Why Web-Forward Media Companies Are Turning To Print
There has been plenty of press lately about online properties going print. It’s hard not to be drawn into these stories and see them as silver linings after a year of “print is dead” hysteria. However, these launches, though encouraging, are less a bellwether for the health of the publishing industry and more of a reminder of what makes magazines valuable to begin with.
Seeking an answer to the question of why online publications are exploring print, we interviewed indie rock music purveyor Pitchfork Media, science journalism magazine Nautilus, and political media outlet Politico. And while these are not purely web properties—Politico originally launched as and still publishes a daily newspaper—they are very much web-forward media companies that offer a unique perspective on the print form.
A Deeper, Lasting Experience
Pitchfork Media is very much a product of the internet. It came along as a blog in 1995 and filled a void by reporting on up-and-coming indie rock bands. Pitchfork covered music that wouldn't have received mainstream press and maybe only gotten noticed by photocopy-paper "fanzines" popular in underground music scenes in the 80s and early 90s.
Since its inception, Pitchfork has taken slow and deliberate steps to expand its coverage and products. In 1995, Spin or Rolling Stone might have scoffed at the idea an indie rock blog becoming anything more than just that. Now Pitchfork has about 5 million unique visitors per month, a weekly mobile and tablet app, an annual music festival, a film site called The Dissolve, and in December 2013 it launched a print quarterly called the Pitchfork Review.
So why would a born-and-bread online publication with a young, hip audience decide to publish a 160-page quarterly printed on heavy stock at a cover price of $19.96 a pop? Quite simply: to provide its audience a new way to experience its unique brand of music journalism.
The publication has always looked to the print magazine form as an inspiration for what could be published online, says Pitchfork Media president Chris Kaskie. In his eyes, the only aspect that truly distinguished Pitchfork from a magazine was that it wasn't tangible.
While they took inspiration from the magazine form, the Pitchfork team has also worked to redefine what it means to be a music magazine today, says Kaskie. Technological advances have expanded what can be done in terms of contextualizing and visualizing content within a web browser. "The browser was definitely a limitation, but then all of a sudden you're able use the tools in HTLM5 and things like that where you can totally rethink how we present our content, how we create it, and how we think about it. It used to feel like being in the browser was a detriment to the creative ideas that everyone here has, now it feels like we can do anything, but it's rooted, ironically, in some of the fundamental ideas of print design and the way in which print and long-form journalism is created."
Despite these advances, Kaskie says the impetus for producing a print quarterly comes partly from a romantic desire to contribute something “lasting in a physical sense” and “timeless” that celebrates what Pitchfork does online everyday, and which contrasts with the rapid pace of the internet. “Something that you want to keep and want to hold on to for a long time. Much like someone might think of a record… You open a magazine and you have these wonderful full-page-spread pictures or you are able to digest long-form content in a way that feels natural.”
The Pitchfork creative team worked long and hard to create this lasting object, says Kaskie. "The simplest way to describe it is something that you would want to put on your bookshelf. It's not for coffee tables and it's not for the trashcan. It's something you want to keep and collect. And the content inside you'll continue to return to. Calling it a book might be too far, but calling it a magazine in a traditional sense doesn't give it nearly enough credit."
Adjusting to Readers' Cycles
Kaskie doesn't overthink the thought process that goes into developing new avenues for Pitchfork's content. His aim is to meet the audience with what they want in a relevant and intuitive manner that doesn't alienate people. In the case of Pitchfork Weekly, a mobile and tablet app launched in December (and seemingly the antithesis of a print quarterly), the purpose was to adjust to readers’ cycles and meet music lovers where they are. “Pitchfork is a music publication that has a large presence online, but at the same time, music fans are everywhere and they’re dealing with and thinking about music in different ways and they have more or less time for music.”
Their guiding light is the basic notion that they are music fans themselves. “Ultimately for us the core of what we are is music fans and music nerds that want to talk about things and want to explore music new and old. The Weekly is thought about in the sense that there has to be a portion of your readership that can’t keep up with what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis. So let’s give them a tool where they can look at something beautiful, as well as read and digest the content we’ve created over the past week, in a way that’s probably more suited to their cycle of how they are able to spend time doing things like this.”
In contrast to the Weekly, Kaskie speaks to the deeper experience the Review can provide with long-form articles and full-page photographs and illustrations in a tangible form. “I think the audience wants good music, they want good things, and they want something that feels like it means something, versus something that feels temporary or just a thing, or a trend. There are 17-year-old kids that are reading Pitchfork and never grew up in a world where music magazines were everywhere and they don’t collect music because everything is on their iPhone or iPod or wherever, and there’ a portion of those people that are going to be cool with that forever…but there’ also folks who also want to dig deeper and Pitchfork Review is inherently a place that digs deeper.”
Above all, Kaskie is concerned with creating things that are meaningful for some people, and not trying to be everything to everyone. Pitchfork aims to be a trusted source of music journalism and a place people feel is worthy of spending their time. With 115,000 records released every year, Pitchfork helps cut through the noise and filter out what's good and relevant and interesting, says Kaskie. "Something like Pitchfork or Dissolve covers one specific thing that means something to someone versus trying to be everything to everybody. If you over expand you loose focus and don't mean anything anymore and suddenly you're just noise and there's a lot of noise."
