What happened to all the spaghetti on the wall?
Apologies for the overused expression, but bear with me. It’s a serious question I have been thinking about for the last year or so in regards to magazine media.
In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t been covering the industry all that long, at only seven years. It’s a blink of the eye in terms of magazine media’s history here in the U.S. However, I would argue that a lot more has happened in the past seven years than perhaps the 70 before them (with the exception of desktop publishing and the world wide web).
Forget about the struggles in the industry for a moment (but only a moment), and instead think about all the trends and fads that have taken shape since those struggles began about 10 years ago. We have seen publishers chasing countless shiny new objects and take leaps that, in hindsight, seem ill-conceived and were sometimes fatal.
Of course, I’m not going to name names, but we all remember gimmicky fads like clunky AR integrations, insanely high investments in VR and content farms that were generating more listicles than volumes of books in the New York City Public Library. We witnessed a now-laughable movement of some publishers thinking of themselves as tech companies. And we will never forgot the great “pivot to video” (and the pivot back to reality). There was also the paradoxical all-in approach to social media, followed by cold feet when most realized it wasn’t the industry savior we all hoped it’d be. And finally, the digital edition magazine. I’ll leave this one alone. It’s suffered enough.
Now, I’m not saying all of these things were overnight fads that have disappeared. Video, for instance, is still an excellent growth opportunity for several large publishers—large being the keyword, as scale is typically essential to make it work. Likewise, social is still a viable platform for publishers who aren’t beholden to it (RIP to those who were). But what I am saying is it seems as though publishers are finally pumping the breaks when it comes to “innovation.”
I put that word in quotation marks because innovation is often nothing more than a buzzword. It’s a cultural meme, in which no real measure or thoughtfulness is applied to actually creating something new or solving a problem, but instead innovation is simply reduced to going all-in on the latest fads. Perhaps it’s to stay in step with competitors and avoid FOMO, or maybe it’s from being enamored by something new—or worse, it’s desperation?
I believe that need to race towards innovation was a little of all those things, but primarily the latter. After all, there was panic in the industry and publishers had to do something to save their businesses and make up for the dramatic print advertising losses.
So back to my initial question. Why have publishers stopped throwing so much spaghetti on the wall?
My theory? I think it’s because they have begun to figure out a few things in terms of how their businesses should grow and thrive.
I base this on the kinds of news we dig up, pitches we get and trend reporting we have been featuring. First of all, there is objectively less bad news reverberating through the industry these days. There are still layoffs, and I have bad news for everyone, that will never stop. It never does in business. As times change, so must the talent and skill sets a business needs.
Magazines are still closing. Again, this is going to keep happening. During the best times magazines still failed. But more than that, there is still fat to trim in the industry and the sad truth is some magazines (in the print form) have an expiration date, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their brands do.
But beyond the bad news, we also aren’t being pitched on nearly as many stories about some new tech toy a publisher is testing out, which offers no prescriptive ideas of how it will add to their company’s bottom line.
If you aren’t a regular Folio: reader (I forgive you) let me tell you what most of our stories have been about recently: A return to fundamentals—being a content-first business. Imagine that?
Yet, the stories are a little deeper than just that. Content-first doesn’t mean an emphasis on the bullshit buzzword that makes me cringe: “quality content.” It means developing a business around your content, and making it an engaging product for consumers and advertisers—whether it’s your editorial content that runs in print or on digital, or custom content developed on behalf of your advertising partners. Display and print ads aren’t paying the bills anymore but, in fairness, they still have some value when it comes to top funnel marketing. Still, not nearly as much value as the content we produce as publishers, and the audiences we can deliver.
That’s where data comes in. Data is where most innovation is happening in media right now, and it’s not a fad; it’s arguably the most important shift in media.
Of course, data collection and analysis happens behind the scenes, and isn’t a sexy consumer-facing product, or a UX feature. That’s fine. Nobody cares how the sausage is made as long as it tastes good.
And based on the shift in stories we’ve been producing in recent months, it seems as though the sausage has improved. (Sorry about all the food metaphors.)
Perhaps using our own content is anecdotal, but I don’t think so given how dramatically the narratives have changed.
So then, what does it all mean? I think it means we should be cautiously optimistic about the future. Perhaps the correlation between less experimentation and less bad news is purely coincidental, but I don’t think so. I think the industry’s contraction is slowing, and it has a forward-looking strategy that will be driven by data and content.
Does that mean we can look forward to a booming industry in the near future? Probably not. But I believe it means we are inching closer.