At Magazines, It’s 2.0 Steps Forward, 1.0 Step Back

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, 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 used to be folded into.

“It’s nothing now,” said one recently laid-off staffer. “There won’t be any more 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.

At Magazines, It’s 2.0 Steps Forward, 1.0 Step Back