Who are you calling old?
Kind of like your grandmother going on Facebook, magazines that lived through prohibition and many wars have not let the digital revolution stop them. Some of the staple American thought-leader-type magazines ― the ones that harbor a sort of literary nostalgia ― have been reinventing themselves for the digital world, using slightly different tactics.
Decades after launch, these magazines have found themselves competing with more online-only publications such as Slate or Salon.com. So far, it seems that the ability of centenarian (or nearly centenarian) magazines to adapt to new platforms has enabled them to surpass the average magazine lifecycle. But will their digital strategies be enough to stay afloat for another century?
I looked at three classic cultural American magazines (with different audiences and publishing structures) to compare their digital strategies.
Thought up in 1857 by a group of New England minds including Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Atlantic Monthly (as it was called) started as a “journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts." Today the topic coverage hasn't changed but The Atlantic also offers a full-blown daily news site; its homepage title reads “breaking news, analysis and opinion.”
The Atlantic has essentially reapplied its brand to fit more into the instantaneous news cycle. The Atlantic's online focus is not on repackaged print magazine content. Unlike some other cultural magazines, it has even dumped its paywall.
So far the strategy seems to be working. Last month The Atlantic announced that its website reached new traffic and revenue highs, thanks to a focus on a high quantity of original and immediate traffic, said Jay Lauf, vice president and publisher of The Atlantic and TheAtlantic.com.
Like most digital publishers, TheAtlantic.com has a robust social media presence, most recently adding support for tumblr to the mix. The publisher also has released iPhone and iPad apps to extend its mobile presence.
"We are putting resources behind developing applications and just making sure that we are going to be on every platform,” Lauf said last month. "I don't think you're going to find moss gathering on The Atlantic."
The New Yorker
While The Atlantic's strategy seems to be more of a reinvention online, its fellow literary magazine The New Yorker (which is 85 years old), is more tentative about adding “daily news hub” to its brand.
The Conde Nast publication is mostly behind a paywall, but publishes a wealth of free online-only content, including multimedia and blogs. The online content is mostly supplementary to the magazine's long-form stories, although the publisher dabbles in the extremely short-form worlds of Twitter and tumblr.
Web Editor Blake Eskin explained in a May interview with Sparksheet that the website's business goals are to raise awareness of stories in the magazine and generate subscriptions. About multimedia content, he said: “Some of it is giving people a taste of what they’re missing, some of it is supplementing the magazine experience, and some of it is about reaching a more international audience. The New Yorker is not a magazine for everybody, but I think we have to make sure to reach the audience it can reach, and the Web is a great way of doing that.”
In June, Editor David Remnik defended The New Yorker's digital strategy during a time when there's pressure to be more of an aggregator and breaking news site. "Sometimes I look at other magazines and I've seen that they have become more like everything else ― more like everything else online ― and that diminishes the overall," Remnik said, as reported in The New York Observer. "That is something also that I did not want to do. In my mind, The New Yorker is a mission and a cause and has a very deep responsibility."
While Remnik and crew aren't changing their content focus, they do offer New Yorker content on more platforms. The publication has an iPhone app and will be coming out with an iPad app this fall. In an interview with Big Think in April, Remnick said: “Most of our readers at this point still think the best technology for reading it is on print. Those proportions will inevitably change.”
The New Republic
Another cultural magazine, The New Republic, seems to fall somewhere in between its long-form brethren The Atlantic and New Yorker when it comes to digital strategy. The publisher tries to preserve its magazine brand online while also strategizing ways to use new platforms, potentially with new products.
The New Republic started a three-tier paywall in April and recently added free blogs. Editor Frank Foer said in the announcement of the paywall: "Our long-form journalism is the product of intensive reporting and extensive editing, an incredible investment of time and resources. When it appears in print, we put a price tag on it― and we're committed to doing the same online."
Similar to The New Yorker, The New Republic counts on loyal readers to pay for long-form journalism. Similar to The Atlantic, the site also focuses on daily content online. The New Republic site even syndicates content from AOL News.
So far the strategy seems to be working. The 96-year-old weekly reported increasing traffic and revenue over the first half of 2010.
While the publisher has iPad and iPhone app, The New Republic takes a measured approach to mobile strategy, not exactly diving in to add bells and whistles like some magazines and instead focusing more on a long-term mobile strategy.
“We really want to be smart about making investments ― not doing it just for the sake of being there and growing audience,” Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, The New Republic’s executive director of strategic marketing, said in a July interview. “We look for projects that we can pretty safely project a good return.”
At the recent The Magazine Mobile Imperative luncheon, Mike Rancilio, publisher and chief operating officer of The New Republic, said the publisher is considering using mobile to do a “leapfrog extension” into a new product, but they haven't determined what that is. “We definitively do not want to do what we do as a print magazine and directly translate that into a mobile product,” he said.
The Pitch blog by The Kansas City News recently published a humorous piece reimagining classic American stories for the digital age. For instance, the famous magazine piece “Frank Sinatra has a Cold,” published in 1966, might now be a tweet: "@GayTaleseEsq RT @OldBlueEyes: I'm feeling kind of sniffly. Think I may be coming down with something."
Cultural magazine publishers might not be going to that extreme, but they've certainly gone beyond simply doing long-form narrative journalism. What do you think? Are long-time cultural magazines catching up to the culture around them ― or will they be left behind?