Last Wednesday night on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel, all the signs of the classic magazine launch party were on display: an open bar ringed by thirsty media reporters, groaning trays of shrimp, a D.J. playing music just soft enough that it didn’t drown out the chatter. The proud editor showed off his new product, the woman who is its namesake held court a few feet away, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning contributor was surrounded by a cluster of partygoers
The print media business being what it is, it’s been a while since I’ve attended one of those events, but there is a comforting sameness to them — the optimism, the belief in the new baby, all pink and freshly hatched.
Except this magazine didn’t emerge from one of Manhattan’s publishing titans, it was not named after a major media doyenne like Oprah or Martha, and a few years ago we wouldn’t have even called it a magazine.
When I started writing a media column seven years ago, parties like these were routine: the magazine business was still on the march and the newspaper business was twice as big as it is now. The Huffington Post? It was a curio cooked up by some woman named Arianna that seemed like a showcase for her and her famous friends.
Now, it was Ms. Huffington who was introducing a sleek new magazine, an online weekly called Huffington that will be available for tablet via the Apple Store. It was one more signal in a week full of them that the velocity of transformation is growing.
Time Inc., a stubborn holdout from the deals publishers made with Apple to be on the iPad, gave in last week. There were reports that the Justice Department, which is already going after traditional book publishers over the price of e-books, was investigating whether cable providers were trying to strangle nascent Web-based competitors. Twitter announced it was planning deeper media offerings, while NBC said two of its comedies would have their debuts next fall in an ad-free format, mirroring the Web’s mostly sponsor-free offerings.
Just in case I didn’t get the point that the future is landing on the past with both boots, the former headquarters of The New York Times is being marketed as a new home for digital companies with amenities like scooters and Ping-Pong tables. Both Amazon and Facebook have stopped by to kick the tires.
Huffington is a particularly acute reminder of how much things have changed. Last year, The Huffington Post was sold to AOL for $315 million, less than a year after Newsweek was sold for a dollar, and in April the site won its first Pulitzer, for David Wood’s 10-part series about wounded veterans. More unique Web visitors now go to The Huffington Post each month than The New York Times, according to the research company comScore.
I’ve written before that The Huffington Post may be one of the fastest build-outs of an editorial brand in history, all the while complaining that it derived a lot of value from digitally kidnapping the work of others.
But I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t matter what I think is right and wrong, or what I think constitutes appropriate aggregation or great journalism. The market is as the market does.
Ms. Huffington and her band of merry disrupters saw an opportunity that others did not and built up a huge business. Since AOL doesn’t break out the finances of The Huffington Post, there’s no way of knowing whether it makes or loses money. But it’s clear that The Huffington Post anticipated the trend toward information with ideology baked in, and that it saw the importance of search optimization from the get-go. Now it is moving aggressively into video, and yes, tablet space
Tim O’Brien, a former editor at The New York Times who is now at The Huffington Post, led the effort to develop the magazine, which is handsome at first blush and has been well-reviewed.
Nobody can know whether anyone will pay $1.99 a month for a slow-mo HuffPo. Earlier attempts at online magazines have had mixed success. I’ve been of the mind-set that having the physical artifact lying on the coffee table creates the kind of guilt that makes people pick it up in a way the iPad doesn’t, but that may be old-school thinking. Hearst has sold more than 125,000 subscriptions to Cosmopolitan across all tablets and is approaching 800,000 subscriptions over all for all its magazines, according to Hearst.
On Tuesday, I had lunch with David Carey, the president of Hearst Magazines. The Huffington Post was very much on his mind, he said, when he addressed a group of employees that day.
“I am telling them to beware of digital upstarts that don’t follow any of the rules of big companies like ours,” he said. “Huffington Post has gone down paths that others scoffed at and they have emerged with a string of very strong products.”
Traditional ideas about what is opinion and what is news, what is advertising and what is editorial, and the separation between content makers and consumers, are evaporating each day.
Before Steve Jobs died, I argued with him about the terms he was offering publishers on the iPad — with Apple taking a 30 percent cut and giving companies only limited data on their customers. I predicted he’d have a tough time getting buy-in from publishers, especially Time Inc., which had always managed to make money off its relationships not just with advertisers but with consumers. Mr. Jobs pointed out that publishers received no data at all from selling on a physical newsstand and often paid for placement there.
Mr. Jobs may be gone, but he is still winning arguments. Last week, Time Inc. announced that after two years of refusing to sell more than single copies through Apple, it had agreed to sell subscriptions to all its magazines on Apple’s newsstand. It was less about any specific concessions than a realization that it didn’t make sense for the country’s biggest magazine company not to have its product on the shelves of the biggest digital magazine seller.
As those of us who care a great deal about The Times-Picayune in New Orleans learned last week, disruption makes no allowance for sentiment. After word of the huge layoffs there came in, I said to my digitally native colleague Brian Stelter, “Well, the future you rooted for is finally here.” To which he replied, “I didn’t root for it, I just realized it was going to happen no matter what.”
It was that kind of week and there will be many more like it in the months and years to come. Technology has altered the media business more than most, not in one big surge, but in a series of waves, each one shifting the ground that traditional businesses were built on.
It’s true that legacy media brands still have juice and powerful assets at their disposal. No purely digital media product has kicked up anywhere near the profits that beleaguered traditional brands still do. But smart minds will figure that out. As his lawman uncle told the sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country for Old Men,” “You can’t stop what’s coming.”