Vanessa Grigoriadis did the TV shows. The Feb. 21 Rolling Stone, with her Britney Spears story on the cover, was hitting stands.
“Why do people sop up this issue of Rolling Stone?” Larry King asked on Feb 7.
On Feb 10, she went on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
“By writing this piece on everything from her family to her breast implants, haven’t you now joined the mob?” asked host Howard Kurtz.
(For just one thing, Rolling Stone covering Ms. Spears is like Running Times covering Martin Lel, like Yachting covering Paul Allen, like Cat Fancy covering pussycats.)
“I don’t want to be overdramatic about it—but as a media story?” Ms. Grigoriadis said last week, from a donut shop in Long Beach, Calif. “I went on that Howard Kurtz program, and he was like, ‘That’s disgusting, you’re part of the problem.’ And I was like, ‘Uh, you’re a media gossip columnist.’ And everyone can roll their eyes about Britney Spears, but in a few years, when we look back at how the media economy changed? I really feel like she’s going to be the example that people look to.”
She meant, in specific, the robust economy of the TMZ’s and the photo agencies and the tabloids—and that Ms. Spears’ people would “rather talk to X17 than talk to 60 Minutes.”
Now what will Mr. Kurtz make of New York mag editor Adam Moss? This week’s New York features naked pictures of Lindsay Lohan, for no discernible reason. They are kind of gross! (“Lindsay Lohan bla-bla-bla New York Magazine bla-bla-bla boobs,” was the assessment—in full—of a blogger writing at a site called Box Office Psychics.)
Success! On Monday afternoon, Lohan-nipple-induced traffic brought down New York’s Web site.
And! “Thanks to the Britney cover, we had our best week ever in the history of the Web site,” said Nathan Brackett, a senior editor at Rolling Stone. The story doubled RollingStone.com’s daily unique visitors; it and the attendant photo galleries had done 6.9 million page views (as of Valentine’s Day) in the week that it had been online. (The physical magazine’s circulation is somewhere around 1.5 million.)
But Rolling Stone didn’t even publish the piece online—just its first 606 words. This changed the project, a bit, from journalistic endeavor to Internet link-baiting; there is a sense of emptiness at the Web site, whereas the magazine piece is incredibly satisfying.
“I think we thought, why post the stuff for free when people buy it?” said Will Dana, the mag’s executive editor.
“Someday down the road, the Web site will make as much money as the magazine does, and we will be on equal footing,” said Mr. Brackett. (The story will go online in full, as most or all of their features do, around the time the next issue hits stands.)
“Are the online revenues going to replace, equal or exceed what you’re making in the magazine?” said Mr. Dana. “Until the people on the business side are sure they’re going to replace that revenue, that’s how it’s going to be.”
“Would I rather the whole piece was online? Of course,” said Ms. Grigoriadis. “But I understand they have a business to run.”
“Look, we were able to have it both ways,” said Mr. Brackett. “Both the print magazine and the Web site benefited. Maybe we’re not charging enough for ads.”
At least the idea of the piece got around online.
“We’ll feed stuff to Perez like we do to anybody,” said Mr. Brackett.
That is one way that the media economy has changed: the need for regular old Web sites to get periodically hosed down by high-traffic Internet firehoses.
Related: Perez Hilton loved those Lohan pictures!
“Who’s to say they would have gotten 10 million page views if they put the whole thing up?” asked Eric Gillin, Web editor of Esquire, of the Grigoriadis piece. “Maybe that is the best case scenario for them! Maybe a 10,000-word piece wouldn’t work online. It is short-attention-span theater out there. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that—a win-win for everyone.”
Also: Everyone believes that no one of us knows anything yet! Except?
“The studies show that—this is all going to seem very counterintuitive, bear with me!—the studies have shown, 80 to 90 percent of people that visit the Web sites for magazines neither buy nor subscribe nor have anything to do with the print publications,” said Mr. Gillin.
So, publishing the whole article on the Web won’t ruin newsstand sales, because the people who buy on the newsstand don’t look at the Web site anyway!
Hrrm. “I honestly don’t know if it would result in fewer sales or not,” said Mr. Dana.
“Well, we have an interesting test of this,” said James Meigs, editor of Popular Mechanics. “A little over a year ago, we had a big cover story on biofuels. … We’d been out about two weeks when President Bush gave that speech about energy policy. Used to be when you ran a monthly you’d cross your fingers that people would read it—you’d ask your PR people to send out a press release. And we looked at it and said, this debate is gonna happen on the Web. We need to be there. We put the whole story up online. We got just, I don’t recall the exact numbers, the best traffic we’d ever gotten. We sent notes out to various bloggers that we work with, and we really got a huge, huge reaction to the piece … even though we were still on the newsstands. Most editors would have looked at this and said it wasn’t worth the risk. It turned out to be one of our best-selling issues of the year even though we’d given away the story for free online.”
In November, Popular Mechanics started exhibiting more and more traffic spikes, the result of promoting and packaging timely stories aggressively—in at least one case, for a story about avalanches, while the issue containing the story was still at the printer.
At the end of last month, Esquire’s traffic begins to show spiking as well—the result of “an extremely informal relationship” with Yahoo, in which the portal, or whatever it is, features the occasional Esquire story on its front page.
New York, with all its blogs and all its content, and Rolling Stone, splitting the difference and doing what it always has done, both largely get for traffic what they have always got.
Except for Lindsay and Britney.
Where non-tabloid (or, in Kurtz-world, non-“mob”) magazines are losing readers is on the newsstand. The New Yorker, for one, lost nearly 10 percent of its newsstand sales in the second half of 2007; Esquire was down more than 6 percent (it also had a price increase). Where they are only beginning to gain readers is on the Web.
But the Internet—who knows what it wants?
On Friday, I went to Harvey Levin, TMZ honcho and high-traffic king of all tabloid media, with one question:
Has he read all of Vanessa Grigoriadis’ story on Britney Spears in Rolling Stone? The answer came back: “Unfortunately this is something Harvey is going to have to pass on as his schedule is not permitting time at the moment.”