Soon after Lehman Brothers fell, and New York business writers found themselves smack in the middle of the biggest story of their careers, Fortune’s managing editor, Andy Serwer, convened a staff meeting on the second floor of their Sixth Avenue home.
He wanted to say thank you! Not only did the magazine have a series of timely covers—Hank Paulson was on one, and they had a profile of AIG’s former chief Hank Greenberg coming down the pike—but it was responding fast on the Web, and its Web coverage was impressing everyone in the building.
“I have to tell you, fortune.com is working out brilliantly,” said Mr. Serwer, according to one former staffer.
After his opening remarks, he singled out individual Web writers for all their breaking news. For those exclusive enterprise stories on the Web. Those ticktocks, and those trenchant second-day stories.
The speech, staffers said, made the horse and cart of the print and the Web seem to chase each other around the maypole. Which is dominant? At any rate, the Web did matter.
Well, less than two months later, the Web team at Fortune has been all but disbanded. With Time Inc. under the gun to lay off 600 staffers, each magazine has had the burden of deciding who’s disposable.
Fortune decided the bulk of its editorial cuts would come from the Internet: There were roughly a half-dozen layoffs at the Web site, and now it’s left back in the hands of the good people at CNN Money, the parent Web site that fortune.com used to be folded into.
“It’s nothing now,” said one recently laid-off staffer. “There won’t be any more fortune.com original content in the near future.”
By all accounts, Mr. Serwer’s comments at that meeting were thoroughly genuine when made. But with cuts going down all over the industry, it appears a portion of the magazine world, which was never a quick adapter to the Web anyway, is responding by shoving their Web people right off the boat first. “You’re never going to get the traffic that really matters,” said one publisher at Condé Nast. “So it’s a traffic thing, but also, how do you monetize the traffic that you have? It’s impossible.”
The operating policy now, particularly at Condé Nast, basically reads: Revenue first! Future later.
And the printed page, the luxury object, is still where you find the money these days.
“The print reader’s worth a whole lot more [than the online reader],” said publisher Jann Wenner in an interview with Advertising Age last week.
“It’s never come up before,” said one senior editorial staffer who works at the Wenner Media empire. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in my position or higher talk about the Web.”
And where it was talked about, it’s quickly being forgotten!
Portfolio, a magazine that had one of the boldest Web sites in the Condé Nast empire, let that experiment go two months ago when it dismissed 25 of the 30 people who worked full time and as freelancers for the magazine’s Web site.
And why? Partially to save the magazine.
The magazine lost close to $20 million this year, and with the magazine’s Web site losses also totaling in the millions, Condé Nast group president David Carey, along with Condé Nast editorial director Tom Wallace, played a large part in convincing Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse and CEO Chuck Townsend to keep the magazine afloat at a reduced publishing schedule. But to essentially gut the Web site.
Across Condé Nast, publishers are making a calculation about the revenue of the present versus the promises of the future.
“We work in the high-end market,” said our Condé Nast source. “We’re going to stick to it and we might be the last one standing, but that’s our philosophy. The Web isn’t really a priority.”
And Condé Nast editors certainly remain focused on the printed product.
On Dec. 4, all-star editors Graydon Carter, David Remnick and Anna Wintour talked about why magazines would be just fine.
“I think we’ve been in difficult times before and we’ve come out of them and I’m sure that we will again,” said Ms. Wintour.
“If your magazine—or your company, whatever it is—has a point, it can do well in tough times,” said Mr. Carter.
The New York Times’ Joe Nocera burst out of his seat during a question-and-answer session and strongly disagreed with the editors and wondered how they could be so sanguine about the future of print.
“Joe, no!” said Mr. Remnick. “A, we’re not sanguine. Or blithe. We think about it all the time. There are meetings about it all the time. We’re each thinking about this. Constantly.”
And truth be told, Mr. Remnick is doing something about it!
In recent months, according to staffers, he’s finally taken to the Web and has been encouraging his endless stable of writers (and editors!) to start contributing to it. Mr. Remnick also hired Avi Zenilman, a former staffer at Web-savvy Politico, to start badgering writers into coming up with more ideas to write Web-only content.
On Dec. 16, George Packer wrote a takedown of Sean Penn’s cover story for The Nation on Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro. Mr. Packer’s post was bloggy in every way—dripping with sarcasm (“veteran foreign correspondent Sean Penn,” or, describing Christopher Hitchens as the “world-famous hedge-fund executive and philanthropist”), snarky and a pretty frank and vicious attack. And it even got a link on Romenesko—not exactly a familiar place for New Yorker stories.
Moving print and Web closer together—something that started happening at newspapers three years ago—is the direction some magazines appear to be taking.
At New York, the magazine’s online arm of the Intelligencer section, the Daily Intel, will start producing more material for the magazine’s section starting next year. The section is expected to be undergoing a remodeling where more and more Web-only content will be reconfigured or re-purposed for the magazine. Jesse Oxfeld, a senior editor who worked on the magazine’s Intelligencer section, was laid off due to the Web and magazine integration.
At Entertainment Weekly, there were five layoffs, including two editors, with the idea that there will be less editing—and more DIY from its writers!—but also more contributions from the magazine’s writers.
And at Forbes there have been massive layoffs from the Web side—including Forbes Auto and Forbes Traveler, as Gawker reported last month—with a full integration of the print and Web coming in the new year.
Meanwhile, looking back, it seems a surprise that the Web Staffs of the Magazine World ever felt their oats in the hidebound ink-and-paper industry.
In late September, around the time Fortune’s Andy Serwer gave the speech praising his Web staff, John Huey, Time Inc.’s editor in chief, sent out a memo to the staff of Fortune writers. Rumors were swirling that if Fortune writers didn’t start contributing to the Web, they could suffer penalties, like a docked paycheck.
“Although we certainly hope that everyone will see the dot com platform as a vibrant and exciting enhancement to the readers’ experience, we want to be clear that Guild-covered employees are not required to contribute to the Web sites as part of their jobs,” he wrote, “and will not suffer any negative impact as a result of not contributing.”