June 9th, 2008

What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web


Since I already drilled a nerve with What Newspapers Still Don’t Understand About The Web, which is on its way to becoming one of my most linked posts ever — and since everyone loves a sequel — I thought I would do a follow up for magazines. The lessons, of course, apply to every print publisher, who constantly discovers new ways to frustrate web users by prioritizing print over web.

This time I’m going to pick on The Atlantic, which like the Washington Post is a publication I have a great deal of affection for (published by my former employer Atlantic Media), so this is not a general critique but rather a very specific example representative of a much larger industry-wide problem (i.e. I could find instances of the same problem on virtually any magazine website).

It started this past Saturday when a friend (also a former Atlantic employee) emailed me asking me why I hadn’t mentioned my quote in the Atlantic’s latest cover story by Nick Carr. I responded saying I had no idea I had been quoted.

I immediately when to TheAtlantic.com, where I discovered that the current issue was still the June issue, and that the July issue with Nick’s cover story still hadn’t been posted. This is a common practice among publishers who make early receipt of the new issue a benefit for print subscribers.

But by doing that the publisher basically thumbs their nose at web readers and violates a fundamental principle of the digital age — if a user knows your content exists, but can’t access it, the result will be frustration or worse.

The Atlantic already made a brave move by following NYTimes.com and removing their paid subscriber wall on the website.

But still in this instance the print subscriber had access to content that, despite the power of the web, I couldn’t access.

To make matter worse, I stopped by Borders on Sunday to see if they had the July issue — physically driving to a location to obtain content that already existed in digital form seemed ludicrous. But I was willing to pay for the print issue (and probably would have read more than Nick’s article once I had it in hand).

Sadly, on the rack I found the June issue, just like on the website.

I joked to my friend by email about the frustrations of being unable to access content in the digital age. He offered to fax over the article… or 8-track tape it.

So I resigned myself to waiting for it to go up online, which I knew it would shortly.

This afternoon, I saw on TechMeme a link to this CNET story about the Atlantic article. Great, I thought, it’s up online.

It’s not yet on the Web, but the July issue of The Atlantic has an exceptional and provocative article by Nick Carr, asking “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Being a web user on a mission, as most are, I didn’t bother to read the sentence — I just clicked on the link and found the same June issue.

This is ridiculous, I thought — here is a someone who has access to the article and wants to link to it, but can’t. And here I am, a consumer eager to read the article, and I can’t. Wall-to-wall frustration.

But guess who stepped in to save the day… can you guess?

This afternoon, I received a email from the Google alert ego feed for my name:

Google Alert Atlantic

Another print publisher trumped by Google.

But it gets even worse.

I clicked on the link in the email which took me to the article, which is in fact online. Actually, the whole July/August issue is online.

It’s not linked on TheAtlantic.com homepage yet, as of this writing — and it’s not on the current issue page.

Atlantic June 2008

But Google knows it’s there. Google knows everything. And most importantly, Google gives me what I want, even when print publishers, still trying to balance demands of two entirely different modes of publishing, choose to prioritize print over web.

The web is Google’s first and only priority. That’s why they are beating the pants off of every legacy media company on the web.

But wait, there’s more.

I found the section of the article where I was quoted, unbeknown to me, because Nick lifted it from one of my blog post. In fact, it’s in a section about bloggers who have commented on the issue at hand.

But there’s no links to those posts. So readers have no opportunity to see my quote in context, which was a post called The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought.

There are other links in the online version, so additional links may be added before it goes live. But most print publishers have no editorial process in place for converting print content to web content, e.g. putting in links, which leads invariably to a frustrating web user experience.

If publishers want to maximize value on the web, they have to put the web first every time — that means you can’t just take what you create for print and dump it on the web, regardless of the cost efficiencies, because you’re destroying value for web users.

If a user can’t find what they want going straight to your site, the next time they are going to go straight to Google — and Google will capture the value of that content distribution.

But this story has one last delicious drip of irony. Nick agues in the Atlantic article, with his usual brilliance, that Google and digital media is actually changing the way we think — to our detriment.

