A year ago, I discussed the strength that magazines gain from their relationship with readers and the quandary of whether Web-based "magazines" could succeed. My key question: "How can an online artifact establish the same relationships as a good magazine?" I asked another question in passing: "Is it possible for a non-print magazine to succeed?"
Pure digiphiles would say those are silly questions. The argument being: Anything you can do in the real world, you can do better digitally. Some print magazines are pushing the question by offering paid online versions that claim to be precise replicas of the print versions. But by now, most thoughtful people should be aware that content and physical carrier are related in complex ways, just as content and context are linked in complex ways.
After I excerpt part of last January's disContent for those of you who don't save back issues, I'd like to offer a case history that could have provided an example of a successful non-print magazine—if it had succeeded.
When you subscribe to a magazine, you begin a relationship: You pay a modest sum in advance for which the publisher sends you an interesting package at regular intervals. If you like the package, you may pay more attention to advertising in its pages, which is what really pays for the magazine, and you will keep renewing your subscription. The publisher can show demographic data to advertisers and guarantee a certain minimum exposure; advertisers can work in a medium that minimizes "viewer" dissatisfaction and maximizes the possibility that advertising messages will get through. Everyone wins.
That simple equation may be why new print magazines continue to be introduced. There are always ways to carve out new areas of reader interest and new approaches to serve readers in existing areas. If everything works well, a new magazine becomes a member of enough extended families to succeed in the long term.
You can tell a lot about a magazine's relationship with its readers by its standing columns and its letters pages. If there are no columns, there's less predictability and warmth. If the magazine doesn't publish letters, it cuts off the feedback that helps a relationship grow (and if it doesn't get letters, then perhaps the content doesn't engage the reader sufficiently to warrant that interaction). But when there is a relationship, and when the magazine carries out a major redesign or refocus, the letters pages will show the warmth—frequently in the form of heat. When our friends change unexpectedly, we have to cope with it; if we're not thrilled about the change and the "friends" aren't people, we're likely to be vocal about our unhappiness. And when true friends disappear, we're a little sad.
How about DVD? At a minimum of 4.7GB, there's enough space to include the equivalent of a magazine, along with as many multimedia bells and whistles as you want. Production costs may be higher than audio CD and CD-ROM, but pressing costs aren't much higher and you can mail a DVD first class in a Tyvek sleeve for 37 cents.
InsideDVD appeared in December 1998 as a double-barreled experiment: Not only a DVD magazine, but also a freebie, supported entirely by ad content. You signed up for each issue on the Web site to get it free, or you could buy a $24 subscription for 12 issues including Amaray cases. Each issue included magazine content on one side and a complete feature film on the other. I learned about InsideDVD after three or four issues had appeared and put in a $24 subscription to follow the experiment.
The quarterly appeared in December 1998, Spring 1999, Summer 1999, December 1999, and December 2000. Then it changed to an asserted bimonthly schedule and required payment, with issues appearing in March 2001 and October 2001. The October 2001 issue was a bifold cardboard case, not an Amaray box, and it came with Total Movie & Entertainment Magazine, a print magazine. The "DVD magazine" experiment had failed.
Will the combined magazine survive? Your guess may be better than mine. I find the print magazine annoying, with a sneering juvenile editorial attitude, a hatred of romantic comedies, and noticeably few pages of ad copy for a full-color magazine. It's an expensive indulgence at $40 for a six-issue subscription. After bimonthly issues through June/July 2002 (regularly, for a change), the bundle has gone monthly. To try to entice new subscribers and convince old subscribers to stick around, they offer a "starter collection" of 40 DVD movies free. Eventually, some six months after the offer, they delivered the 40 freebies on 20 double-sided DVDs. They're a strange mix of schlock, public domain "classics", mediocre transfers, and movies of possible interest—one's even wide-screen! There are some gems in the pile, and the company continues to offer the set as a subscription bonus.
InsideDVD started strong on the movie side, with Telling Lies in America, The Big Squeeze, and Infinity in the first three issues. Things slowed down during the infrequent issues (including a nearly unwatchably bad transfer of the 1935 Scrooge), and recent issues have included made-for-TV romantic comedies and some true-indie flicks, movies made on a frayed shoestring. The mag says it will include movies such as Species and When Harry Met Sally in future issues.
At first, InsideDVD tried for original content. There's still a bit of that, but mostly the "magazine side" of the DVD is trailers, featurettes from DVD releases, music videos, and other promotional material. As a bonus with a print magazine, that's fine. As a true magazine in its own right…well, there's no magazine there. On my first "monthly" copy, the magazine side of the DVD wouldn't play at all. That may not be meaningful. But when you can buy re-released major studio DVDs for $7 at Target or Tower, I wonder whether $6.60 each for random movies combined with trailers and music videos will appeal to many fans.
Prove Me Wrong
As before, I invite examples of successful commercial non-print magazines, either online or in other media. Send examples and your commentary to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nobody responded to the January 2002 challenge; maybe 2003 will be different.