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Magazine Executives Call Meeting to Decide ‘What’s a Magazine?’

The iPad dominates ASME’s annual conference, but rest of talk maddeningly familiar

For about five hours on Tuesday, in a nondescript boardroom overlooking Radio City Music Hall in the Time + Life Building in Manhattan, 80 or so magazine editors and publishers gathered for a conference to discuss their business.

And like virtually every other magazine conference I’ve attended in the last three years, the theme was intentionally — maddeningly — simple: "What’s a Magazine?"

Subtitle:

The answer used to be simple. You knew it when you saw it. But now what is it? […] The answer will determine our future.

The topics of discussions were as broadly familiar to anyone who has ever spent any sort of time in a room of magazine executives: digital impact on magazines, building community, uncertainty about the future, looming death of print, etc.

The only thing remotely different was the iPad talk. A lot of it.

Magazine publishers, editors and ad dudes love the iPad.

"What’s not to love?" Phil Cowdell, head of Mindshare North America, a global ad agency, asked rhetorically during a closing panel with the "What is a magazine?" title. “When you’ve seen something that looks like the future, it’s hard to go back and think about anything.”

Bill Wackermann, publishing director for Cond√© Nast’s Glamour, Details and Brides, said that Glamour sold out of its iPad inventory in two days.

“The enthusiasm is there,” Wackermann said.

But it sounds like there’s plenty of anxiety, too.

“What this new technology will do will allow anyone in their garage to create a magazine,” Wackermann said.  Without the overhead cost of paper or people, “young people” will be able to create products that will challenge magazines on the iPad. That’s the “risk,” he said.

Ironically for the magazine professionals waxing poetic about technology, a Chinea Rodriguez, 17-year-old intern magazine reader sitting on the panel — picked to represent the current and future magazine consumer — tossed a wrench into enthusiasm.

Here’s a paraphrased transcript:

Was she planning to buy an iPad?

No.

Did she care about connecting with other readers in online communities?

Eh.

Did she access magazine websites?

Sometimes.

What’s your preferred method of reading magazine content?

Uh, a magazine?

What about digital magazines?

You have to zoom, and that’s tedious.

Perhaps that’s what Wackermann was referring to when he said this about his digital business: “We need to be there, but we don’t know exactly how to make it work.”

So where does that leave us?

I do think that, unlike, say, a year ago, magazine executives are saying the right things, in general. They know what they have to do, in theory, to carry their brands forward in a digital age. Whether or not they’re actually doing what they’re talking about is a different story.

“[At Conde Nast] We’re asking ourselves, ‘Are we content providers rather than magazine publishers?’” Wackermann said. “We’re looking at ourselves as content publishers more and more.”

When asked if he thought it was a good time to be working in the magazine business, Wackermann said: “I could not imagine a better time, if we do it right, and don’t give it away for free.”

More to read:

Look Who’s Jumping on the iPad Bandwagon