Magazines, bound for digital

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Last week I shot video and stills for Magazines Canada at its annual MagNet 2014 conference. The event brought together just over a thousand magazine publishers, editors, writers and business folks to discuss what they'd been up to, drink at sponsor-hosted mixers and speculate what digital means for an industry awash in glossy stock and discount mail rates. I got to eavesdrop on a lot of the buzz and biz talk.

Here's one of hot topics: smartphones and tablets. Panelists in a session shared what Rogers, The Walrus and St. Joseph Media have learned about putting their publications on tablets. A couple of things jumped out at me here. The Google Play store (for Android devices) wasn't a great place to sell magazines. The real moneymaker was the Apple Newsstand and Apps Store. This is interesting because, in Canada, Android devices are starting to overtake Apple phones and tablets. But, other app developers have seen the same thing. Android users tend towards free apps. Apple users open their wallets.

And, after the panel Larry Wyatt of St. Joseph Media told me that if he were developing mobile magazine experiences right now he'd probably skip tablets altogether and go after smartphones. That's a fascinating observation because we're starting to see more and more people using large phones (over 5.5 inches) as not only a replacement for laptops, but as a substitute for tablets. In fact, a recent OfCom survey found that the device that most users aged 34 or younger would miss most would be their smartphone, not their tablet or laptop.

This is going to be tricky for magazine publishers since the "big ass" phone market, to date, has been the domain of every other smartphone maker but Apple. That means that the most profitable digital newsstand is owned by the one manufacturer who doesn't make a phone the size that is dominating the user base. If Apple does release a large phone later this year, that will make things a bit easier but the dichotomy illustrates how fickle the market is and how hard it is for publishers to find a "holy grail" that will deliver a solid, profitable product to a wide mobile audience.

Second, brand extensions. Most magazines started life as print-only, editorial products. But, at the conference, publication after publication proudly announced itself as a business that sees a magazine as only one revenue stream, and not necessarily the most important one. In fact, Matthew Blackett of Spacing used the conference to announce that it was pairing its editorial offices with a storefront. The storefront (at 401 Richmond in Toronto) will sell Spacing-branded, Toronto-centric items like the magazine's popular subway station buttons, T-shirts and other urban design products. Imagine, even a few years ago, a newspaper or magazine putting its editors in the same room with a store. Back then it would have made about a much sense as putting them in the same room as a free bar.

Spacing also makes a good deal of its revenue from hosting events. So does Toronto Life and The Walrus. In fact, Shelley Ambrose, the executive director and co-publisher of The Walrus said that the Walrus Foundation makes about a third of its revenue from events. And Toronto Life editor-in-chief Sarah Fulford works hand-in-hand with event planning to make sure the Toronto Life brand is properly represented and extended.

And finally, video. M. Scott Havens, the senior vice president of Digital Time Inc. kicked off the conference with an unambiguous call for magazines to embrace mobile and to disrupt the $75-billion video advertising. "So, we all need to get over there, those of us who have a brand that can use video," he told his audience. He said that Time Inc. has 15 recurring shows in production now with 30 additional ones they are considering.

Prior to taking the reins at Digital Time Inc., Havens headed the transformation of The Atlantic from a magazine with a 156-year history into an online brand that also makes great use of video. And, it's no slouch in the live event arena either.

So, smartphones, brand extensions, storefronts and video. Odd stuff for magazine folks to be discussing. But it was clear that the magazines that really want to survive understand they're in a business that puts out a magazine and a lot more. The ones who cling to their tree-based roots? They won't be putting out a magazine for much more.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Sean Winters/flickr

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