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Watching the Magazine Industry Commit Suicide

In editorial, publishing on Tuesday, 6 October 2009 at 0:04

On the off chance that some of you still have Brijit in your RSS readers:

Two pieces of news have come across over the past few days that have me convinced that the magazine industry is hellbent on its own destruction. On Friday, All Thing D reported that Time Inc.’s planned “Hulu for magazines” joint venture was moving forward. Then this morning, Conde Nast announced it was shuttering Gourmet. Taken together, it’s difficult to come away feeling anything but sad, because it appears that the best minds in the magazine industry haven’t the first clue about what makes magazines special.

Let’s start with “Hulu for magazines,” which has “doomed to fail” written all over it. What the magazine publishers (and most of the reporters that cover them) fail to understand is that the very nature of glossy magazine content is ill-suited for a digital world — and the glossier the magazine, the worse the fit for digital distribution.

I may prefer to watch my movies on the big screen, but throw one on an iPod Touch that I hold close to my face and listen to with a good set of headphones, and the experience is good, or at least good enough. Ditto for tv shows, video clips, etc. Video works just fine on a laptop screen, or the wished-for tablet, or whatever else comes along. Video lends itself to the latest electronic hardware and distribution because it’s ALWAYS lent itself to the latest electronic hardware and distribution. That’s the nature of video — digital distribution is just the latest iteration. So of course YouTube and Hulu work.

News and other short-form text are a perfect fit for digital, too, which is why we all consume our news online now. The only time I read a print newspaper now is when I’m on vacation (and then only on Sunday). And I’ve bcome more comfortable than I ever thought possible getting my news on a 2-inch Blackberry screen. Why? Because the essential nature of the information is unchanged: print or iPod, it’s the same news. The transition proved a little harder for books: it took a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle to move the needle on digital distribution, but this ship has sailed, too, and there’s no turning back.

What all of these forms of content and consumption have in common is that they are all effectively one-dimensional at their core. You watch video to see it and listen to it — movie screen or 50″ plasma or iPhone, the experience is basically the same. You read news for the words on the page — tablet, laptop, paper, it really doesn’t make much difference. You read books for the story — it’s linear, whether you’re turning the page or scrolling on your Kindle.

Put another way: most content survives and thrives independent of whatever particular container it might be shipped in.

But magazines, especially glossies, are rooted to their form factor in a way that none of this other content is. The magazine form is embedded in its DNA. A fundamental part of what makes Vogue Vogue is the thud of the September issue, the page after page of beautiful women wearing impossible clothes. The New York Times Magazine is not just about the words or the pictures — it’s about the feel of the crossword on your lap, your coffee and bagel on the side-table next to you. Even The New Yorker, which is so text-heavy that it actually translates quite well online despite the length of a typical feature, loses something significant without the interspersed cartoons and the artful cover. Unlike all these other forms of content, magazines are as much about the container as about what goes in them. Magazines are the classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what makes them so great, so unique, and so endangered.

Conde Nast announced today that it’s killing Gourmet after a 68-year run, most of them good. Now, I don’t clip the recipes — I long ago made the move to epicurious. And I don’t really read the articles either — only time to skim, I’m afraid. But throw in the cover art and the pictures and the ads, and editor Ruth Reichl’s uncanny ability to pull it all together, and there’s something about Gourmet magazine that is, well, beautiful. It will be missed.

I understand the need to rationalize costs. I’m sure the Conde Nast folks, and their friends at McKinsey, had plenty of good reasons to kill Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, and Cookie, just as they killed Men’s Vogue and Portfolio before them. I’m not arguing against making hard decisions. But having Gourmet live on via tv and a book imprint? I wish they’d call it something else, because it surely won’t be Gourmet.

Nearly 70 years as an icon of the food world, at a time when more people are paying more attention to food than ever before, and the world’s premier magazine company can’t figure out how to make Gourmet work? Recession or no recession, that just shouldn’t be.

As it happens, just last week I renewed my subscription to Gourmet: two years for 18 bucks. Now they’ll probably stick me with Bon Appetit. Si Newhouse should be ashamed of himself.

Orr Shtuhl Launches Wordsworth. Music Lovers Rejoice.

In editorial on Wednesday, 18 June 2008 at 13:41

Orr Shtuhl was our arts and culture editor from the time we launched publicly until Brijit went on hiatus a little more than a month ago. I hired Orr on the spot when I met him early last September because, well, he’s got real skills. I’m thrilled to share that he’s now putting his smart, passionate voice to work in a handful of exciting places.

