Ground Control to Magazine Publishers…

“Stop trying to be your competitor media, like cable. Be you.”

That’s solid advice from Steve Smith writing in Folio:, in which he urged magazine publishers to realize they are NOT TV networks. The way forward as a publisher is to focus on the core strengths that magazine brands already have, rather than trying to transform themselves into something they aren’t – and probably shouldn’t try to be.

“Okay, granted, thine own self has some significant challenges facing it,” writes Bob Garfield in a follow-up article, also in FOLIO:. He likens the current “transformation” of media brands in multi-channel experiences to the Apollo 13 disaster, where the astronauts had to cobble together a solution to keep breathing in their disabled spacecraft.

“It’s a whole industry saying, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ But Steve is correct that salvation doesn’t lie in trying to turn the crippled spacecraft into, I don’t know, Uber,” Garfield continues. “No, siree. Salvation, if it lies anywhere, is in that cardboard box.”

That box he’s referring to? If you saw the movie you’ll remember; it was the box of items dumped onto the table in Houston that the ground crew had to work with to create a solution the astronauts could replicate in space.

Magazine media brands have specific things in their cardboard box, and that’s where to start to build a modern publishing solution. According to Garfield, the “box” contains these items:

  1. Vertical audiences – “There is nothing—nothing—more valuable, in either the analog or digital worlds than community. The trick is to identify your community and cultivate it, coalesce it, connect it, empower it and imbue it with a sense of unity and identity. While also serving its interests,” he notes.
  2. Brand identity – the brand name itself is, as Garfield reminds us, one of its best assets, even in down markets.
  3. Archives – Using Disney as an example, Garfield notes that “each title owns the collected wisdom of the aforementioned communities going back years or decades or a century in some cases.”
  4. Expertise and trust – U.S. News, for example, has taken its expertise as a news magazine and leveraged it into special interest annuals on categories like higher education and healthcare; they own those niches from an authoritative point of view.
  5. Addresses – One word: Subscriptions.
  6. Talent – Garfield believes publishers have lost their way when it comes to recognizing and promoting the individual talent on their teams. “Where are the stars? Where is the promotion? Where is the understanding that the power of the brand (see above) derives ultimately from the power of the content? Back in the day, writers and photographers were the very oxygen of the process,” he asks.

The moral for publishers? It’s time to come back to earth – solid magazine journalism that feeds strategic subscription and publishing models – using the components in that cardboard box, instead of reaching for the stratosphere of new media models.

“Yeah, Apollo 13 got back to Earth on the strength of resourceful minds making the most of duct tape and tube socks. But that never would have been necessary had NASA paid more attention to the oxygen,” he concludes.