InfoWorld and the Future of the 'Magazine Piece'


When I first read the news that InfoWorld has announced it's closing down its print magazine publication, I can't say that I was surprised. Like everyone in this business, I know that most business tech advertisers want to get their message across online, and most people who do tech for a living prefer to get their information via a Web browser. So, there you have it.


I did, however, want to ask the opinion of someone with a far more personal point of view on InfoWorld's decision to kill its print magazine, so I called up Phil Branon, our president here at IT Business Edge, who was an exec and eventually publisher of InfoWorld during its transition from a print magazine to a Web site.


Phil, who was with InfoWorld from 1994 to '99 and was publisher the last year of his stint there, expressed the nostalgia you'd expect from someone who once worked on a prestigious operation that is now shutting down.


By "nostalgia," I don't mean to say sadness -- more like a simple recognition that what everybody saw coming has happened. Phil, whom I like to refer to as an "ad guy," echoed the sentiments voiced by InfoWorld Editor in Chief Steve Fox in his well-turned letter to readers: Planning for this transition was a long time coming.


Phil told me: "The real point of maintaining it (the print magazine) was to maintain a multi-faceted publishing business for as long as the print business could remain profitable, or most likely, as many of the print editions have found, not lose too much money."


(At this point, it seems appropriate to say that obviously InfoWorld isn't going away as a trusted publishing brand -- click here for a humble comparison that illustrates its presence in our market.)


Phil went on to say that he "applauds" InfoWorld for being the first of the "gang of four" big-name tech magazines -- the others being ComputerWorld, InformationWeek, and PCWeek/eWeek -- to make the inevitable decision to close down their print businesses.


While advertising trends affected the media, InfoWorld's Fox assures readers that they won't affect the message. He writes that the same principles of advertisers not influencing editorial decisions (we editors like to call it "church-and-state") are as much in force on the Web today as they were when InfoWorld was building its print circulation.


While I had him on the phone, I wanted to chat with Phil -- an "ad guy," remember -- about his own impressions of how pressure from advertisers manifests itself in an industry where they know immediately how many views an ad had, how many readers were interested enough to click on that ad and, in many cases, quite a bit of demographic data about those readers.


Phil and I agreed that advertisers have always been "pushy" -- I probably planted that word in the conversation, but he said it, I swear -- in their desire to influence editorial content. It's just human nature.


However, it's also true that in the era of performance-based advertising, most vendors have learned that their marketing dollars are best spent on sites where readers are engaged and finding real value in the content. Phil calls it "live edit" -- I, of course, just call it "edit." Advertorial microsites, with tons of copy provided by the sponsor, have basically gone the way of the dodo.


The pressure now comes in the area of what you write about, more so than what you actually write. Vendors want their ads placed in a narrow context with information about the products or services they are selling, and we at IT Business Edge have, in fact, developed products and site hubs to meet that demand. It's a balancing act, candidly, with more gray area than simply refusing to run a favorable review for payola, which honestly no good-sized publisher would do. We select topics for our own Special Report series, at least in part, based on what we think might be appealing to sponsors.


Other publishers do the same thing. But by and large, we all take extreme care to make sure the editors actually creating the content are unaffected -- in most cases, totally oblivious -- to who may or may not be the advertiser on a bit of edit. Like everybody else, we reported last year that Windows Vista adoption was shaping up to be kinda slow for business, although I'd imagine our sponsor on that special report wasn't happy about the news. I say imagine, because I certainly didn't ask them, since we in editorial have nothing to do with ad sales.


So, I agree with Phil and InfoWorld's Fox that most readers won't see much difference in the content they get online as the old-line print magazines begin to fold. Same ethics, same pressures, and most readers are online already.


The one possible exception I do tend to wonder about is how many lengthy, truly in-depth articles -- we call them "magazine pieces," not coincidentally -- sites will continue to publish when they no longer have a print revenue line to help offset the cost of making this truly expensive content. Most CIOs would scratch their heads over the way publishing networks recognize the expense of content that appears in more than one place -- chargeback, indeed.


Click-through rates on multi-page articles are surprisingly low, and blogs, opinion and short content have become the high-traffic Web delivery model. Obviously, we don't create a lot of "magazine" pieces ourselves at IT Business Edge. Instead, we compare and filter all sorts of content, including "magazine" pieces. As the magazines themselves begin to fold, I am left wondering what publications will step in to provide that authoritative tenor.

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