First and foremost, he’s launched, Wordsworth, a blog with the beautifully simple tag “Because they are.”  He describes it as “a blog dedicated to music and the words therein. Accordingly, there will be words to read and music to listen to…” He’ll also be regularly updating a themed, handpicked selection of a dozen tracks on Muxtape — the current collection of “Creepy Love Songs” is terrific. And finally, he’s running a column at The Morning News, a Brooklyn-based site that’s lucky to have the opportunity to showcase Orr’s savvy brand of music criticism.

I’m putting all three of Orr’s efforts into my personal rotation pronto… anyone who loves music should do the same.

Make That “the Award-Winning Brijit.com,” Please.

In brijit, editorial on Friday, 23 May 2008 at 13:32

The good folks over at TheMorningNews.com has honored Brijit with a 2008 Editors’ Award for Online Excellence. Here’s the citation:

“Favorite Helping Hand When in Content Quicksand

A friend once pointed to a foot-tall stack of New Yorkers in his apartment and said he was a few months behind, but was determined to read every article. A praiseworthy effort, for sure, but not everyone has that kind of fortitude. For us, skimming the issue and reading only the articles that beckon is enough; and thanks to the now sadly defunct Brijit, we don’t even have to do that. This service presents a 100-word abstract (with a rating!) of every article from a bevy of magazines, helping you decide if the article is worth the time investment. Alternately, you could read only the abstracts, get dressed up, and remnick cocktail-party conversations all night long.”

This appears about two-thirds of the way down the page. Check out the full piece here.

New Abstract On Brijit. Anyone Else Want To Write One?

In Abstract Alerts, brijit, editorial on Monday, 19 May 2008 at 10:45

Great feedback everyone. Thanks for the terrific show of support. Very helpful as I continue my conversations with potential investors and partners.

I’ve decided that, at least for this week, I’m going to try to do an abstract or two a day — only good stuff. It’s obviously a poor substitute for a fully-staffed Brijit, but it’s better than nothing, and it just feels like the right thing to do as try to find a home for the service while simultaneously closing it down. Here’s one I wrote last night: “Can a Dead Brand Live Again?” by Rob Walker in the 18 May 2008 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

If anyone else wants to write an abstract of something great that they read, watched, or listened to on one of our 100-plus sources, please let me know. If there’s enough interest, I’ll put a process in place to include abstracts from the Brijit community. I think I can handle edits on about a dozen abstracts a day. Leave a comment here if you’re in. Would love to have you. Tell your friends!

To be clear, though (and I don’t even have the technology resources at the moment to change the text of the Brijit site to reflect this): WE ARE NOT PAYING FOR ABSTRACTS AT THIS TIME. Many in the comments have suggested that the site could thrive without the $5 fee — we’re about to find out, albeit on a small scale. I hope you won’t let it dissuade you from writing.

Also, you may have noticed that you’ve stopped receiving your email digests from Brijit. Sorry about that — we know it’s a great product, and if we can figure out a way to come through on the other side, we’ll be makign them a priority from a business development perspective. But we’ve spoken with our friends at SilverPop, our email newsletter provider, and given the situation, we both agreed that we needed to stop sending Brijit emails, at least for now.

Megan McArdle Likes Brijit.

In brijit, editorial on Friday, 9 May 2008 at 18:06

Megan McArdle, self-styled “the world’s tallest female econoblogger,” just published an interesting take on Brijit on her blog Asymmetrical Information over at The Atlantic. A good deal of virtual ink (and some real ink, too) has been spilled about Brijit since we launched 6+ months ago, but Megan’s the first one to dig into the economics of our writers’ area. To wit:

“The Brijit concept… take people who have time but no money, and marry them to people who have money but no time. Or rather, pay the people who have a lot of time on their hands to read stuff, and then tell the people who have money but no time what they really need to look at, and what they can safely skip.”

I met up with Megan a few weeks back near our offices here in DC. She is, indeed, quite tall. She also grasped intuitively how Brijit has created a system to take advantage of a classic arbitrage opportunity created by information overload. Nice.

Digg for the Rest of Us

In brijit, editorial, publishing, social media on Wednesday, 16 April 2008 at 11:17

As a user, I find Digg worthless. Whew. It feels so good to say it out loud!

Of course, as the CEO of a small-but-growing online media company, I’d give my left pinky toe for Digg’s traffic. But I don’t find the site helpful, and I’d be reluctant to put my name on its virtual masthead, because so much of what floats to the top of Digg is, well, crap like this.

This isn’t me being an elitist, mind you. I love Digg in theory (communism works in theory, right?); the idea of a community of individuals working independently to promote great content is actually near and dear to my heart. But in practice, Digg as it’s currently constituted is no meaningful filter – it’s little more than a sieve. Sure, you’ll find an occasional gold nugget – but you’ll spend hours in hip waders with your hands in the muck trying to find it. And the irony is that the bigger Digg gets, the less valuable it becomes, because more and more muck is being poured into the system.

