As ossified as newspapers can be about adopting the latest Web technologies, magazines are even worse. When I started doing work for magazine Web sites a few years ago, I was shocked at how digitally backwards they were—even compared to newspapers. They just couldn't see past the print model. And it hasn't gotten much better since—can you think of more than a couple of magazine Web sites worth looking at regularly?
Now Bivings Group is reporting on the same phenomenon. Bottom line: "Newspapers fared better than magazines in nearly every category in 2007," Bivings says (and newspapers didn't do so hot). "In general, we have found that magazines are slower at adopting Web 2.0 trends than newspapers." Blogs? Magazines trail newspapers. Video? Newspaper sites lead. Comments on stories? Magazines are behind the Times.com. And so on. The only thing magazines seem to do better, Bivings reports, is allowing tags on stories—and those numbers, in both cases, are so small that they look like rounding errors.
The world of magazine publishing is even more rarified than newspapers. It's much less geographically diverse, and there's a level of elitism that would shock most newspaper newsrooms. There's also little culture in the magazine industry of sharing resources and know-how, unlike newspapers, which have the AP and news syndicates and active staff-level industry organizations that foster the exchange of ideas. Magazines are just a little above it all, and therefore it's been easy for them to pooh-pooh the Web and cling to the old ways (among publishers, the book industry is even more moribund, but that's a tale for another time).
What's most frustrating about this is that magazines are natural homes for the best Web 2.0 features. Because most magazines cover specific, vertical subjects, they speak to audiences that share interests in a given magazine's topic. Those audiences are perfect spawning grounds for online communities, bringing together magazine readers who want to talk to each other about gardening, or cooking, or model railroads, or crafts, or sports, or cars, or whatever the magazine is about. It seems like a slam dunk, but very few magazines are taking advantage of this opportunity to really connect with their audience—and to help the audience members connect with each other.
Jeff Jarvis touches on this potential today in his post about the demise of Business 2.0, which could have been a great online community-cum-publication, but instead is dying a miserable death as a print publication whose primary audience, ahem, lives its life online.
In many ways, the magazine industry is facing the same challenges as newspapers: fragmenting audiences, rising costs, declining advertising. Over the years, magazine publishers have proven a willingness to experiment and take chances—in print—that far outstrips the print innovation practiced by newspapers. But the action is moving online, and magazines have always lagged there, as the Bivings report confirms. There's a huge opportunity for magazines to convert their special-interest audiences into thriving online communities, and it looks like they're blowing it.