|Once seen as a repository for repackaged print stories, breaking news and incremental ad dollars, the magazine website is taking on an increasingly broader role in the modern publisher's business strategy. While publishers obsess over the growing importance of social and mobile, or the decline in print advertising, the website is slowly evolving into the center of the modern media company's universe.
We're seeing this trend in the growing number of publishers adopting digital-first strategies. The latest is MIT's Technology Journal, whose publisher and editor-in-chief Jason Pontin announced its digital-first switch this week. "The website will be the complete repository of everything we publish," Pontin said in a blog post. "For us, print will be just another platform (to use the jargon of software development), and by no means the most important."
Pontin expanded on the potential of leading with digital: "Most simply, we feel we can better serve our various audiences on electronic platforms: we can do smarter and link-y journalism, design more beautiful and interactive experiences, and create higher-value and unique advertising opportunities for agencies and their clients. For us, digital first is a mode of being that promotes innovation and excellence."
A new Web publishing model
More innovation means more opportunities for growth - and a potentially dramatically new web publishing model.
"I don't think there's any doubt that the website is becoming more important and that we're putting resources into it. It's clear we're making big investments," Nicholas Thompson, editor of newyorker.com, told Capital New York.
The numbers for some publishers support the website's growing importance. Bonnier's Popular Science received a lot of press for the success of its iPad edition. But its website quietly increased monthly unique visitors from 1.7 million to 2.3 million over the last six months of 2011, according to its Consolidated Media Report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Unique visitors to Inc.com increased 35 per cent between February and March; Gourmet.com's UVs increased 36 per cent for the month, and Meredith's Fitness grew UVs by 28 per cent over the same period.
When social media sites like Twitter say they're expecting $1 billion in revenues in two years, it's clear that magazine publishers have to aggressively ramp up strategies to keep ad dollars flowing to their sites - while also exploring ways to grow non-ad revenues. Magazine websites are becoming a hub not just for content, but for topic-focused communities that integrate journalists, readers and, yes, advertisers.
We're seeing more examples of innovation born out of these types of industry disruptions. "The economics in journalism are broken, and there are lots of experimentations taking place," Forbes' Chief Product Officer Lewis Dvorkin told Poynter.
Redefining Web content
Forbes is driving much of this experimentation with its model for "incentive-based, entrepreneurial journalism." Poynter's Jeff Sonderman captured the success of the approach to date:
"Forbes is swimming. The Forbes.com audience doubled in the past year to 30 million monthly unique users. ... Forbes may be on to something here."
Sonderman notes that the model "embodies David Weinberger's famous model of the Web as a whole - small pieces, loosely joined - by coordinating many independent voices under the brand power, technology and financial resources of Forbes."
Jeff Jarvis has long been beating the drum about the need to rethink journalistic traditions such as the article within the context of the Web. A recent post calls for breaking up the article into "assets" and "paths":
"A story can be made up of many assets. Once separated, the storyteller has the opportunity to present - and the reader to take - many paths through them. The expert in a story can go straight to what's new and then leave, saving time having to look for the fresh nuggets among all all the space-filler that used to make up an article. The novice can start with the background, then read what's new, then delve into the characters and timelines, then explore examples and arguments. The article becomes sets of assets and paths."
These paths can open up new doors to long-form journalism - long considered anathema to web publishing. Capital New York recently wrote about Narrative.ly, a new site that plans to publish just one story a day, with a twist: "The editors will solicit feedback and submissions from readers throughout the week, culminating in a curated melange of user-generated content by the time Friday rolls around," Capital's Joe Pompeo writes.
"The key insight is this idea of following one storyline from Monday to Friday," Jarvis told Pompeo. "If that works, it would bring a level of engagement that most news sites don't have."
Redefining the journalist/reader relationship
The Narrative.ly strategy highlights how the relationship between journalists and their readers are evolving into something that's more collaborative. Along these lines, publishers are exploring more ways to turn their websites into community watering holes or exclusive meeting places among people with like-minded interests. Not just for consumption of content, but for real group conversation - something that can't be done on a smartphone or tablet, which are inherently personal devices.
Pontin said the biggest change in Technology Review's digital-first model "is the development of a new relationship between our most devoted readers and Technology Review." To give readers "some skin in the game," Pontin is exploring a new membership model that could give paying members a range of benefits: fewer ads, commenting privileges, conference discounts, meetings with editors, or even a chance to sit in on journalists' interviews.
Forbes has pushed the traditional boundaries of the reader/journalist relationship by embracing readers as writers - putting a business spin on citizen journalism. In 2011, 1,000 external "content creators" churned out nearly 100,000 posts. Not surprisingly, the quality of these contributed pieces varies greatly, but the greater point is this: these contributors are driving large volumes of traffic and are becoming part of a broader and deeper Forbes community that the publisher is betting will increase engagement and brand loyalty.
Redefining the advertiser/reader relationship
Forbes contributor program also extends to advertisers, who can publish posts alongside staff editorial content through Forbes' AdVoice program. AdVoice represents an opportunity for marketers "to tell their stories and to share their expertise around their areas of business," Mark Howard, Forbes Media's SVP of digital advertising strategy, told Folio.
Of course, some see this as a complete crumbling of the wall between advertising and editorial. But the reality is that publishers are betting that audiences are becoming more open to marketing messages that are delivered in context and actually provide some type of useful information. It's a refinement of the publisher's role as facilitator between the audience and the advertiser - and a way for publishers to decrease their reliance on online display advertising.
"We are building out ad solutions that fit well within the context of the editorial," Tyler Goldman, CEO of BuzzMedia, told me in describing a key element of his company's business strategy. "We want to make ads meaningful within the sites to give marketers a much better chance of engaging our audience."