How magazines (the original social media) squandered their position and (almost) screwed the pooch with regard to the web.

For what seems like centuries the magazine has been the state of the art in social media. The magazine has, more than any other medium, been a crucial element in the building of communities of specific interest. Whether that interest is wine, motorcycles, baseball, or marijuana, you can bet there was a magazine using the niche model years before the Internet was even sketched out on a Defense Department chalkboard.

Given that head start… given the accumulation all that knowledge regarding the building and nurturing of niche communities… one might think that magazines are in a perfect position to transition to the web and dominate the new social media landscape. Well…

I don’t even have to finish that thought. One look around the social communities that are now thriving across the web and any blind man could easily see that traditional magazine titles are horribly, inexcusably absent. To blame that absence on technology is wrongheaded. Technology can be kept up with and publishers have done as much in the past (CTP the most recent example).

No, the shift we are now going through is as much social as it is technological, perhaps more so.

The real tragedy here is the way in which the magazine sector has so far totally misread, underestimated, and ignored the changes that are flowing through their readership, their communities. Their readers are out in the wilderness of the web, exploring, talking, and finding smart folks who are willing to talk back to them. They don’t have to wait for editorial proclamations to come in the mail anymore… in fact that they ever did that seems more and more absurd with each passing day. Information, conversation, knowledge is everywhere. They are out there experiencing, learning, enjoying whatever it was that brought them to the magazine in the first place… and they are doing it with newfound zeal. The web has got them charged.

So where and why exactly did the magazine start to loose the community? Why are the former experts slowly loosing their status as the go to source for information?

In a word: arrogance.

There, I said it. The problem that magazines have on the web is not the fast paced change in technology, but the sedentary arrogance that is epidemic among magazine editors. Editors and publishers who feel (usually at a subconscious level – these are good people by and large) that they occupy a place of privilege within their communities are killing off readership with each issue… a problem that most magazines still blindly wrestle with as I write this.

All is not lost, though. There is still time for magazines to make a play, a serious play, in the social space. Certainly old attitudes and egos will need to be checked end the editorial stance has to move away from proclamation and toward conversation, but that can happen. By and large editors are smart, sensible people… they can change if the change is important enough.

I am convinced that if magazines can break away from the linear, pipeline mentality, and embrace a transparent, networked way of working they can regain their status as the leaders in the social space. If editors can learn to listen to their communities and provide intellectual space for them to express themselves then old titles will find new relevance.

So, if you are an editor, or a publisher, stop obsessing over the tech… that will iron itself out. You have to get back to basics… You have to re-learn your community… You have to get your hands dirty and participate in the conversation – especially when it’s NOT taking place on your property… You have to mix it up… You want to be the leader of the charge– not the headless king.

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