This reality means Digg is part of the information overload problem, not part of the solution. The signal-to-noise ratio has deteriorated to the point that the filter needs a filter. And doesn’t that defeat the purpose? I mean, who’s got the time?

As it turns out, we do. At noon Eastern today, Brijit will begin covering Digg. Digg, you ask? Alongside the New Yorker and This American Life and The Daily Show and Pitchfork? You bet. There’s great content there, and in the context of Brijit, we think Digg can be a valuable resource for the rest of us, busy people without the time or the inclination to go story-fishing in an ocean of crap.

Brijit takes Digg’s most popular, pulls out the most interesting and substantial items, and sets our community of smart readers, writers, and editors to work boiling them down to 100 words or fewer. And while we’ll credit that we found it in Digg, every abstract links back to the original source, to save you time.

We’re also adding coverage of YouTube and Techmeme today, for different reasons. YouTube has a high clutter factor, too, but it’s search-driven in a way that Digg isn’t, which makes for a better experience for the casual user – you dive in, find what you’re looking for, and hop out. Here the Brijit abstract serves more of a serendipity and discovery function for people with neither the time nor the inclination to visit YouTube every day. As for Techmeme, it’s a pretty terrific algorithmic filter, valuable in almost every way, and we think that a wider audience of non-tech folks would appreciate some of what bubbles up there each day, in a shorter format.

So there you have it. Brijit is covering Digg, YouTube, and Techmeme, so busy people don’t have to work so hard. We hope you’ll let us know what you think.

Are We Really Still Talking About the Merits of Linking in 2008?

In brijit, editorial, publishing on Monday, 31 March 2008 at 14:05

It was all I could do not to write a headline laced with profanity, such is the depth of my frustration. (My colleagues talked me down.)

Brijit has enjoyed a great run of mainstream media visibility over the past couple of months, by pretty much any standard. We were on the cover of the Life section of USA Today, the lead example in a piece titled Services cater to our speeded-up lives.” We got a nice mention on MSNBC in a story called “How to dig out from the information avalanche.” And last week we appeared in the April issue of Wired, which identified Brijit as a prime example of The Human Touch,” one of “nine trends driving business in 2008.” Great stuff for any company, especially a startup like ours. Just one problem: none of these actually linked to www.brijit.com!

Now, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but these particular masters of mainstream media are killing me. According to Comscore, MSNBC had 28 million unique visitors in January. USA Today’s sites had more than 8 million, and Wired 2 million. These are big brands with big audiences, the kind of audiences that entrepreneurs like me would ordinarily salivate over. If some small fraction of these audiences finds its way to one of these articles, and some small fraction of that fraction clicks through to visit Brijit, and some small fraction of that fraction likes what they see, sticks around, and shares Brijit with their friends, well, that’s a big deal for a site like ours. Which is why it’s so enraging to be written about but NOT linked to.

When we launched late last year, it was a piece by Frank Ahrens in the The Washington Post that brought us to the world’s attention. More than four months later, we continue to see a trickle of referrals from this story. Why? Because on first reference, there’s a link to Brijit. Now, The Washington Post is about as mainstream as mainstream media gets, but they get it. This isn’t complex neuroscience. This is common courtesy. Hell, this is the Golden Rule we’re talking about: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If you’re a publisher, you want other publishers linking to you. If you’re a reader, you want easy access to whatever it is you want to read, listen to, or watch. It’s pretty simple. So what, exactly, is wrong with USA Today, MSNBC, Wired, and the host of other outlets that still haven’t instituted link-friendly standards? Are they so desperate to keep people on their sites that they’re willing to treat their readers with such disrespect? Do they think not linking is the key to consumer satisfaction? Really?

I know this is well-worn ground. It’s pretty common knowledge at this point that the link is the coin of the realm online. The blog as a medium is built on a foundation that linking is good. So is Google. So is Yahoo!. And so is Brijit. And when Tom Rosenstiel, who supervised The State of the News Media 2008 report for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, goes on Bob Garfield’s On the Media and declares that “your website should be a way-station, a place that can help me get to where I want to go. If it were a dead-end street, a cul-de-sac, it would be less useful to me,” you’d think that everyone was on board.

They’re not.

Brijit in Wired!

In brijit, editorial on Tuesday, 25 March 2008 at 9:10

The April issue of Wired magazine is online, with a big piece on their 9 big trends for 2008. Number 9? “The Human Touch,” featuring Brijit as the lead example of “ventures that are using people, rather than algorithms, to filter the Internet’s wealth of information.”

