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October 2008

Publishers Google a new business model

Geoffrey Precourt

This is one of a series of edited extracts from the American Magazine Conference 2008. Other articles cover:

For full coverage of the American Magazines Conference 2008, visit our conference blog.


It was the fitting close to the 2008 American Magazine Conference (AMC) in San Francisco: a trip to the Google campus in Mountain View, CA. The venue was a 45-minute bus ride away from downtown and a light year or two from the present.

The event had the tone of an American college homecoming weekend: grizzled past heroes still strutting with pride from their glory days but, in truth, looking a step or two slower than the current crop of students.

The unspoken sub-themes of the AMC had resonated from session to session. Although the specific references may have been different, in broadest terms, the messages were the same: our time has come, and it may be gone.

The publishing model is at least broken, if not damaged beyond repair. The economy is slamming us, but no one was predicting a return to a cheery magazine future even in a recovery. Editors are no longer charged with bringing brilliance to a page; their new 21st Century role is as curators of community-driven information that lands in their laps in need of distillation and organization.

It's not as if all the messages were so dire. After all, pointed out the Magazine Publishers' Association president/ceo, Nina Link, there were some upsides: loyal audiences attracted by "trusted, filtered content"; brands that assembled "vast communities of people with like-minded interests"; the ability to target audiences and interests; and "readers who take action when they are exposed to an ad."

But, the simple, whispered truth was that digital media does all of that – and much, much more. And unlike print publishing, digital is unfettered by postal-rate increases, paper-cost hikes, and an uncertain metrics system that more and more often leaves advertisers begging for more.

Any number of AMC visitors had been kind enough to mention how much they liked magazines – the long-form depth of reportage, the tactile satisfaction of a publication well written and well designed, the predictability of a great product occupying a predictable spot in a reader's life with each and every issue.

But, as Eric Schmidt, Google chairman/ceo, told us: "The evidence is not good for magazines."

In fact, he added, "the future is not good at all for consumption of print."

For the publishers and editors in attendance at the Mountain View meeting, there was a glimmer of hope from the Google leader – "Magazines are different and better than newspapers" – but even that touch of optimism was filtered through the filter of Schmidt's digital reality: "Print will become a small component of online businesses put together for people who want to consume that way. But it will be expensive."

As yet, Schmidt volunteered, the worldwide web is not a fully viable alternative to the kind of content delivered by traditional media: "We're co-dependent on content and the internet is a cesspool. We try to get a really good product, but if the quality of content declines, people will not come to digital media."

"Infinite rumors, misinformation, and disinformation – that's what the future of the internet looks like today. We've gone from a world where only a few people could publish select material. Now anyone can publish anything and that's a major shift … And you have to counter it."

To deal with day-by-day misinformation, Schmidt continued, Google has an immediate response team. For the longer term, however, he looked back at a traditional marketing model: brand nourishment and development.

"Celebrities rise and fall," he explained. "Brands cause you to stay. Real brands – as opposed to starlets and crooks – persist. That's the real message of hope … Brand affinity is clearly hard wired. It is so fundamental to human existence that it's not going away."

Brand development at a place like Google, Schmidt told the magazine industry group, "is a process of continuous innovation. We don't know when it's going to occur. Our cycle is bottom and we deal with [change] as it comes. Essentially, we believe that putting more information in the hands of more people is valuable. Google looks to represent the way people want to consume, not how they should."

To that end, Schmidt did identify a window for magazines: "We don't do content. You all create content. It's a natural partnership." Indeed, he added, "the quality of content has never been higher. It's the nature of how people behave that has changed."

And that usage leads back to brands: "Engagement still matters," he said. "Without your help, we're not as successful as we could be."

And, while he did not present any specific course of action, he encouraged his visitors to learn the Google way of doing (and creating) business: "If you want to find out what are the issues people care about, you innovate and make mistakes. That's the only way to do it … On the internet, you can get big very quickly; you also can get bad very quickly. But if you learn from your mistakes, you can provide end-users with value; you can provide advertisers with value."

The AMC session with the Google chairman/ceo was largely a question-and-answer event. And, aside from some of the longer narratives that dealt with meta-media considerations, Schmidt did have some quicker observations on a variety of topics:

About the author:


Geoffrey Precourt is the US Editor of WARC Online.

You can read his reports from American Magazines 2008 and other recent marketing events at WARC's conference blogs.

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