Walter Isaacson Doesn’t Pay for Content — Why Should You?

Battered magazine publishers at conference agree they want to get paid.

There were plenty among the 400-plus media industry executives gathered at the Magazine Innovation Summit in New York on Tuesday echoing a suddenly popular battle cry: it’s time for consumers to pay for the content magazines put online.

But do those same executives pay themselves?

“I read magazine content online,” said Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time magazine and chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute. “I don’t feel the need to subscribe to them.”

Let’s rephrase that: Time magazine’s former editor does not “feel the need to subscribe” to magazines when he can get their content online for free.

When asked if magazines should try a model similar to his, Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, said, “It’s certainly worth a shot.”

But does Hastings subscribe to magazines? “No, I read them online,” he said. “I’m your worst fear. I love the content, but I don’t pay for it.” (This from a guy who pays the postal service $600 million a year to ship DVDs to his customers.)

“There’s a growing recognition that free is not the answer,” said Ken Auletta, the New Yorker writer. “But there are lots of menaces that may not make [paid content] work.”

Auletta, author of “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It,” was interviewed about his new book by New York Times media columnist David Carr, who paused briefly to praise the food on Google’s Northern California campus. “I walked out of there with my pockets full,” Carr said. “It’s free, why wouldn’t you take it?”

If magazine executives are feeling a bit schizophrenic these days, this is why.

OK, so they don’t pay now. But would they? Ever?

“People will pay for differentiated content,” Hastings said, not content that’s been “commoditized” to death.

“In the end you have to have guts to say I’m not going to give content away for free,” said John Squires, Time Inc.’s executive vice president.

Other sessions during the summit’s first day were devoted to the technology that is rapidly allowing consumers to access content – both free and paid – wherever they want.

“The world is definitely going mobile,” said Mary Lou Jepsen, CEO of Pixel Qi and co-founder of the One Laptop Per Child project. “Flexible screens will replace laptops,” probably sooner than later.

“We all know it’s coming,” added Josh Quittner, former editor of Business 2.0 and an editor-at-large at Time magazine. “When Apple’s [tablet] device is announced, there will be a mass ascension and everyone will go to media heaven.”

Then, said Skip Zimbalist, former CEO of Times Mirror and current chief executive of Active Interest Media, “it won’t be a magazine, it will be something else. I don’t care if it lives on in print.”

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