Thursday, July 02, 2009

(This was shamelessly stolen from Jeff Chang's Blog at because it was too brilliant not to share with y'all....sorry Jeff, I love you!!!)

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009
The Death of Vibe And The Future Of Magazines :: A Roundtable with Alan Light and Raymond Roker

Vibe’s death yesterday sparked conversations across the blogosphere about the future of magazines, especially the kind many of us most care about–urban culture and music magazines. I wanted to surface one of them here.

It began with a Twitter post that reposted to my Facebook account. Here was that original post (re-rendered into something resembling proper english).

Jeff Chang: I could live with a smaller media landscape–but we need that middle between 1m+ circulation mags and circs of less-than-100,000 zines back.

And who should reply but Alan Light.

Alan was one of my first editors at Vibe. (He actually did me the favor of sinking a horrible Tribe Called Quest piece I did, easily the worst interview I ever did…a long story for another time.) Alan started at Rolling Stone and went on staff there from 1989 to 1993. He moved over to become Music Editor at Vibe in its inaugural year and took over as Editor-in-Chief the following year, where he worked until 1997. He edited Spin from 1999-2002, then broke out to start a new magazine called Tracks.

Tracks is a really interesting story. It launched with independent capital in November 2003 with a circulation of about 150,000. It targeted readers from 30-50, a bit of an older audience, more white than not. This group was thought to be the holy grail of the dying music industry–they were folks who actually still bought music. The writing got better, they started moving more urban (Prince was on the cover at the time of “Musicology”) and they built an audience, doubling their circulation.

But by April 2005, they folded. The magazine industry had shifted dramatically. The middle–as in all media and entertainment industries, hell, in American society–could not hold.

Let’s pick this up where Alan responded:

Alan Light at 1:00pm June 30
you have no idea how right you are…well, ok, you have some idea. but take it from one who’s been there – it has become almost impossible to make that model work. which is awful, because it’s obviously the most interesting place to be.

Jeff Chang at 1:33pm June 30
Damn Alan. That hurts to hear from you because I know you know this better than anyone else. I’m sure in fact it hurts you more.

Alan Light at 1:35pm June 30
no more, no less – we’re all out here together. but you isolated the exact right issue, in all types of media. you can be mega or you can be niche, but very difficult to play in between. magazines, movies, music…all the same drill.

Jeff Chang at 1:54pm June 30
Yes. How do we get it back? My first gut instinct is stronger anti-trust enforcement, but that’s just one side of it. Plus how does one begin to reverse consolidation? After all it’s a global thing. I worry we come out of the depression and the big are still bigger and still stepping on or casting long shadows over the seeds of the new stuff. You all have any ideas?

Jeff Chang at 10:40am July 1
(crickets) Haha! Oh well, fam, we all stay grinding.

Alan Light at 10:43am July 1
All you say is correct – but it’s a market issue more than a legislative one. On the one side, it’s too expensive to produce “old” media without sufficient ad/sponsor base, and on the other hand – though we love the democratizing part of “new” media – until it can be monetized, how does a single outlet get enough visibility to feel like it has any impact?

Jeff Chang at 10:56am July 1
Alan, is there any middle ground at all to be found? Is it possible to concoct a web/print model that can diversify income beyond ad/sponsor revenues? E.g. For what it’s worth, and forgetting how I feel about it for a second, most of the mags I know in the high10K/low100k circ realm have become quasi- or real marketing agencies.

Alan Light at 11:01am July 1
I honestly don’t know – can anyone point to an example of such a business that’s working? I didn’t get enough time or runway with Tracks to really learn any conclusive lessons. And that was pre-web-takeover, anyway.

Another question someone asked me yesterday that I couldn’t answer: Who’s winning? Who in the media space, print or web, is gaining any ground at all?

Jeff Chang at 11:04am July 1
I guess I think of magazines like URB, The Fader, and Juxtapoz, and Swindle as businesses that are working. But again, there are a number of ancillary units working there aside from the content work. All of them have massive marketing arms. Juxtapoz is part of the Upper Playground clothing/street art business. Swindle is part of Shepard Fairey’s empire.

But yeah, media qua media? Not so much…

Alan Light at 11:07am July 1
if anyone sees this who works with any of those, please chime in. but my understanding is that the magazine parts of those companies do not make money – but rather are a good investment in terms of visibility. as a kind of calling card for the rest of the operation where the profits are. Raymond? Andy? You guys out there?

And here’s where my man Raymond Roker, my very first editor-in-chief at URB Magazine jumped in.