I agree with Nick that the way we think is likely changing, which is what my post was about. But I don’t know that I agree with Nick’s pessimism that the change is for the worse. Yet the way I’m quote in the article, it leaves open the possibility that I agree with Nick that the change is negative.

When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

But if you read my whole post, you’d find the following:

What I’d be most curious to know is whether online reading actually has a positive impact on cognition — through ways that we perhaps cannot measure or even understand yet, particularly if we look at it with a bias towards linear thought.

If anything is making us dumber, it’s that we’re betwixt and between old modes and new modes of both information and thought.

The irony of The Atlantic’s print article is that by bounding the reader into a box where they can’t seek more context, and worse, by being the antithesis of the digital media experience that Nick describes, it becomes irrelevant to its own thesis.

Fortunately, if you take my quote from the print article and put it into Google, you can find my post — and the missing context.

I’d say in this instance, Google actually made me smarter.

If publishers followed Google’s example, they’d be smarter, too.


Lot’s of people are now discussing Nick’s article — although mostly they are discussing the CNET post ABOUT the article, because the article itself is not online — I’m guess Matt Asay is a print subscriber, who couldn’t wait for the article to get up on the web to start talking about it.

Atlantic Techmeme

It’s great to give print subscribers an advance look at the magazine — except those subscribers have blogs, and they don’t really want to keep with the print-centric program. They want to talk about it NOW, not when it finally shows up on the web. Matt even scanned in the brilliant cover:
Atlantic July August 2008 Cover


You can find all of The Atlantic’s July/August 2008 issue content indexed by Google News here, which is how I got the Google alert.

You can embargo the newsstand, but you can’t embargo Google, which is the new newsstand.

Comments (34 Responses so far)

  1. Scott-

    I was thinking the exact same thing today. Strange…

    I usually read magazines online (except for Harper’s and a few others I’m forced read in the library or flip through in airport newsstands).

    I thought it was strange that the latest issue hadn’t been posted yet, so thanks for the trick to get to the new issues, though.

  2. As of today, the latest issue isn’t even available in stores. That might be delivered to subscribers only by now.

  3. Karl,

    I believe print subscribers got it on Saturday — that’s probably where the CNET post came from, including a scan of the cover.

    See my update above — you can give it to subscribers in advance, but those subscribers aren’t necessarily going to wait to start discussing it online.

  4. That’s unfortunate and hilarious at the same time. I have had similar experiences getting articles through backdoor entrances, but not when I go straight to a site. I think print publications just need to let go and figure out how to play the new game.

  5. Scott, this post, along with your previous newspapers post, make you a hero.

    @Deb, Sounds like quite a few of us are reading articles through ‘backdoor’ ways. I must admit, it feels pretty good to find ways to read through in advance, but I still agree that it isn’t the way forward and it doesn’t make sense that we’re forced to take that type of action.

  6. Scott, I love your posts, but as a small online and off-line publisher I can see it from the other side too. Why would a magazine publisher “give away” a valuable article when subscribers and retail buyers are paying good money to read it first. Doesn’t the mere fact that you couldn’t get hold of what you wanted increase its value and therefore make their strategy commercially correct?

  7. Jeez. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

    Print publishers really have to get things in perspective, before they completely wither on the vine. They MUST embrace online and offline, and take the opportunity to build a strong online community around a trusted publication – that is the only way they can flourish.

    So many media owners seem to be in denial about how people are choosing to consume media – and as Charles Darwin proved some time ago, it’s a very simple choice – you evolve to accommodate change – or you die.

  8. [...] What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web It’s about right now, immediacy. Magazines are winter, the web is summer. [...]

  9. If anything The Atlantic (to which I subscribe) ought to run this reply in full on the site, and in some form in the print edition.

    But while I like the publication and many of its writers, it doesn’t seem to be set up to engage in discussions like this one or any other.

    If anything, I felt Carr’s piece came up short, and not just in the arguments you made. For a think-piece in a think-piece magazine, it was remarkably brief and derivative; it worked up to Carr’s worries about how our brains might be changing because of the Web and left us there, hanging, to flip to the next page and see the big mug of Donald Rumsfeld.

  10. Andy,

    The Atlantic is creating real value for its subscribers, but the problem that it’s also detracting value from other readers who don’t subscribe. If all the subscribers kept quiet about their privileged access, it might work, but that’s not the way things work anymore.

