As a specialist in magazine websites, I do a lot of thinking about why people like magazines, and whether that special something is transferable to the web. I also do a lot of thinking about what web-only properties do especially well, and how print magazines are evolving with online behaviour in mind.
A fantastic series on “content farms” like Demand Media currently running on PBS site MediaShift has had me thinking about these kinds of things a lot more. And the latest piece, “Don’t blame the content farms“, really solidified some of the issues for me.
Question: Why do you read what you read?
Are you looking for specific information? Entertainment? Education? Interesting articles on topics you’re interested in?
In the pre-internet age (remember?), print media could and did fulfill all of these needs for readers. But with the ubiquity of the web – and especially of search – some kinds of information have become superfluous in print. Pure news, for instance, is next to useless in print. (I’m not talking about analysis.) And a lot of service pieces are becoming that way, too.
Let’s look at an example. Bon Appetit magazine has a lot of recipes. And they follow the seasons with a lot of them. But you may have noticed that aside from the annoying habit of, say, August issues coming out in early July, most Americans get fresh local peaches at least several weeks ahead of us in Canada. So for me, it takes weeks if not a month or more for Bon Appetit’s “seasonal” recipes to actually be in season. I’m not blaming them for this. But it makes it a big hassle for me to organize magazines and recipes. And why do it that way when I can just search for what I want online?
Bon Appetit is trying to give its readers what they’re looking for. But the problem is that readers aren’t always looking for those things when they’re reading the magazine, or when they have the magazine available. (Maybe I’m at work looking for a dinner recipe using fresh peas, and my magazine is at home.) More and more, the competitive advantage magazines can offer to readers isn’t specific and searchable information, but targeted and curated information – the kinds of articles you didn’t know you’d be interested in until you came across them and read them.
Is there really a greater reading pleasure than immersing yourself in your favourite magazine on the day it arrives in the mailbox and following the editors’ suggested journey through the issue, absorbing new ideas along the way? Or in picking up a magazine from the newsstand based on one cover line, only to discover an amazing article you didn’t know would be there?
To me, it’s this immersive experience, combined with incidental reading, that makes a magazine a magazine. When I read Runner’s World, for example, I want to enjoy myself. I want information on being a better runner, of course, but I also want to be inspired to run more, and to read about other runners, and to learn about things that only the specialists – the editors at Runner’s World – can share with me. I want to read that really long profile of the person I’d never heard of before. I want to learn about a fun race in a city I’ve never been to.
This magazine experience isn’t only available in print, although it works better that way (so far) because there are less distractions. But more important, the web search experience doesn’t work well in print. So when you’re creating your magazine, don’t try to recreate the web. And above all, don’t give your readers what they’re looking for.
Give them what they don’t know they’re looking for.