Since 1990, Raymond has built URB from a free tabloid newsprint broadsheet into a magazine whose circulation is now 50,000. “But,” he says, “I believe that the model for 2010 is smaller still. And with more direct to consumer distribution. The newsstand market will continue to deteriorate and be hostile to indie mags. The decline of big titles make it even tougher for the newsstand business, so real estate could be harder to find. Plus, I don’t believe in the lowest common denominator of the newsstand marketplace. I’d rather go directly to potential readers.”

In order to survive, URB has branched into marketing in a big way over the past decade, now offering these services, according to Raymond: “creative direction, Web promotions, custom media/custom publishing, music consulting, viral video production and seeding, experiential marketing.” The website relaunches next month. Back to our conversation…

Raymond Leon Roker at 11:27am July 1
I agree with Alan for sure, the model is not workable in its current state. Just look at Paste–a “perfect” model in terms of great audience, good advertisers, and plenty of bells & whistles (CD, added value programs, sponsored events, etc). And look at Vibe now–how does *that* not work anymore?

The advertising model is broken because not enough marketers believe in it from a traditional (read: old media) vantage. They don’t believe in the metrics of it or the effectiveness. Except in massive terms a la Oprah, In Style, etc. And even that at aggressive CPMs, more akin to Web numbers.

The Web promises (in theory) a perfectly delivered demo with measurable metrics and perfect data. And the CPM efficiency is akin to the largest mags in many cases.


Raymond Leon Roker at 11:32am July 1
The ways us smaller print brands have a chance is to become boutique agencies. Filter, Cornerstone/Fader, BPM, et al, everybody is in the agency game. The magazines become the branded company pitch. A measure of credibility and clout.

But as print continues to melt away, in the eyes of clients and under the weight of constantly increasing production costs, some of these brands may drop their mags too.

The assumption is that magazine brands, if they walk away from print, can’t survive. That hasn’t been proven one way or another yet. But IMO, the only way they will is by becoming media marketing companies instead. Ones where content and marketing blur (hello ASME). But the standalone magazine model died years ago.

Alan Light at 11:34am July 1
there’s a pretty key “(in theory)” in there – all this is true about the web but are even the larger web outlets able to monetize effectively? what is Pitchfork’s business?

I will tell you what will drive me crazy until my grave – when Vibe came up for sale a few years ago, why would nobody major step in and grab it? It was a total category leader, virtually unchallenged in a desirable space, and had an 800K circ with absolutely no spending behind it – one push by a real company and it’s a million without breaking a sweat, plus a brand built to extend beyond the pages. Why did it not even get a long look from one of the big publishers?

Raymond Leon Roker at 11:37am July 1
I can’t a answer why the big publisher’s didn’t look at it. Unless they ultimately didn’t understand or believe in “ethnic” media. That’s the only answer I can fathom given the numbers and apparent opportunity.

Jeff Chang at 11:45am July 1
Uh first off what’s a CPM? And to both of you, I feel like we moved from a mini-consolidation phase–Spin + Vibe merging–to a VC phase. Are either of those to blame for Vibe’s closing?

Jeff Chang at 11:46am July 1
And I note the irony of looking at VIbe as ‘ethnic media’ when the urban category was invented by Black marketers and other marketers of color to get beyond that box…

Alan Light at 11:51am July 1
First, publishing is a terrible place for VCs to be, the return is too slow and too gradual. And are there other examples of consolidation other than Vibe/Spin?

And FYI, I don’t know how these numbers developed over the years, but in the years I was at Vibe it was amazing how close a 50/50 split we had in black/white and in male/female readership. Which was a bit of a problem until sales team were able to convince people it was a strength.

Jeff Chang at 11:58am July 1
Re: that’s so telling on the ad tip. And so when Wicks Group bought Vibe the writing was on the wall?

Alan Light at 12:00pm July 1
who knows? i mean, i guess there was cause for concern if, as i said, no magazine companies wanted in. i can’t comment on the state of things as of time of sale, long after i was gone.

Raymond Leon Roker at 12:04pm July 1
CPM = cost per thousand. Sorry. Term for what a marketer is paying per thousand people/eyeballs reached. The lower the better, for them.

Jeff Chang at 12:07pm July 1
So what do we all do now?

Jeff Chang at 12:08pm July 1
After all this, I won’t be offended if the sound now is of (crickets).

Alan Light at 12:08pm July 1
from my end? i don’t miss being in the editor’s chair right now, so i am spreading my bets and working various projects in various media and very happy with the juggling act.

Raymond Leon Roker at 12:25pm July 1
We embrace the new. Don’t lament too much on the past. There will always be old media support groups and once URB’s archive site goes live, you can relive the rave scene virtually

But today, it’s about social media, shared content, multiple distribution channels and creative financing.

Good night and good luck.

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