Future of Online Magazines

Loose notes from SXSW 2007 panel The Future of the Online Magazine.

Rufus Griscom CEO, Nerve Media
Sean Mills The Onion
Ricky Van Veen Editor, CollegeHumor.com
Laurel Touby CEO & Founder, mediabistro.com
Joan Walsh Editor in Chief, Salon.com

This is the kind of panel we host at the J-School often; was surprised to see it so widely attended at this geek conf. The focus ended up being not so much on the future as on the present, but still interesting.

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Online mags are a “web 1.0” phenom, but much has changed in past 5 years.

Is edited content obsolete? Joan: Of course not. The energy of blogs, web 2.0 stuff has been energizing for Salon. Their integration of live, lightly moderated letters from readers has been wildly successful. But people come to Salon to get content they can’t get elsewhere.

It’s easy to get caught up in sexy tech, but the fact is that the average American still doesn’t know what RSS is. Daily email newsletters are still roughly 100x more effective than RSS (wow!)

Editing: There’s no alternative for quality/thoughtful/non-spontaneous writing. The blogosphere is not going to replace a collective editorial process. Salon has 28 people in editorial, 60 people total.

Is premium/paid content on the way out? Ad revenue is way up – maybe it’s not needed anymore. You open up more content to more people with ads than with subscriptions – it’s got more legs. Touby: What’s wrong with a hybrid model? Then you hedge your bets for when the ad market dips again. Salon still offers premium membership, but they’ve broken down the barriers to free access. So membership gets you things like DVDs, mag subscriptions etc., but not required for basic access.

nerve.com has launched sister publication – babble.com (check this)

collegehumor.com has done great with “busted T” t-shirts – accounts for 50% of revenues relative to advertising.

salon reserves right to take UGC down at any time without warning. Adding user moderation soon, as well as authenticated email address to post. But: “Consistently impressed with how good the comments are.”

It’s hard to maintain a consistent editorial tone if editorial responsibilities are scattered amongst freelancers – this role needs to be centralized.

All of the sites are using more and more UGC, starting to surface it more. Not using fully automated (ranking/rating) systems, but combining automated tools with editorial involvement.

Check out smithmag.net

Salon: If we put Darfur on the front page, we know we’re going to have a traffic dip for that day. So it’s a decision our editors make in full knowledge.

Familiar problem: If your pub runs author blogs, what do you when the authors also have their own blogs, and they want to continue writing there, or want to double post content on both? You want to keep them under the same roof, want to motivate them to blog on your site rather than on theirs, but it’s a “herding cats” problem. Salon: If you give them enough money, you can pull it off, but we don’t pay our bloggers and so don’t have incentive to offer. Alternative: Keep them too busy to blog on their own (joke).

Q: There’s a diff b/w a web site and a magazine. What are those diffs? (I think it’s too blurry to make this demarcation now). Advertisers want something physical to hold (this is decreasingly true). Salon actually does not consider themselves a magazine. “We’re a web site” or “We’re a community.”

If you’re trying to re-create the magazine experience on the web, you’re not taking advantage. And it’s crazy. It’s not print – trying to think of it this way is stuffing a round peg in square hole.

But some people have a positive association with print magazines. There’s a coherent branding experience that goes along with mags (I don’t think this is more true for print than online).

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