You will be familiar, I suppose, with Apollo 13—if not the phenomenal movie, perhaps the unfortunate outer-space incident that inspired it. Seriously. It was in all the papers.
An oxygen tank explosion in the command module forced the astronauts to take refuge in the lunar lander, but their stubborn insistence on breathing quickly filled the small spacecraft with poisonous, exhaled CO2, and it needed to be scrubbed from cabin’s atmosphere. That could be accomplished with onboard canisters of lithium hydroxide, but the canisters from the command module had square openings and the ports to the lunar module’s filtration system were cylindrical.
In the movie, you may also recall a scene at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, during which the flight director emptied the contents of a cardboard box on a table surrounded by engineers. They were told that these were the components aboard the craft available for repurposing. And the engineers were told to use them to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Which, incredibly enough, they figured out. Whereupon the astronauts were instructed to rig the equipment with such items as tube socks, air hoses from a suddenly-unnecessary spacewalk space suit and, obviously, duct tape. Which, incredibly enough, they figured out, as well. It was like a MacGyver episode in space.
All of this comes to mind thanks to a recent column in this very publication by the unfailingly sensible and well-informed Steve Smith, who has been following the media business since approximately the John Quincy Adams administration and has been eyewitness to strategic blunders of every kind in every medium. (Steve once told Samuel Morse, “Ampersands and asterisks are nice, but have you considered dots and dashes?”) He’s astute.
Performing another survey of audience behavior and platform success, Steve’s thoughtful advice for magazines was—if I may attempt to distill it—“Stop trying to be your competitor media, like cable. Be you.”
Like Polonius to Laertes: to thine own self be true.
Okay, granted, thine own self has some significant challenges facing it. It’s a whole industry saying, “Houston, we have a problem.” But Steve is correct that salvation doesn’t lie in trying to turn the crippled spacecraft into, I don’t know, Uber. No, siree. Salvation, if it lies anywhere, is in that cardboard box.
What do magazines have at hand that can be configured into a functioning business?
Well, let’s see. You’ve got:
- Vertical audiences (for the most part), which used to be called “interest categories” but are now highly valued as “communities.” There is nothing—nothing—more valuable, in either the analog or digital worlds, than community. The trick is to identify your community and cultivate it, coalesce it, connect it, empower it and imbue it with a sense of unity and identity. While also serving its interests. While also listening to its needs. While also ceasing to treat it as an audience, sequestered from the editorial process, but instead as a congregation. Please note that most congregations are devoted and actually serve and write checks every damn week.
- Brands. It’s an example I don’t like to cite, but it is most telling. Forbes magazine does not exist today on the basis of its journalism, which has gotten steadily worse for 15 years and is now little more than an aggregator for self-promotion. It exists because in 2014, the Forbes family sold a majority stake in it to the aptly named Chinese company Integrated Whale Media for $475 million. IWM was not remotely interested in the unpaid blog posts by business people trying to flog their own interests through their “articles.” IWM was interested in the goodwill residing in the name “Forbes.” The point being that brands are assets, even in poor market conditions.
- Archives. Three words for you: “Disney. Disney. Disney.” Look, I’m not saying every media company has the equivalent of “Cinderella” in its vaults, but each title owns the collected wisdom of the aforementioned communities going back years or decades or a century in some cases.
- Expertise and trust. Excuse me: U.S. News. It hasn’t published a news magazine to speak of since Steve Smith started shaving, but it has a land-office business in supermarket-distributed special issues on subjects it now owns, such as higher education and healthcare. Why aren’t these annuals—across a universe of communities—a bigger category?
- Addresses, both physical and email. If the job, as previously mentioned, is to coalesce and cultivate your community, newsletters are the current state of the art—not just because they offer a parallel channel to reach your audience, but because they are the most powerful generator of subscriptions. Subscriptions.
- Talent. Okay, the payrolls are down to nothing and goliath freelance contracts are pretty much a thing of the past, but to spend time with magazines nowadays is to witness the commodification of talent. Where are the stars? Where is the promotion? Where is the understanding that the power of the brand (see above) derives ultimately from the power of the content? Back in the day, writers and photographers were the very oxygen of the process.
Now they are just some sort of low–priced commodity ingredient—or, worse yet, an annoying byproduct, like—oh, I dunno—CO2.
Yeah, Apollo 13 got back to Earth on the strength of resourceful minds making the most of duct tape and tube socks. But that never would have been necessary had NASA paid more attention to the oxygen.