Time Inc.’s Woes Due to Half-Hearted Effort

When word leaked that Time Inc., was looking to shed its print publications I only half jokingly blamed, at least in part, this stunning news to the company’s misguided approach to bundling its digital and print subscriptions.

While Time Inc. was an early adopter in producing digital magazines for tablets, it has only been a half-hearted effort. It didn’t fully believe in the business model that was re-emerging where people actually paid for content. Instead it continued relying on the decades-old sleight of hand where publishers pumped up their circulation numbers by any means necessary to attract ad revenue.

On top of that, its digital magazines have been nothing more than poor replicas of their print publications. Two years ago, Sports Illustrated impressed many with the prototype of its digital magazine for the iPad. To date, that has been their best effort. Exhibit A: last year I downloaded an issue after a few month hiatus in hopes that SI would use its deep well of resources to innovate the industry. Instead, I was met with a Derek Jeter story that featured 19 consecutive pages of only text (no exaggeration). I quickly returned to the cover to see if it said Yellow Pages.

Time magazine is no better, as in addition to a declining quality of content due to a steady elimination of top-notch writers, its digital magazine is nothing more than a pdf replica. Pick another Time Inc., title, and the result is the same.

Add a poorly executed digital business model and a poorly designed stable of digital magazines to an industry-wide newsstand sales collapse and a reported 30-percent decline in revenue at Time Inc., during the last five years, and this fire sale was inevitable.

Digital publishing is serving as a tool of attrition for the entire industry. No longer can bad magazines slide by with artificially inflated numbers that attract clueless media buyers who are blinded by a shiny number, even though there is rarely any tangible reporting to prove return on that investment.

Now that advertising revenue is rushing to digital and mobile properties and away from print, those same titles are being exposed as the frauds they were. Look at the titles that have folded in the last two years. Name one that would widely be considered a good magazine. And if it so happened to be a good magazine, then its number must have been inflated; otherwise it would be making money.

Bad magazines that think they can shed their bloated print costs and transition to a digital format, as if that will suddenly improve their magazines, will find they are only whistling past the graveyard.

Instead, quality will again reign supreme. With superior analytics that can detail every bit of engagement with content and advertising within a digital magazine, those who have REAL readers will not only survive, but thrive. Meanwhile, the publishing fat cats who have been in cruise control for the last four decades are unprepared to adjust to this undeniable truth and it is only a matter of time until time runs out on them as well.

Ron Matejko is the President of Phoenix, Ariz.-based MVP Media, an award-winning digital publishing company. Matejko has 16 years of publishing experience in print, Web and mobile and has worked on the staff of two award-winning publications.

MVP Media publishes MVP Magazine, the first interactive sports publication, which won a Bronze 2010 Digital Magazine Award for Best Sports Magazine, besting entrants from 26 countries around the world, and was a finalist for Designer of the Year. MVP Media will launch its own magazines on the iPad in 2011.

MVP Media also helps existing publishers convert their print products into dynamic publications for the web and tablets. Visit the MVP Magazine website at www.mvptoday.com. Contact Ron by e-mail at ron@mvptoday.com, or connect with him on LinkedIn or on Twitter @mvp_media.

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  • Barbara Petty

    They really need to look at Vanity Fair for the best digital edition of a magazine I have yet to see.

  • Seymour Hymen

    So glad someone from Arizona, that hotbed of publishing, the Delphic Oracle of media knowledge, has explained it all to us.

  • Publerati

    It may be impossible for a large company of any kind to adapt to disruptive change from the their existing inside as corporate denial can only be seen from the outside, or once the change is in the rear window. Talk to the people at Palm and Polaroid about this. Especially when so much of your profits come from the declining segments. I believe the only way out of this mess is to start over under a new name led by good outside consultants with a sustainable future-looking strategy. Sad but true.

  • Bob Sacks

    There is another angle that most have missed in this dialog of total guess work. First this action doesn’t surprise me at all. The celebrity titles have had a twenty year positive and profitable ride. All celebrity titles even people are on the slide.

    People still gets a billion plus in revenue but it’s hundreds of millions of dollars less than just a few years ago. As much as it is still huge, the handwriting is on the wall for this genre.

    I would sell it now if I owned it. Just like the stock market, you can’t marry a stock and all magazines and niches don’t last forever. If you are able, sell high. Laura has no skin in the People game, and didn’t grow up with it as her baby. This is a clear cold business calculation and I agree totally with her thinking. I believe at the end of the day you find this logic more to the point than many other prognostications .

  • Phil Hood

    I think it’s possible both sides of this argument are right. Yes, it is almost impossible for a market leader to make this kind of transition. That’s why railroad companies don’t dominate the car business and publishing houses don’t dominate TV. But also, Ron is right. Companies need to move to digital quickly. This sounds more like a case of poor implementation as well as a corporation making a long-term bet against the kind of journalism represented by Time.

  • wcage

    I think this is a little less complicated than people make it out to be. Time Inc has a broad stable of magazines, but it life blood is celebrity, sports and news categories. They are still arguably the best in those categories. Unfortunately, what are the categories that are best served by an interactive internet experience (for free I might add).

    The best example is the sports category. How does SI compete against ESPN (and a dozen more) online sources that are free, real time and high quality? When the eyes go to the web, the advertisers follow and they figure out quickly that they can get the same display advertising experience for a fraction of the costs of the glossies. It is a vicious cycle if you view this from the magazine perspective. The money transfers, the quality on the internet improves, the costs for advertisers go down, more eyes are pulled in… you get the picture.

    I hate to break the news, but a good tablet strategy is not going to save Time Inc. The only people who believe this are people who want more content on their devices; the business model is not there. In the old Watergate tradition, "follow the money"; all advertising dollars are going to the internet. No one is making money on tablet versions of their magazines and most, while still profitable, are making lots less in print.

  • Muhammad Abd al-Hameed

    My experience is that the people running Time these days have a closed mind. No wonder they don’t know to meet the current challenges.
    There was a time when I gave an idea to the Managing Editor Henry Grunwald, He wrote back that it was "intriguing" and implemented it right away. As a result, the international circulation doubled.
    By contrast, I recently offered the publisher a plan to revamp and rejuvenate the magazine but my email was not even acknowledged.

  • Scott Johnson

    Readers don’t have any more time in the day to access a digital magazine than its print counterpart, no matter how dynamic and interactive you make it. Words do matter (with good images to support the layout). Lower price points for digital editions will allow magazines to increase readership necessary to attract advertisers.