Whither the Wisdom of Crowds? Of course not.

In brijit, editorial, publishing, social media on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 at 14:53

I never thought I’d write these words: Thank you, Commander Taco.

CmdrTaco is the screen name of Rob Malda, the 31-year-old founder of slashdot.org. Slashdot, for the uninitiated (i.e. most of us), is a pioneering technology news community, a self-styled “News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters.” site.

So why the shout out? Yesterday Brad Stone wrote in the New York Times’ Bits blog that Malda’s skeptical of the mainstream value of Digg and other wisdom-of-crowds aggregations sites. Malda’s rationale, is, well, rational:

“I try not to paint Digg as my arch-nemesis. The Digg method and Digg community are a wider audience than Slashdot,” he said. “But with sites like Digg, it’s the wisdom of the crowds or the tyranny of the mob. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Put aside the dig at Digg, and CmdrTaco is reminding us that no single form of aggregation holds all the answers. Hence the shout-out here.

There’s extraordinary power in user-generation. From Amazon recommendations to sharing a la Digg or Deli.cio.us, the wisdom of crowds can be an incredible tool.

Of course there’s value in the algorithm. Google uses straight-up algorithm to put relevant information at our fingertips, and its worked out pretty well for them, and generally, for us.

And traditional top-down editorial control is excellent, too. Check out the Sports Illustrated or the Wall Street Journal or The Daily Show, and the value of professional, editorial control becomes pretty clear.

So why, in a world where we have such terrific aggregation options, would anyone settle for just one kind?

Well, more and more, we’re not. A host of companies, including Brijit, are making some variation of a hybrid production model part of their core businesses. We think that’s good news for lovers of great content.

Paying Writers Based on Traffic Is (Mostly) a Race to the Bottom

In editorial on Thursday, 3 January 2008 at 12:11

Plenty of virtual ink is being spilled over the new pay scheme for writers over at Gawker Media. Nick Denton and company are replacing their pay-per-post model for paying bloggers with a salary-plus-traffic-bonus model. According to the internal memo posted on Valleywag, the change is meant, in part, to incentivize the creation of quality content. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Scott Karp does a nice job elucidating the “cons”:

“The downsides of this approach are obvious — the incentive rewards content that is salacious, titillating, slanderous, nasty, etc. — anything that appeals to the base interests of a mass audience. It rewards gaming of social news sites… And of course it rewards search engine optimization … with headlines written for search engines rather than people. “

The “pros” are a little harder to discern. Mathew Ingram seems willing roll the dice:

“[I]n the long run it is likely to make them more intimately involved in their blogs, and more interested in developing a relationship with their readers, and that’s a good thing.”

I’m skeptical. Yes, there’s something to the idea of relationship-building IF the bloggers in question are sticking around for years. But is that really the universe we’re talking about? What’s the average tenure for a writer with a blog network gig? And will this mythical writer actually put more money in his pocket doing an extra-special good job then he might have churning out commodity volume-filler posts?

Of course it’s important to have a strong relationship with one’s readers. But in the end it’s the editor’s responsibility to make sure that the blog owns that relationship. Individual voices are eminently brandable, and can become great businesses. But the biggest content businesses brand businesses, not bloggers.

Dan Blank’s headline, The War Against Mediocre Online Editorial Content, is tough not to love, because we’re all sick of the flotsam and jetsam that pollutes the web’s waters. He rightly points out that “[t]he recognition that the web is is now littered with news and commentary is the key here.” But I think he’s stretching with his assertion that “Gawker is taking a measured step to bridge the gap between blogger and journalist.”

Professional journalists don’t get paid individually based on circ numbers. In fact, compensation based on individual performance would be a disaster for most working writers — it’s the publications (Web and print doesn’t much matter here) to which most readers have fidelity.

Now, that doesn’t mean the occasional rock star journalist won’t make bank. They will; but it’ll be on the back end of building an audience, and come in the form of higher salaries, book deals, speaking engagements, and the like. But these are the exceptions to the rule (and even then their rewards come only for producing a meaningful body of work). It’s not the same thing as Gawker’s traffic-bonus model. Not even the same sport. Denton and company are doing something interesting, but it’s almost the complete antithesis of bridging the gap between bloggers and journalists.

As Scott Karp notes toward the end of his piece, “[w]hat the web lacks most right now is a content filter that adheres consistently to a high standard of quality.” I think that’s absolutely right. Fundamentally, it’s why we’re building Brijit. But we don’t believe paying your writers based on traffic is the way ensure quality. Combining the best aspects of algorithm, user-generated content and traditional editorial control allows us to control for quality. Pay-for-traffic, more often than not, is a race to the bottom.

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