    Here’s the other problem — I tried to pay money for the content but couldn’t. Matt Asay tried to give economic value to The Atlantic by linking to the article and driving traffic but couldn’t.

    The tough equation is figuring out how many people subscribe in part before of the advance access vs. how many people get frustrated because they can’t access.

  11. I’m surprised that anyone would be upset that a magazine publisher didn’t rush to put the entire issue online for free BEFORE it either reached subscribers or newsstands.

    Doing so WHILE the magazine is available on newsstands is a matter that each publisher is wrestling with — since online advertising revenues for magazine websites are usually much lower than print-ad revenues, and different magazines have different track-records at converting new website visitors to becoming paid subscribers or newsstand buyers. So publishers are trying to ensure they’re not jeopardizing their primary revenue streams (ad sales and magazine sales, both of which are almost entirely relevant to printed magazines, not websites).

    But before the magazine goes on-sale? Oh relax and wait a few days.

    Perhaps The Atlantic wanted to ensure that it all worked correctly before they posted the link to all the free content? Of course it’s possible to quickly repurpose printed content for the web, but sometimes there are glitches and maybe the magazine has a proofreader who checks that everything migrated over correctly before they tell the world it’s there for the reading.

    Your blog posting, for instance, was hardly error-free*, and the Atlantic just might have higher standards than you do.

    * 2 that I noticed in a quick skim-through:
    “I immediately when to”
    “to see if they had the June issue … Sadly, on the rack I found the June issue, just like on the website.”

    So, your argument is that either Google can give away the content, or the magazine publisher can give away the content.

    But I would argue that a day or two’s delay won’t make a huge difference, whereas if I discovered some online content that intrigued me enough to run out and try and buy the magazine, and then I found out that the “current” issue was actually not yet on-sale, it was actually a “future” issue that I had read online, I’d be shooting my business in the foot. I would hardly be returning to the magazine store to buy that magazine after the publisher had mistreated me (and other paying readers) in that way.

  12. Jon,

    I had planned to do exactly that — relax and wait a few days, as I stated in the post.

    But then people who received the print issue started writing about it ONLINE. And then Google notified me that the content WAS in fact posted online.

    So the real issue here is the nature of the web is making it difficult to maintain the traditional system of subscribers get an advance look. As soon as SOMEONE has the content, it’s out there, and word will spread — especially if it’s great content, like The Atlantic’s, and people are going to come looking for it.

  13. Scott,

    Google and our access to information probably does make us smarter, but it also makes the environment more complex than those cognitive gains can incorporate. So in relative terms we are individually more stupid than we were. The solution is to be much more cautious about the quality of our own knowledge.

    The credit crunch is the most recent empirical manifestation of this phenomenon.


  14. [...] advice for magazine publishers this week. First up, don’t miss Scott Karp’s post, "What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About the Web." It’s a great first-person account of ways one magazine frustrates its readers. Scott [...]

  15. I’ve found that clerks at the box book stores are frequently clueless about whether the newest issue of a magazine is actually in the building, so I’d say the chances are considerable that the latest Atlantic was there — they just hadn’t yet felt any need to place it on the shelves.

  16. Great points.

    One thing I think would help magazine publishers would be to rethink their processes. Specifically, writers ought to be creating their content first online, then for the magazine, and their publisher ought to invest in a content management system that facilitates that ‘reverse-publishing’ model (reverse, hopefully, becoming a quick anachronism industry wide).

    Anyone have experience at a magazine doing that?

  17. Great post! Working for a magazine publisher myself I recognize the reluctance of embracing the Web to the fullest every day.

    The strange thing is that publishers and Editors in Chief usually defend their printed magazine by stating that it adds extra value to have it in your hands, you can take it with you, you can fold it, and so on. So they recognize that the Web is something different and in their eyes can never replicate a printed magazine. And that’s so true (for the time being). So why not put the current issue online immediately for all the good reasons mentioned in your post?

    My conclusion is that publishers and Editors-in-Chief still haven’t accepted the Web for what it can be to the magazine: an extra channel to not only reach your reader but to reach new readers, non-readers and to interact with all of them in a more direct way than by through the Letters to the Editor.

