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“We are a magazine of 5,000-word essays. No one wants to read that on the screen,” says James F. Hoge Jr., editor of Foreign Affairs, in a recent talk at Columbia University. He was remarking on the degree to which the internet has forced magazines to re-evaluate the way they conceive of their readership. His conclusion: “We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

After seeing the kind of attention and visitors that ForeignAffairs.org attracted, Hoge said that his web staff now meets every six months to see how it can become more responsive to this slice of the journal’s audience. The magazine has implemented a new “vision” for the website almost yearly, and the site’s biggest revisions, including the possibility of taking down its subscriber-only wall, will come this year.

Many journalists regard the internet as an advancing glacier: inexorable and likely to end life as they know it. But while glaciers are noted for their slowness, the internet is known—and sometimes feared—for its speed. Within three decades, it has grown from a network of military bases and universities to a nigh-ubiquitous system that seems poised to do away with the printed page.

Newspaper journalists are particularly quick to lament this coming apocalypse. And with good reason: Newspaper circulation is in a downward spiral, and budgets and staffs are being slashed accordingly. Advertisers, the major source for most papers’ revenues, have flocked to the web, where they can better target their ads to readers who can often purchase the product in question with a few clicks. The classified-ads section, that long-time staple and cash cow of newspapers, has been all but destroyed, single-handedly, by Craigslist.org.

So newspapers have turned to the web for salvation. Many have put all of their content online for free and bank on online advertising for a new stream of income. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal recently increased access to their subscriber-only sections, with The Times making almost everything in the paper free online.

Magazine editors and publishers are under less pressure from the internet than are their brethren at newspapers—but they do know an opportunity when they see it. Hoge didn’t arrive at his willingness to end his magazine’s pay-for-content policy out of desperation, but rather a desire to better connect with readers.

According to the Magazine Publishers of America, nearly 70 percent of consumer magazines now have a website, and this growth has not come at the expense of printed products. “The surge in online traffic to magazine websites is taking place while readership of the core print brand has grown over the last several years,” said Nina Link, MPA president and CEO.

Although most magazines have embraced the internet, there are, because of the wide variety of purposes and styles among them, conflicting ideas about what kind of website is in a publication’s best interest. How much content from the print side should be available? Should magazines charge readers for access? How rapidly should it be posted and how long should it remain online? Should magazines commission original work for their websites and, if so, how vigorously should it be edited and fact-checked?

Essentially, magazines must decide whether to run their websites just as websites or as extensions of their print products. While both media deal with the mass communication of the written word, they require different skill sets—and mentalities. And it’s clear that the jury is still out on the best way to proceed.

Magazines continue to scout out this relatively new terrain. In the process, they have adopted a variety of models, reflecting the diversity of their printed products. These models cover a broad range of complexity, scale and scope; magazines like Harper’s, The New Yorker and Wired bring different resources, both financial and technological, to the table. But these three examples are just that: examples from a wide spectrum of possibilities.


Harper’s

Harper’s Magazine, one of the oldest and most-respected publications in the country, provides few reasons for nonsubscribers to visit its website. Aside from a smattering of some of its famous sidebars, none of Harper’s print content is available without entering a code from a subscriber’s mailing label.

There are, however, a few regular online-only features that are free for all: “Week in Review” (a collection of hyperlinks done in the free-association style of the print edition’s back page), editorial cartoons by Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth, and two blogs—“Washington Babylon,” by Harper’s Washington editor Ken Silverstein, and “No Comment,” by contributor Scott Horton. These blogs, with new posts almost daily, read like short- to mid-length magazine articles, a departure from the hasty punditry that usually characterizes the genre.

For subscribers, Harpers.org represents plenty of added value to the print edition. The site features Harper’s archives in their entirety—no small feat for a magazine more than 150 years old. With a pantheon of legendary writers, including Mark Twain, Robert Frost and Norman Mailer, there is ample reason to delve into Harper’s past. And with each page scanned in as a .pdf file, the site resembles an academic or scientific journal and serves as a potent research tool for those willing to pay. Among those who do pay are libraries and universities, which purchase site licenses.

