It’s 10PM: Do You Know What Business You’re In?
Fast Company co-founding editor Alan Webber talks magazine business.
Imagine that you’re part of an industry where the business model which served you so well for so long is failing.
Imagine that practices that in the past provided predictable remedies for economic problems today simply don’t work.
Imagine, in other words, that you are in the magazine business—or any other part of the media landscape.
Making sense of change isn’t always easy. One thing to keep in mind, according to Rule #6 from “Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself”: If you want to see with fresh eyes, reframe the picture.
One of the problems that plagues newspapers and magazines today is their inability to see their business with fresh eyes. It’s a problem that has afflicted other industries in other times. The executives who ran the railroad industry, for example, suffered huge losses as long as they thought they were in the railroad business. What they couldn’t see as long as they looked through old and tired eyes, was that they were in the transportation business, which meant their competitors weren’t other railroads; they were up against planes, cars, boats—anything that moved people, goods and, today, information.
What business are magazine companies in today? If you answer, “the magazine business” chances are good you’re about to go out of business. “The magazine” is a commodity, and commodities, by definition, lack distinction, uniqueness, and brand equity. The only way to survive today is to reframe your self, to offer a singular product or service (or combination of the two) in a way that adds value and attracts particular customers.
For example, when I co-founded Fast Company magazine in 1995, one of the first questions we asked ourselves was, what business are we in? The market for business magazines was already crowded with established contenders. What was our new frame? We decided that we were in the “edu-tainment” business: we’d compete against Fortune by being more educational, offering readers management and career lessons they could use, and we’d compete against the Harvard Business Review by being more entertaining, with livelier graphics, hipper design, and better writing.
Take the news business for example. News is the ultimate commodity today. It’s available 24/7 on the Web in all flavors, languages and ideologies. But in this vast undifferentiated zone, there are some versions of the news that actually stick out. Jon Stewart, for instance, has emerged as one of the country’s most trusted newscasters—that’s right, newscaster—despite the fact (or because of it) that his show is a self-described comedy show: comedy news that is. At the other end of the spectrum, Keith Olberman, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others of that ilk capture significant audiences by offering, not news, but their views on the news: opinion as news.
Just being in the news business today is a prescription for being out of business tomorrow—a fact realized by both Time and Newsweek, as they desperately try to morph into publications that more resemble The Economist, which figured this out a long time ago.
One last example: last week I ventured into a hip clothing shop in Los Angeles. A batch of very cool T-shirts caught my eye: each one featured a replica of an old Rolling Stone cover. The shirts weren’t cheap—each one cost something like $40—so I knew I was dealing with high fashion. But here’s the kicker. If I bought a T-shirt, I got a free one-year subscription to the magazine!
So, what business is Rolling Stone in? In the old days, you’d buy a magazine and get a T-shirt. Today, with design and fashion trumping the old magazine business, if you buy a T-shirt, Rolling Stone throws in the subscription. Give them credit: at least they’re giving Rule #6 a try!
[Editor’s note: Click here for a look at Webber’s book, “Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.”]