On March 25th, NSFWCORP is launching a print edition. Experts agree: This is a terrible idea.
Tina Brown, the editor of Newsweek/DailyBeast says print is dead, and as proof she points to the closure of a magazine that she drove into the ground using a succession of bullshit linkbait-y barely-Business Insider-worthy covers which succeeded only in turning a troubled print brand into a doomed one.
Editors of dozens of local newspapers say print is dead because they are unable to find an audience hungry for their daily bowl of rehashed AP Newswire copy, unfunny comic strips, dumb-as-a-rock “humor” columnists, and some nonsense about an escaped dog.
Media experts say print is dead because, well, that’s the kind of forward thinking insight you have to offer to succeed in media punditry. Writing off an analog format is far more likely to get you a book deal, and far less likely to come back and bite you in the ass than “betting against the future” might.
The consensus that print is dead is clear. And the continuing print success of the Economist (where the same number of subscribers choose a print-only subscription as a digital-only one) is annoying and confusing. As is the continuing print success of the New Yorker and The Week.
They’re easily dismissed though: Those magazines are special. Or they’re institutions that have been around forever (apart from The Week). Or they’re for stuffy old people (apart from The Week). Or, I dunno, the people who buy them are elves, or goblins — or some kind of creatures that eat paper. Perhaps they’re the same elves or goblins or creatures who buy a combined 6,005,090 print copies every day of the top-ten newspapers in the US.
The other possibility — that the New Yorker and the Economist and the Week and all those newspapers continue to sell in print because they offer an editorial product that a large number of people want, in the medium in which they want it — is just too exhausting to contemplate. It’s far easier for the media industry to give up on print than it is to produce something as iconic as the New Yorker or indispensable as the Economist. Obviously it is.
Obvious too is that, one day in the future, paper will go the way of vinyl and Super 8. But that day is not coming this year, or next. Or likely within the next decade. It’s no longer cool to say this out loud but, until the digital experience improves upon the one of flipping through a magazine at an airport newstand or of reading a story like Steven Brill’s “Bitter Pill” or Patrick Radden Keefe’s “A Loaded Gun” on paper, print isn’t going away, even for journalism. Especially for long-form journalism.
Not only does print provide a far better experience for reading long form but it also offers true platform agnosticism (available to anyone with v1 of “eyes”) and for a variety of complicated human reasons, it improves data retention and adds more credibility and heft to serious reporting. Oh, and back issues of print publications will still be here in 100 years when the digital archive of your favourite magazine has crumbled to dust (yes it will).
For all of those reasons, it’s time we got more specific when we talk about the death of print.
What’s definitely dying is the tolerance for shitty celebrity magazines (thanks, Perez Hilton!) and gossip sheets (thanks, Gawker!). There’s also no place for newspapers that re-headline AP news stories (Huffington!) or trade magazines that offer industry specific news weekly or monthly (entire blogosphere!)
For a print publication to thrive today, it has to stop trying to replicate a Web experience — snappy boxouts! 140 character features! SEO-tested headlines! HASHTAGS ON THE GODDAMN COVER — and start focussing on what paper does best. That means having the confidence (and budget) to run long pieces of journalism dealing with important or difficult subjects. It means investing in great, big art. It means pull-outs and fold-outs and other tactile tricks that just aren’t possible on screen. It means making a product that will remain relevant far beyond the lifespan of a trending topic. There’s a reason magazine nerds pine for the days of Spy or 1970s era Rolling Stone, or Ramparts or Scanlan’s Monthly: Picking up a single back issue of any of those publications provides ten times more pleasure than a week spent on Buzzfeed.
On the flipside, it means being able to charge a meaningful cover price for a meaningful product. People expect to pay for print in a way they don’t expect to pay for online.
It doesn’t do to get too nostalgic, though. I admit when we started kicking around the idea of a print edition of NSFWCORP — something that our subscribers would love, and that would give our long, expensively reported (and fucking brilliant) pieces the platform they deserve — our first ideas resembled the periodical equivalent of an Instagram filter. All the nostalgia, none of the meaning or substance. (God, those old magazines were good.)
Over the months that followed, though, we started to hang some really delicious meat on to the bones of our idea. Rather than duplicating the tried and tested structure of magazines, we’d take our cue from ebooks. Each issue of NSFWCORP’s Print Edition would feature two full-length (12,000-word+) double-A-side features, one at each end of the book. In the middle would be magazine-within-the-magazine featuring smaller pieces and meta-features that relate to the main stories. In effect, each issue would be a special issue, built around an identifiable theme. We wouldn’t try to be the only thing you read that month, just the best.
Just as importantly, we wouldn’t replicate any of the content from our existing online edition. There are few things more jarring in print than getting half a paragraph in to a newspaper article only to realise you’ve already read the whole piece online 24 hours earlier.
Our Digital Edition will remain the best place for our shorter (500-2,000 word) pieces, particularly those with an ultra-topical hook. Print is where we should put the really big stuff, the reporting that readers will want to refer to again again, our equivalent of “Bitter Pill” or “A Loaded Gun” or “These Radical Chic Evenings” or “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?” or “Frank Sinatra has a Cold”. The kind of writing and reporting that even modern long-form advocates seem to think you should only be able to read if you have an ereader and are willing to forgo beautiful art and the permanence of print. (Of course we’ll be releasing the pieces as ebooks too, with free downloads for print subscribers.)
And so, finally, on March 25th the first issue of the NSFWCORP Print Edition arrives, mewling and puking into the nurse’s arms. The first issue will feature two pieces that I’m already proud of. The first featured story is “Iraqipedia”: a 12,000-word illustrated A-Z guide to ten years of the war in Iraq, written by a stellar cast of NSFWCORP writers and guest contributors. The second A-side feature opens with Mark Ames being told by San Francisco police that he’s the victim of a spy plot by the Anti-Defamation League working with the South African government. What he found out next will make your brain melt.
It’s a testament to the proven economics of print that we can offer subscribers all of this — the equivalent of two ebooks and a pile of bonus material, in print and as epub downloads — delivered anywhere in the world for $4 (or $7 for both our Print and Online editions.)
And, even with the cost of reporting (we pay our writers — both staff and freelance — rates way above industry averages) we’ll break even on just a few thousand subscribers.
But the economics of modern journalism deserve a post all of their own. As I was writing this post, the journalistic Twittersphere exploded in outrage over the fact that Atlantic Digital tried to republish a well-known journalist‘s work for free. “THIS IS THE STATE OF JOURNALISM TODAY!” they all cried. “Not at NSFWCORP!” I replied.
Tomorrow I’ll explain how on earth we manage to employ more than half a dozen full-time journalists (plus a roster of dollar-a-word freelancers) maintain a dedicated newsroom (replete with gym, pool table, free food, and beer in the fridge) and how I’ve never had to reject a story on cost grounds, even when one of our editors needed to buy a Mustang from a Mormon in order to chase down Mitt Romney.
The short version is we raised a bit of start-up capital (significantly less than a million dollars), we assign our costs very carefully and we ask readers to pay for what we do. The long version might hopefully offer some lessons for other media organizations.
Until tomorrow, then.
Subscriptions to the NSFWCORP print edition go on sale at the beginning of next week, limited to 5,000 subscribers before issue one. To be notified the moment subscriptions go on sale, join the announcement list here.