OpinionArchives, an independent archive development and management company that also works with The Nation, Scientific American and The New Republic, sets the pricing guidelines for these licenses, which start at $500 per “seat” (the number of users who can have access at once). Rates are calculated on a sliding scale, based on the size of the institution. A large university might pay $5,000 for the first year of access to Harper’s, though it can get discounts for longer subscriptions or bundles that include other OpinionArchives titles. “We try to formulate a model tailored to a customer’s needs,” says Joe Collins, OpinionArchives’ CEO.

This is a tried-and-true business model for academic journals, though that is little consolation to the reader who clicks through three links to find a specific article in the current issue, only to be greeted by a gigantic “SORRY...” and a link to the subscription page. The site’s explanations of why this happens are equally direct. One suggestion: “Your institution’s site license may have expired.” The solution? “They need to pay up.”

All of this content is highly regimented, as if the Harper’s website were implemented by machine. This is more or less the case, and at the controls is one man: associate editor Paul Ford. “I built the site and also edit for the magazine,” says Ford. “Because it’s one person running things, there is no reason to have a separate division. The site is just another part of the print magazine.”


The New Yorker

In contrast to the one-man show that is Harpers.org, NewYorker.com is a network of editors, producers, techies and designers.

I should know. I’m one of them.

I started interning as an assistant web producer in January 2008, two months before the first anniversary of the site’s relaunch, an overhaul overseen by NewYorker.com editor Blake Eskin. It was long overdue: The last major upgrade to the site had been in 2001. “A year ago, you couldn’t find anything over a week old when you searched the site,” says Eskin. In addition to the needed functional changes, the site underwent a conceptual transformation. “The objective was to make a website that has the look and feel of the print product,” he says.

Eskin and company went about this task with a combination of effort and technological ingenuity—such as the bit of code that drops a random New Yorker cartoon into each article page—producing a redesigned site that shares a content management system with other Condé Nast’s magazines. This is a piece of software that makes page design easier through the use of templates, which means trading flexibility in presentation for efficient consistency. And because all of these sites use the same advertising servers, they all must be built with the same sized gaps into which the ads can be placed.

However, NewYorker.com is nimble when it comes to what content to feature. With the exception of two or three of the magazine’s feature stories, all of each week’s print articles make their way online. A different story leads the home page every day, and multimedia content like podcasts and animations are linked to related articles. Keeping those few feature stories exclusive to print readers is important. “We don’t want to tell people that the value of our work is zero. We want to sell some magazines, too,” says Eskin. “Plus, some articles are better enjoyed in your chair for 20 minutes.”

Translating a weekly publication to the web has its advantages—most importantly, a fresh stream of content to keep visitors coming back for more. The disadvantages lie in trying to keep up with editorial mechanisms designed to put out a pristine printed product, not a website.

The New Yorker does want to use the rapid pace and wide reach of the web, and so it has a handful of blogs written by some of its regular contributors, such as George Packer and Hendrik Hertzberg. But unlike most blogs, The New Yorker’s are often edited and fact-checked before being put online.

These kinds of risk/reward decisions are the product of serving two masters, one wanting the fluidity of the web and the other wanting the solidity of print. Though Eskin is primarily concerned with reproducing the overall flavor and style of the physical New Yorker on the web, he is more and more willing to play to the internet’s strengths in certain situations, such as the fact-checking of blogs. “Running things through the same heavy machinery as the rest of the magazine doesn’t always work,” he says. “A blog can be corrected in the same place; it happens in time, and there is informality, authenticity.”

