Why All Consumer Magazines Should be Free Online

The Christopher Leinberger article in the Atlantic which I plugged at the beginning of last week is finally online. I moaned about such delays this morning, and got an email asking why exactly they’re so bad. I replied that Choire Sicha’s Observer article on a Vanessa Grigoriadis article in Rolling Stone is a good place to start in answering that question:

Rolling Stone didn’t even publish the piece online–just its first 606 words. This changed the project, a bit, from journalistic endeavor to Internet link-baiting; there is a sense of emptiness at the Web site, whereas the magazine piece is incredibly satisfying.

“I think we thought, why post the stuff for free when people buy it?” said Will Dana, the mag’s executive editor…

“Who’s to say they would have gotten 10 million page views if they put the whole thing up?” asked Eric Gillin, Web editor of Esquire, of the Grigoriadis piece…

“The studies show that–this is all going to seem very counterintuitive, bear with me!–the studies have shown, 80 to 90 percent of people that visit the Web sites for magazines neither buy nor subscribe nor have anything to do with the print publications,” said Mr. Gillin.

So, publishing the whole article on the Web won’t ruin newsstand sales, because the people who buy on the newsstand don’t look at the Web site anyway!

Hrrm. “I honestly don’t know if it would result in fewer sales or not,” said Mr. Dana.

“Well, we have an interesting test of this,” said James Meigs, editor of Popular Mechanics. “A little over a year ago, we had a big cover story on biofuels. … We put the whole story up online. We got just, I don’t recall the exact numbers, the best traffic we’d ever gotten… It turned out to be one of our best-selling issues of the year even though we’d given away the story for free online.”

The really depressing quote here is the one from Will Dana saying that he had absolutely no idea whether or not truncating pieces online results in fewer print sales, but that, well, he does it anyway. Clearly, if truncating pieces doesn’t cannibalize print sales, then it’s a no-brainer to publish everything in full online. And there’s no reason to believe that such cannibalization actually happens, in the magazine world. And yet editors still willingly give up very real web traffic for the sake of protecting imaginary marginal magazine sales which may or may not be lost as a result.

Publishing in full isn’t just about maximizing web traffic, either: it’s also about not pissing off your readers. When I read a great article in the Atlantic, I want to blog it; many other people in my position will at the very least want to be able to email it to their friends and colleagues. None of that is really possible unless and until it’s online. And since the internet thrives on the new, and hates the old, people want to link to you when the magazine comes out. No one wants to link to you weeks later, when it’s old news.

And for all that the web is constantly new and changing, it can take a very long time indeed to shrug off a reputation as a web-unfriendly magazine. Just look at the Economist: if it had been free online from the day it went live at economist.com, it would be an order of magnitude more popular than it is. People don’t visit it now just because they think it’s all hidden behind a subscription firewall.

Indeed, magazines in general have been so bad at going online that readers automatically assume there will be some kind of firewall in place. When I moved this blog from felixsalmon.com to portfolio.com, I got more than one comment along the lines of "oh, that’s a pity, I loved being able to read you for free". Portfolio.com is very much on the side of the angels in most of these debates – no firewalls, no delays in putting up magazine material, nothing in the magazine which isn’t online, no registration, no truncated RSS – but that’s still rare in the magazine world. It’s not just specific magazine brands which are tarnished in terms of their web reputation, it’s also magazines as a whole, who as a group seem hell-bent on crippling the user experience and turning their websites into little more than teasers used to sell new subscriptions.

Eventually, magazine publishers will wake up and realise that they have three sets of readers. The first, and largest, is the online-only readers, who would never read the magazine. To maximize their numbers you want to put up as much content as possible in as timely a manner as possible. The second, and smallest, is the people who read the magazine both in print and online. These are your very best and most loyal readers: you want to treat them as well as you can, which once again means maximizing the value of the website and not needlessly crippling it. Finally, in between, there are the old-fashioned readers of the print product, who either subscribe or who buy it at the newsstand, and who then read it in an armchair or on a train or in a waiting room. This is not the kind of activity which can easily be replaced by a website.

Yet who are these publishers worried about? Some tiny and possibly nonexistent group of readers who, on being given the opportunity to subscribe or to buy the magazine at the newsstand, will do so if the magazine isn’t online, but who will not do so if it is. This sorry band has a grip on publishers’ thinking far stronger than their minuscule market share would ever suggest. And they’re not even particularly brand-loyal readers, either.

Remember the first rule of consumer journalism: you’re not selling content to readers, you’re selling readers to advertisers. Anything which increases your readership and makes your readers more loyal is a Good Thing. This is not rocket science. Why don’t editors and publishers get it?

Update: Aaron Schiff makes a good point. What online content do magazine publishers think that they’re competing with? Their own, or everybody else’s?

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