    A lot of work still to do!

  18. I’m in the same camp as Andy. As a small B2B publisher, we encourage subscribers, who have the magazine before anyone else, to post info on message boards, blogs, etc. Not only are they helping us market our product(s), it’s a great opportunity to drive subscriptions, and create awareness – all of which provide value to our advertisers. Despite what everyone seems to think about the magazine industry, our print publication’s readership is on the rise, and so is our web site’s, although the latter is very much a work in progress.
    While I can’t speak for The Atlantic, I suspect, as I, they have considered the advantages and disadvantages of when and where to publish their magazine content online. Consider: how many people are going out and buying or subscribing to their magazine simply because of this and the related blog posts?

  19. [...] What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web – Publishing 2.0 Hmm. Basically a rant about how magazines don’t get their stuff online quickly enough. To me, the interesting magazines are those that put their community online, and leave their content in the mag. Word Magazine, for instance. (tags: magazines) [...]

  20. I generally like your blog and comments very much but I think you are way off base here – in contrast to your newspaper piece which I liked. Magazine pieces are meant to be more measured and thoughtful – and I think they issue here has nothing to do with smarter or not – it has to do with rushing to judgment. Instead of thinking for themselves people just go looking on google – which incidentally is still very poor at finding the best relevant content if you search on a particular term. It is great for research but not the be all and end all. Not even the best search engine IMHO – just the most popular. And magazines ARE meant to be read as an entity. Online you lose the whole connected focus of related pieces that is a great part of the identity of a good magazine.

    Yes they do many things wrong – in particular not repurposing the online version to make use of the power of linking – but in this case I very much doubt the Atlantic is at all bothered by a flap among people who only read online and provide no revenue stream back into the publication.

  21. Owen,

    You make good points about Google, and about how magazines have operated in the past. And taken together, they help to explain the Atlantic’s behavior. But I don’t think that justifies it.

    When asked about the future of print versus online media, Jeff Bezos said that print isn’t going to die any sooner than horses went extinct with the introduction of the automobile. Fact is, we just don’t use horses as the most efficient means of transportation anymore.

    Magazines may have been afforded the luxury of time in the past, they may have been oriented toward consumption as a whole in the past, and their revenue models may be based upon that. But the fact is, if magazine publishers don’t reorient themselves to new media, they’ll go out of business because magazines are not the most efficient means to transmit information.

  22. [...] What magazines still don’t understand about the web [...]

  23. Driving home Scott’s points — In the scant hours that it’s been online at The Atlantic, Nick’s piece has obviously generated quite a lot of conversation. That’s the kind of traffic most Web publishers would kill for. But as far as I can tell, NONE of the conversation is taking place at The Atlantic’s own website. Why not? The Atlantic’s editors explain:

    “Dear Atlantic.com visitors,

    We regret that as of January 22, 2008, when we eliminated the subscriber-registration requirement from the Web site, we became temporarily unable to register new forum users. In the near future we plan to implement an upgraded forum, open to all. In the meantime…Anyone interested in expressing feedback about the magazine, the Web site, or a specific article, can contact us via our Feedback page. Also please note that several of our blogs—those hosted by Matthew Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Megan McArdle, Marc Ambinder, and Clive Crook—are comment-enabled.

    We appreciate your interest in Post & Riposte, and we apologize for the glitch.

    The Editors”

    As a Web journalist, I’m all too familiar with glitches like this. But a glitch that’s lasted since January 22? It’s all hilariously symptomatic of the syndrome Scott describes, of publishers either “thumbing their noses at Web readers” or not knowing enough to realize that they are doing so.

  24. [...] 10. Publishing 2.0 – What magazines still don’t understand about the web [...]

  25. Having had a few days to digest Carr’s article, I’ve written a response at Xconomy that readers of this blog might find interesting. See http://www.xconomy.com/2008/06/13/you-say-staccato-i-say-sfumato-a-reply-to-nicholas-carr/.

