Vanity Publishing will Rescue the Print Media

The circulation of print magazines has declined precipitously in the last few years. This dissolution of subscriber bases has accelerated dramatically as economic recession set in. But a diminishing wealth effect is only partly to blame. The managements of printed periodicals – from dailies to quarterlies – failed miserably to grasp the Internet’s potential and potential threat. They were fooled by the lack of friendly and cheap e-reading devices into believing that old habits die hard. They do – but magazine reading is not habit forming. Readers’ loyalties are fickle and shift according to content and price. The Web offers cornucopian and niche-targeted content free of charge or very cheaply. This is hard to beat and is getting harder by the day as natural selection among dot.bombs spares only quality content providers.

Still, the print media rely on a defunct business model: ad-financed content aggregation. Content producers (known as journalists or reporters) are paid for their professional work (their writings). Editors then assemble this output and homogenize it. Finally, these articles and op-ed pieces find their predestined place in rigid, spatially-delimited rubrics in the paper or magazine. Both pillars of this strategy are crumbling: advertising dollars have shifted decisively “below the line” (into word-of-mouth and loyalty campaigns, for instance) and content is now prodigiously produced by prolific bloggers and what CNN calls iReporters. Vanity online publishing trumped traditional print publishing.

The print media should jump on the wagon: they should solicit contributions from citizen journalists, bloggers, i-reporters, and e-columnists. These content providers are likely to be satisfied with a mere byline for their remuneration (seeing their name in print!) Having thus cut their costs by leveraging the public’s vanity, newspapers and magazines will be able to concentrate on customer relations (via their internet properties and social networking tools) and on what they do best: coherent aggregation, contextual commentary, and communal branding.

Outside the box, there are other solutions and models.

Consider Ploughshares, the Literary Journal.

It is a venerable, not for profit, print journal published by Emerson College, now marking its 37th anniversary. A few years ago, it inaugurated its web sibling. The project consumed three years and $125,000 (a grant from the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds). Every title Ploughshares has ever published was indexed (over 18,000 journal pages digitized). In all, the “website offers free access to over 3,500 poems and short stories from past and current issues”.

The more than 2000 (!) authors ever published in Ploughshares maintain a personal web pages comprising biographical notes, press releases, new books and events announcements and links to other web sites. This is the Yahoo! formula. Content generated by the authors has thus transformed Ploughshares into a leading literary portal.

But Ploughshares did not stop at this standard features. A “bookshelf” links to book reviews contributed online (and augmented by the magazine’s own prestigious offerings). An annotated bookstore is just a step away (though Ploughshares’ web site does not include one hitherto). The next best thing is a rights-management application used by the journal’s authors to grant online publishing permissions for their work to third parties.

No print literary magazine can beat this one stop shop. So, how can print publications defend themselves?

By being creative and by not conceding defeat is how.

Consider WuliWeb’s example of thinking outside the printed box. Its timing was bad – immediately preceding the bursting of the dot.com bubble. But, the idea was sound.

Wuliweb (owned by AirClic) is a simple online application which enables its users to “send, save and share material from print publications”. Participating magazines and newspapers print “WuliCodes” on their (physical) pages and WuliWeb subscribers barcode-scan, or manually enter them into their online “Content Manager” via keyboard, PDA, pager, cell phone, or fixed phone (using a PIN). The service is free (paid for by the magazine publishers and advertisers) and, according to WuliWeb, offers these advantages to its users:

“Once you choose to use WuliWeb’s free service, you will no longer have to laboriously ‘tear and share’ print articles or ads that you want to archive or share with colleagues or friends. You will be able to store material sourced from print publications permanently in your own secure, electronic files, and you can share this material instantly with any number of people. Magazine and Newspaper Publishers will now have the ability to distribute their online content more widely and to offer a richer experience to their readers. Advertisers will be able to deploy dynamic and media-rich content to attract and convert customers, and will be able to communicate more completely with their customers.”

Links to the shared material are stored in WuliWeb’s central database and users gain access to them by signing up for a (free) WuliWeb account. Thus, the user’s mailbox is unencumbered by huge downloads. Moreover, WuliWeb allows for a keywords-based search of articles saved.

Perhaps the only serious drawback is that WuliWeb provides its users only with LINKS to content stored on publishers’ web sites. It is a directory service – not a full text database. This creates dependence. Links may get broken. Whole web sites vanish. Magazines and their publishers go under. All the more reason for publishers to revive this service and make it their own.

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