For Pitchfork Review, Kaskie set a very modest goal with an initial print run of 10,000. “If it becomes much bigger than we expected, great, if it doesn’t, great. That’s an advantage of being digital first and having our publication live and thrive online. You can kind of experiment and toy around with really neat things if the audience is attracted to it.”
As for print being dead, Kaskie says, “The prints that’s dead is probably the print that isn’t worthy of putting on your bookshelf or keeping around any longer.”
Nautilus: A Deep-Dive Science Mag
Launched in April of 2013, Nautilus aims to be a “different kind of science magazine,” each month exploring a single topic in-depth and from many angles and disciplines. Founder and publisher John Steel says Nautilus takes an anti-reductionist view, revisiting physics and the natural sciences within a broader philosophical context. It combines the sciences, culture, and philosophy in investigative journalism, fiction, essays alongside stunning illustrations and photography.
Steele, who has a background in broadcasting with CBS and NBC, launched the magazine with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. He says the original idea was to produce an online magazine. “Right before we launched, we did a preliminary issue which was on Nautilus the marine mollusk and the magazine and we printed up a preview issue and it went over really well. People like to have the physical object. So we decided very early on that we were going to do a print quarterly where we take the best of the previous three online issues and combine it with some original articles and some original artwork.”
The Nautilus Quarterly is currently available through a $49 yearly subscription or through 300 bookstores in the U.S. and Canada. Nautilus content is also available online for free, but Steele hopes to eventually monetize this, as well as launch subscription-based digital apps. “Right now everything is free online because we’re starting from scratch, so we have to let people know who we are and what we are. We’re looking to slowly integrate a metered paywall in the next few months and we’ll have some sort of monthly or annual subscription that is fairly low.”
For Steele, print is just another way to monetize the one-of-a-kind content that Nautilus is creating. “The whole idea is to leverage our content into every kind of ancillary business to generate revenue. We’re using our online still as a way to get noticed and build a brand, but because we’re producing original content, we have to leverage that content in every platform we possibly can. A lot of general interest stuff is probably in trouble just because news and all those other things [have become] commodities. But if you’re doing something that is unique and perhaps niche, which is in a way what we’re doing, I think there’s still a market for it. And it’s not just about having one platform anymore and expecting that platform to pay the freight.”
Steele continues: “In some ways we’re trying to figure out how you reinvent the business. A lot of traditional magazine distribution is problematic, especially for someone like us. We have a small print run; the books are pretty expensive. So to go through the traditional distribution through bookstores and newsstands and that, it can be very difficult to break even or make money.”
Although print distribution is problematic, Steel sees a lot of the same problems with properly monetizing online readership. Publishers might be getting high web traffic but are experiencing high bounce-rates. “We refer to them as empty calories.”
Politico Magazine: Content That Echoes in Your Mind
Politico launched in 2006 with the mission of improving the coverage of politics and government, both in terms of quality and speed. Politico’s fast-paced breaking-news style caught on quickly, but now it’s testing out the long-form, lean back world of magazine journalism with the monthly Politico Magazine launched in December of last year.
Co-founder and editor-in-chief, John Harris, says he was motivated by editorial aspirations to provide a type of enterprise journalism that finds a better home in the magazine format. For Harris, it was another way to engage the elite smart-set audience Politico serves. Politico Magazine offers readers an opportunity to spend more time and respond in more emotional ways to the content, says Harris.
Of course, it has to make sense from a business standpoint. “We don’t really do vanity projects. We do things that we think are going to be good journalism and good business. The advertisers have found this a very attractive platform. The content is very distinctive. It echoes in the mind.”
Harris says another consideration that had to be made was regarding assembling the proper “editorial apparatus” for producing this kind of content. “If you’re going to ask a reader to read 5000 words, that article better be animated by a really good idea. The payoff has to be there to carry me along.”
Though it sometimes appears to be a race to the bottom when it comes to the quality of content online, Harris has an enduring faith in the value of meaningful content—which is backed up by the Politico audience’s thirst for reported work. “We have seen in other types of stories, the work we were most proud of would really go viral and really get a big audience. There’s this belief on the web—and it’s not that it’s untrue—that the way to get traffic is through nonsense, through cat photos, through videos of sharks, a lot of the buzzy things publications do to get traffic. But we had seen in 2012 some of our most [in-depth] campaign content earned monster traffic. We had evidence that the payoff was there for this really ambitious work.”
For his part, Politico CEO & president Jim VandeHei saw the magazine as an opportunity to further provide indispensable journalism to the politically-minded. “The value of politico is that it’s seen as absolutely essential to the government people.” With a controlled distribution to insiders and influencers, Vandehei says they have a cultivated a coveted audience. He’s also seeing an awakening of sorts among larger advertisers to the value of more permanent content. “They’re showing an interest in being around high-end content that lasts more than a moment. Advertisers find that very appealing.”
VandeHei also thinks digital magazine advertising has been undervalued. “You can’t avoid it...and it’s measurable. Advertisers are seeing this is as a great opportunity in an increasingly cluttered marketplace.”
In January, Politico’s parent, Allbritton Communications Company, launched a monthly magazine based on its recently acquired Capital New York property.
Related story: Data-Driven Publishing: Know Thy Audience
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.