    An excerpt:

    “I can accept Carr’s premise that the Internet discourages deep reading. After all, it’s a strain to read long documents on most types of screens, and time spent on the Net is undeniably time taken away from other pursuits (though I suspect that TV viewing has suffered more in this respect than book reading). But the idea that deep reading is the only way people form rich mental connections is much harder to swallow, and suggests to me that Carr may be too caught up in the romantic image of the poet or professor lost in his book. I think he misses the many other ways in which these connections arise—some of which, believe it or not, are happening right on the Internet.”

  26. [...] What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web – Publishing 2.0 “The lessons, of course, apply to every print publisher, who constantly discovers new ways to frustrate web users by prioritizing print over web.” (tags: internet publishing magazines journalism google googlenews theatlantic trends) [...]

  27. [...] are popping up on the Internet (surprise, surprise). For instance, take a look at this very fine Publishing 2.0 blog post by Scott Karp. He is quoted in the magazine article and thus has a somewhat personal beef to pick with Carr, but [...]

  28. [...] since Nick Carr’s Atlantic article appeared on the web (finally), there’s been a spike in Google alerts for my name. Prior to this quote in the Atlantic, [...]

  29. Great post, Scott! I just want to point out that there’s a hero even better than Google for something like that, a group that could have saved you every ounce of frustration, and some money to boot. Who? Librarians!

    Since you were willing to drive somewhere to read the article, you could have driven to your local library, where it would have been sitting on the shelf, waiting for you. You wouldn’t have had to pay anything to read it, although you could have made a photocopy to take with you if you were in a hurry.

    Or, you could have called the library, and they probably would have faxed it to you. I don’t know of any library that would have been able to convert it to 8-track, although I won’t rule that out.

    Even better, though, you could have used your library card to log into the library’s databases and find the full text of the article within a matter of minutes without ever leaving your computer.

    So while Google may know all, but libraries give you access to it all – free, unrestricted, and with no ads. Google may have told you what you want, but your library could have actually provided all of it for you.

    Let your library save the day next time, and save yourself the frustration!

  30. Scott,

    Great post!! This is a hot topic for all these days. Many of my clients grapple with this topic. What I think these posts do though, is tell us time after time that there is a gap between what is expected today and what publishers are providing today. We are in a period of real change. There are no solutions provided just constant criticism. Many of them, as we know, are trying to achieve their online presence with the same staff that pumps out the print edition. Not enough workers to do the work.

    But, I will say this…. recently I have been working with a very forward thinking company that records and then sells live music from concerts – which they then make availbale by USB bracelette the NEXT MORNING for a very fair price. These bracelets are 2 way – so they can be SHARED with friends for no cost. The point here is that even though the musicians are agreeing to free shared content and are willing to forego a “sale” they know that the viral activity will inevitably make them money in the future. If they are a fan today they will buy more tomorrow. Interesting concept. Free shared content is here, like it or not – so we better figure out a way fast to make it profitable.

  31. [...] Desde logo, o artigo. Depois, uma não menos excelente reacção de Scott Karp no Publishing 2.0, (What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web), que é leitura obrigatória (um estudo de caso!) para os jornalistas que se interessam e para os [...]

  32. I’m not sure if this is totally on point but I do think one think that publishers – newspaper and magazine – don’t get, or don’t want to accept, is that unless their content is extremely unique and valuable they are no longer going to be able to command the premium for it that they used to.

    The music industry clung to its age-old business model and has ridden it down for years now. Distributing music is not going to offer the same margins anymore and survivors are going to have to adapt. This applies to all forms of content. Many magazines are going to have to rethink expense levels and do with less high end office space and smaller staffs. Writers are going to have to produce more content.

    I think the unwillingness to face this transition is one reason why publishers may sacrifice strong development of their online businesses to protect the declining but still most significant print side of the business. They don’t realize that they can’t stem this tide. Print will always be a major part of the business but the subscribers they are losing are not coming back, and if they don’t convert them to Internet readers they will lose them completely.

  33. [...] find two posts that I loved: ‘What Newspapers Still Don’t Understand About The Web’ and ‘What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web’ – both of which left me wondering why our politicians keep rattling on about The Media And How [...]

  34. [...] with only a handful of links in the article. I managed to get a link to Publishing 2.0 by being a squeaky wheel, but that shouldn’t be [...]

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