At MPA Conference, Wonderings About the Future of Print

It is no coincidence that the logo for the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) inaugural Magazine Innovation Summit centered around an oversized capital ‘I.’ The Internet, innovation, and iDomination were high priorities for the event—a fact only further confirmed by the conference’s tagline, “technology changes everything.”

Held in the Grand Hyatt New York and the Time & Life building, the conference spanned two business days, from Wednesday, Oct. 14, to Thursday, Oct. 15. Wednesday focused on General Sessions and was geared toward industry leaders and magazine executives and editors. Sessions carried apocalyptic titles such as “The Future of Content” and “The End of the Media World as We Know It.”

In an effort to avoid the apocalypse, the Observer attended only the second day of panels, which were divided into three parts: Consumer Marketing, Ad Sales Marketing and Editorial. The Observer sat in on the second half of the Editorial panels.

The Observer joined the conference during Billboard editorial director Bill Werde’s lecture, titled “Interstitial: What Happened to the Record Album and Why It Matters to Magazines.” More Jerry Seinfeld than Rupert Murdoch, Mr. Werde charmed the audience of disgruntled magazine editors, opening with the disclaimer, “Yes, I am a journalist whose last name is Werde [pronounced wordy]; you’d be surprised how much publicists love that.” Illustrated by a powerpoint of line graphs that looked more like the outlines of multicolored mountain ranges than the demise of the music industry, Mr. Werde drew a correlation between the record industry and the magazine industry. “We can learn from this!” he announced both imperatively and with excitement. “I feel like the ghost of Christmas future.”

But the final panel of the conference, “The Decline and Rise of Magazine Journalism,” was what the Observer really came for. It was moderated by Slate Group chairman and editor in chief, Jacob Weisberg; members of the panel included Nick Denton of Gawker Media, “Media Guy” columnist Simon Dumenco and New Yorker articles editor Susan Morrison. Mr. Weisberg began the panel with open-ended questions such as “Do readers prize what we do as journalists?” and “Are magazines like newspapers in that a great business has turned into a very bad business?”

Mr. Dumenco volunteered hopefully, “The magazine industry is nowhere near as desperate as the newspaper industry.”

But Mr. Weisberg’s realism was unrelenting. “But what about the surveys that show that 20-somethings are not only going to the Web for newspapers but also for service-related magazines?” he asked. “The real problem with young people is that they aren’t just not reading it now, but they say they will never read a newspaper. Which means there is no hope for future generations.”

“O.K., but here’s the thing,” Ms. Morrison piped up, “the question isn’t do these readers exist, but, do they exist in a way that we can make any money off of them? Because the young people I encounter all read the newspaper; they just have never picked it up in print.”

Mr. Weisberg redirected to a more general query: “But what does the magazine mean right now? Is it a new form?”

Ms. Morrison sighed, “I think we are all kind of experimenting. You know, I’m old, but I don’t want to read a 12,000-word piece online, I want to read it on paper. But that is changing. Like David Grann’s recent article about Cameron Todd Willingham, the executed arsonist in Texas—it is a piece of typically long-form journalism, but we put it up online because we wanted it to create waves, we wanted it to be discussed and shared, and the easiest way to do that was to make it accessible online and email-able. And it was our most emailed story of all time!”

She continued, musing aloud: “One of the reasons John Updike wanted to be a novelist was just about the thingy-ness of the book. And I think that’s true of the magazine. It’s a thing we can go out and buy and hold. Will that be true for a future generation?”

Nick Denton jumped in: “It is also a question of when you tend to read something. You read news on the Web during the work day, you save magazines for the weekends. It’s a different reading mode. So, in that way magazines are better off than newspapers. When I think about launching a new Web site, I go to newsstands and look at how many magazines there are in each category. I don’t look at newspapers.”

This offered an opportunity for Mr. Weisberg to ask Mr. Denton about his Web sites, and whether Gawker Media is going to have to adjust “the digital sweatshop model” that his employees currently work under.

“We pay more than you’d expect!,” said Mr. Denton. “And kids want to work for us, and we want them. The average age of our readers is 28, about thirty years younger than the average newspaper reader. It is important that the people writing and editing are of the same generation.”

Mr. Weisberg then asked Mr. Denton about how he monitors and fact-checks the content on his sites.

“We don’t,” Mr. Denton replied flatly. “We aim to get the truth over time. The verification model is post-publication rather than pre-publication. Our readers correct us and we apologize and we change it. We don’t have time to check it all before.”

Towards the end of the panel, Mr. Weisberg returned to Ms. Morrison: “How does The New Yorker stay on top of fact checking and accuracy as they try to enter into the up-to-the-minute online sphere?” he asked

“We try to edit every single thing that goes on the Web site,” said Ms. Morrison.

Mr. Denton was shocked. “Even the Twitter posts!?”

“We have Twitter posts?,” said Ms. Morrison. “I didn’t even know we were doing Twitter posts. Who tweets?”

Weisberg proffered one final comment, more musing than a question demanding an answer. “How do the mobile devices we all carry around with us affect this discussion?”

He touched his pocket as if to check that his own mobile device was still there. At MPA Conference, Wonderings About the Future of Print