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8020 Publishing

A Tale of Three Communities

Posted by Derek Powazek on 31 October 2006 (Essays)

One of the many gifts of our increasingly networked world is the diminishing boundaries between communities. And the magazine business is about to get hit by a boundary-blurring tidal wave.

It's already started. What's the difference between NBC and Joe Everynerd on MySpace or YouTube? They're all just usernames - each with an equal chance of getting seen. The traditional roles of content creator and consumer have been irrevocably blurred.

Magazines, on the other hand, still have very high walls between their writers and readers. The writers and editors enjoy the illusion that they do something no one else can. The readers, then, have only one job: to consume the product.

But if the internet has taught us anything, it's that the world is full of people who know a lot more than you do about something. Think up any niche and you'll find a site out there, powered by some lone geek, with everything you ever wanted to know. Whether it's knowing what's cute or how to build a monorail, it's all out there.

The internet has also taught us that when all those people with all those diverse interests come together, they can pool their knowledge together to make amazing things. Think Wikipedia or Digg. Given the right tools, crowds can truly be wise.

The magazine business was built on scarcity and inequality. The editors guarded the gates of the printing press to make sure that only the best ideas got in. They had to - there was only so much paper.

But online, there's a scarcity of scarcity. Web pages, unlike paper, scroll to be as long as they need to be. The gatekeepers have no mandate here. And, as a result, we've seen a flowering of authentic media the likes of which the world has never seen.

The online world has created a culture of creation among ordinary people. Meanwhile, magazines are still partying like it's 1899. Writers write, readers read, and never the twain shall meet.

Simply put, this can't last.

Magazines need to open their doors to their readers. Instead of thinking of writers and readers as two separate communities, magazines need to realize that they really only have one community: the people who give a shit about their magazine.

Traditionally, magazines have three communities they care about: readers, writers, and advertisers. The readers (or "subscribers") are the largest audience. A magazine's goal is always to grow this audience to be as large as possible, since the bigger the number, the more the magazine can charge the advertisers. Oddly, though, the reader community is given the fewest tools (you can subscribe and, uh, subscribe some more) and the least access (write a letter to the editor and maybe we'll read it).

Conventional wisdom in the magazine biz is that revenue from subscribers is a write-off. You're much more valuable as a subscriber to increase ad revenue than to actually pay for your subscription. This is why you can subscribe to most mainstream magazine for less per issue than it costs to get the issue to you. But the result of these economics is that you, as a subscriber, are the least important person in the equation. The only part of you that's valuable is is your eyeballs, and only when you're looking at ads. Is it any wonder, then, that most magazines treat their subscribers like sheep?

The second community is writers and editors. This exclusive club is tolerated only so long as they pull in readers, but it's a tiny fraction of the size of the reader community. As smart and talented as this group might be, they could never be as smart as the reader community, if it was properly empowered.

The third community is advertisers, and here is where the power really lies in the magazine publishing biz. Advertising is where the vast majority of the revenue comes from, so it's their interests that are served. The smallest community has the most access, and their primary motivation has nothing to do with the health of the reader community or the integrity of the writer community. All they want to do is have as much impact on the reader as possible.

Is it any wonder that magazine readership is down industry-wide? The most important community is the least served.

Here at 8020, we want to change the way magazines get made. We believe that our magazines don't have three communities, they have one. And within that community, there will be different layers. Some people will mostly consume, and that's okay. But they should always know that the day they want to contribute, or even advertise, they can.

Then there will be people who want to contribute. But, of course, those people also consume. That's why they want to contribute! So all they need is the right interface to contribute. If I learned anything in my research for Design for Community, it's that good content is the best fertilizer for online community.

There's another community segment that's very important in this recipe: The organizers. These are the people who want to rate and blog, comment and tag. These are the people who vote on JPG submissions right now - the very same people who "Digg" and blog and bookmark on other sites - and they're hugely important to the lifeblood of the web. Of course, many of these organizers don't just organize: they also create. That's just another reason to treat the magazine community holistically.

Then there are the advertisers. We're not anti-advertising, of course. We just think that they should be as involved in the community as everyone else. If they really want access, they have to pay for it by contributing to the health of the community. In JPG, our first program to do this is Sponsored Themes, where the sponsor gives the community another chance to get published. Our next issue features the Embrace the Blur theme, which is sponsored by Lensbabies. And, at the end, they're going to give brand new Lensbabies to the people who get published. This is the kind of community involvement we want to inspire - and it's just the beginning.

And finally, there are the editors. (And here I'm speaking as the editor of JPG.) We editors are just going to have to get over ourselves a little bit. We have to admit we're not always the smartest person on the net. When you treat your writers and readers as one community, your job becomes less about being the arbiter of everything and more about being a good community manager. Your role is to inspire, encourage, and assist the community in producing the magazine.

Some great things happen when these three communities become one. You can no longer treat your readers like sheep, because if you do they'll leave. When your community makes your magazine, you have to give them as much respect and reward as you give your editors (that's why we pay the people we publish in JPG). You can no longer tell advertisers one thing and the readers another (a development advertisers should love). And you can no longer limit the power to contribute to just your writers. Everyone has a voice, and the ability to help sort the good from the great.

The internet has empowered a generation of media consumers to become media producers, and the result is unquestionably awesome. It's time to take that empowerment and awesomeness into the magazine world. It's only a matter of time.