Eskin is more cautious about reader comments. The dominant paradigm on the internet today is Web 2.0, a design mantra that suggests that user-generated content is king. Prime examples of this are social-networking sites such as Facebook.com, and wikis like Wikipedia.org, where the proprietors provide little more than the structure and tools for users to add whatever content they wish. More traditional media outlets have tentatively started adopting this framework, thinking that allowing their website users to comment and communicate with one another builds a community, which encourages users to return.

But the lack of blog comments is in keeping with The New Yorker’s polished image; the participatory effluvia that characterize internet forums are not welcome. “We had forums on previous versions of the site,” says Eskin, “but it became garbage space and we took them down.”

Instead, Eskin talks about the “quiet, meditative relationship” that New Yorker readers have with the magazine, and doesn’t think that it can be fully replicated on the computer screen.


Wired

Taking the elevator in Condé Nast’s Times Square building one floor down from The New Yorker’s offices, one finds Wired’s. This would be the epicenter of a complex, dynamic magazine website…if Wired’s site were actually produced there. Instead, it exists as a far-flung network of people—some on staff, some freelance and some in between.

When Condé Nast acquired Wired, it had to purchase WiredNews separately. Then known as HotWired, it published technology coverage (and some of Wired’s content, under terms of contract predating its purchase) until July 2006, when Condé Nast spent $25 million to reunite the site with its magazine.

The website is now “Wired’s home on the web,” and it allows subscribers to manage their subscriptions and read some of the print magazine’s articles online, including the cover story, two or three features and most of each issue’s shorter pieces. Otherwise, its content is generated by a legion of bloggers and freelance writers. The website has 16 blogs; some are exclusively the domain of noted authors like Bruce Sterling, but most have multiple contributors.

Brandon Keim is one of four such contributors on the Wired Science blog, specializing in genetics and biotechnology—and the occasional freaky animal story. He is a freelancer who works from home (actually, a rotating series of coffee shops) and is paid per post. “I’m on contract, which is more or less a de facto employment position, except it’s on a different pay scale, with no benefits,” he says. “Blog posts are a whopping $12.”

During the year that he has worked for Wired.com, the atmosphere and direction of the publication has changed as a result of the attitudes of the reunited web and print divisions rubbing off on one another. “The cultures were remarkably different; what they are finally doing now is trying to merge the two,” says Keim. “They want to conceive of blogs as ongoing content generators, but also as a reflection of the reporting process of the magazine.”

This means that Keim is encouraged to make his posts more like mini-articles; he is no longer expected to churn out between six and 10 a day. Whereas he might have spent half an hour on each item a few months ago, his posts now take him four times as long.

But because Keim still receives the same compensation per post, he faces a dilemma. “If I spend two hours on a post, I’m essentially making $6 an hour. “There’s no reason to do any sort of depth on anything.” He would rather take the time to offer more detailed analyses, but “doing ‘The top 10 reasons why it’s great to be a biologist’ is just easier.”

Keim’s posts attract a following of readers free to comment on his work and vote on the value and relevance of other commentators’ comments. Keim is free to moderate this discussion, though he elects not to spend his time on that unless someone is being particularly abusive. And with virtual shouting matches sometimes occurring over notions such as the existence of God, one can see why he would make that choice, or why web editors like Ford and Eskin would rather avoid it altogether.

Conclusions

So who is the winner here? Harper’s traffic is the lowest, but it also has the least overhead. As a nonprofit organization, it is under less pressure to make its website a self-sustaining commercial entity. Wired’s site is the largest of the three, but it employs the most people and thus risks diluting its editorial voice the most.

There is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. Wired does not have the decades of legacy and brand establishment of Harper’s or The New Yorker, but the latter two don’t have the advantage of covering a beat that explicitly caters to the internet-using demographic.

As more journalists reared on the web enter the back offices of publications like these, they will continue to more easily adjust to this shifting landscape. Raw technological power is no guarantee for success; instead, these editors will have to find the right balance between speed and polish, freedom and control. They may even surprise themselves by learning not only what their audience wants, but also that they can actually give it to them.

 



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