, lifestyle, consumption preferences, payment modalities, hometown and preferred destinations, travel patterns, etc.)

The media would help him thrive if they could deliver a customized version of their online magazine everyday with information that speaks to him, his lifestyle and saves
him time.

it would not take much more content development from the media because in actual facts a lot of this information is already available online and for this he would be willing to pay obviously since we know he pays for the 
McKinsey Quarterly.

Two other essential complements would bring real added value to John’s experience. One, is advertising: what if John could switch on and off access to customized advertising on his page? We let John decide when he wants to see an ad – tough, you’ll say! … how do you sell this to an advertiser?
Well actually, this is what Google does basically – we’re simply pushing it one step further. John has control of his exposure to advertising in the same way as people decide if/when they want to sit in the sun. It would mean a pay-per-click type of revenue or even pay-per-lead. But John’s perception of the media would be so enhanced – it would clearly raise drastically his loyalty to this medium

The other?
User-generated content. He tells me he’s looking for a new car; he’s considering buying a Porsche Cayman or Boxster. He prefers the line of the Cayman, but living in LA, he thinks a convertible would be really cool, so he’s debating between the two.

He tells me he goes online to find info about the cars. John says he’d like to know how green these cars are and how much it actually costs to drive and maintain them. Here are his three choices:

– the official Porsche website

– car magazines such as Car and Driver or Road and Track
– blogs and users generated reviews

The first two don’t really answer these questions in a straightforward way.

Car magazines usually write about the new features of the car and in a style that’s supposed to be appealing to the largest audience, while the Porsche website gives data that don’t match up with real life.

But when it comes to users’ reviews it’s not easy either:  John has to go through a lot of shallow comments and irrelevant information before he can access what he needs: mpg data, maintenance cost, etc.

So what about a media company that develops a system to collect user-generated content and sort it out and find a way to establish a hierarchy so that shallow comments go to the end of the list and relevant serious information comes to the top?

This is something John would really value. It would save him time and give him access to real conversations with like-minded people who own and drive the cars he’s considering. And this could be done on all other topics John would tell his media company he would like to hear about.

So why not including in the media of tomorrow a way to curate content?  To feed readers with user-generated content filtered and organized in a way that’s relevant to the profile and aspirations of each readers.

This is typically a north-west quadrant / south-east quadrant type of approach grounded in the south-west quadrant: open creative thinking applied to improve performance based first and foremost on consumer value creation.

So the media still has a critical role to play.  There’s still a lot to do and a lot of potential to enhance the media industry for both readers and magazines.

But please don’t start your internal conversations talking about
how you’re going to make money; it will not take you very far! Start thinking about value and meaning to reach deeper long lasting creative solutions that will eventually lead to profit without a doubt.  

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