Magazines and their Web sites

FishbowlNY reported yesterday that Conde Nast will be restructuring its site, which is the online home of both Details and GQ magazines (and once, the late Men’s Vogue). This is probably good news for the world of magazine Web sites, but why did it take until 2009 for a major magazine company to get its act together online? It seems that of all print media, magazines have been the worst at figuring out what the Web is for.

In 2000, I began my journalism career as the first-ever web editor for Architectural Record, a b-to-b for architects (and a bit of a crossover to the consumer world, since you can actually buy it on newsstands, too). But that’s not to say that I created the Record site. It certainly already existed when I stepped in, and it was mostly a marketing site–come here to sign up for your subscription. And I also can’t say that I had too much luck in changing it. Sure, we posted most of the magazine’s content each month, but we also abridged all of the feature articles so that web readers would “want” to buy the print edition. The site’s designer, Susannah Shepherd, our production manager Laurie Meisel and I all tried for literally years to bring some interactive features to the site–polling, a forum, even just slideshows–but we did everything by hand, including comment moderation. Our process: the “comment” link was actually a “mail-to” that sent comments to my email. I read them, moderated, and emailed them to Susannah, who would then open the html (this was all done in straight html), paste in the new comment, and send the revised page live to our server. It was archaic even for 2000 or 2001 or 2002.

And we weren’t alone. At the time The Atlantic had a decent site, but they were pretty much the only magazine that had figured out what to do with the web. Even The New Yorker, that classiest of magazines, had only a subscription marketing site. (Then again, The New Yorker is a Conde Nast property.) Record did eventually do some pretty cool stuff: 3-D walk-throughs; photo galleries; user-submitted content; an adjunct online-only magazine about the intellectual side of architecture… But it was always a struggle to get this stuff up. It was Susannah and her father, Roger Shepherd, and Laurie and myself–not the publishers of the magazine–who got this stuff done.

There is something about the magazine form that makes the web anathema. What is it? On the one hand, it could be the lumbering corporate parentage of these publications. Record is owned by McGraw-Hill. From 1999, The Atlantic and its robust web site have been owned by the much smaller National Journal Group.

Maybe, more positively, it’s just the tactile, aesthetic nature of magazines. As an architecture magazine, Record focused on large-format glossy photography, and that just didn’t look as pretty online in the early 2000’s. And there is something very nice about holding a magazine that the cheap newsprint of a newspaper doesn’t come close to matching. Magazines are also a much more permanent form of journalism, something that some people stockpile or curl up with over a week or a month. The Kindle might be the future, but it’s still not the same to curl up under a blanket with one. And they’re still black and white.

In February, one of my journalism school mentors, Victor Navasky, now the Chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, announced that CJR would be launching a large study of the relationship between magazines and their Web sites. The CJR study will be a survey (funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation), and it should reveal some interesting trends. But I’d also like to study this as history, in more depth. Someone needs to tell the story of why magazines were so slow to embrace the Web.

I’d be more than happy to receive other suggestions for the answer to that why.

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