How one magazine magnate sees it and what others can learn from him


Jann Wenner, whose company publishes Rolling Stone, US Weekly and Men’s Journal, recently gave what I thought was a very interesting interview to AdAge. You can find it here.

As the headline suggests, one of the things Wenner does in the interview (quite convincingly I might add) is to outright ridicule publishers who have come to embrace the iPad as some sort of second coming of Jesus. Yes, he is partially (and maybe deliberately) misrepresenting many people’s views by saying that. Nevertheless, there are many great points made about this and other topics. I’ve pulled out the ones that resonated the most with me. Let me know what you think:


Mr. Wenner: The most important thing a magazine can do online is maintain its brand and be very strong in terms of delivering on that brand. And then link it to the magazine in such a way — or at least this is going to be our strategy — link it to the magazine in such a way that it does things in the same field with the same brand and the same point of view, but not things you can do in print.

Now I think that you can build both successfully — make the whole experience more exciting for your print reader and vice versa…

This is a particularly salient point because I feel it applies not only to magazine publishers, but to newspaper publishers and really anyone who has a print and an online product.

I hate to beat a dead horse and I’m always heaping praise on them, but The Atlantic does this exceptionally well and they continue to be noticed for it. As that Business Insider story says, this is a 153-year-old institution that has created an online brand every bit as powerful as the print one. In fact, as I’m fond of telling people, I first encountered The Atlantic online and didn’t realize at first that they were a print magazine. Once I did, I actually became a print subscriber because I wanted to monetarily support a publication I felt was doing such excellent work.

Moving on to more Wenner quotes of note:

Unless you’re really good you’re in trouble.

Though he was referring at this point to the look and design of print magazines and how quality now matters more than ever, there is a larger point to be made here. For all the hand-wringing we often hear about all the crap the Internet churns out, the reality is that even online people still value quality and especially uniqueness. You have to be good and you have to be different and if you do both extremely well and consistently, you will be rewarded with increased readership and loyalty. There’s just no other possible outcome.

Back to Wenner’s point, because digital content is so freely and widely available you do have to become exceptional in print. “Good enough” just isn’t, well, good enough anymore. You just can’t slap the same thing up in both places which is still what so many news organizations are doing. You have to do things unique to each medium, whether it be print, online or mobile. You have to periodically do things in each one that you can’t do in the others. 

Finally, on magazines rushing to the iPad, Wenner has this to say:


From the publisher’s point of view I would think they’re crazy to encourage it. They’re going to get less money for it from advertisers. Right now it costs a fortune to convert your magazine, to program it, to get all the things you have to do on there. And they’re not selling. You know, 5,000 copies there, 3,000 copies here, it’s not worth it. You haven’t put a dent in your R&D costs.

So I think that they’re prematurely rushing and showing little confidence and faith in what they’ve really got, their real asset, which is the magazine itself, which is still a great commodity.

We can surely debate the view Wenner takes here as regards the iPad, but what I think is not a topic for debate is how important it is to have confidence in one’s product.

This is, again, a lesson not only for magazine publishers but also for other publishers and really anyone who is trying to sell a product or service. And for a business whose primary product is words, information, images and videos, it’s even more important to have a clear sense of the value proposition you bring to your customers and to not be shy about declaring it.

Think of the commercials you see on TV for products that actually are necessary for people’s lives like, say, toothpaste or trash bags. The reason those companies advertise (even though most people already brush their teeth or take out the trash) is to try to build in the viewer’s mind the idea that their brand is somehow unique or better than the others. In many of those cases of course, it might not even be true. So please understand I’m not suggesting that you brainwash your readers/viewwers/listeners. I’m saying you need to actually be original and different (not just say you are), be confident in it and communicate it to your audiences. If you want loyalty from them, you need to constantly be giving them a reason to give it to you.




  1. Anonymous June 20, 2011

    My one real issue with not having “magazine apps” is that of wanting to make their content portable, even when I’m not connected. I know, I know, I can turn the web pages into .pdf files on my desktop/laptop, or use Instapaper to do it.

    But what if I want an offline capability, AND a more polished experience? So far, only a native app can give me that – or an ePub formatted version, that I read in iBooks – but that doesn’t provide all the bells and whistles of a native app either.

  2. Anna Tarkov June 20, 2011

    Or, you know, there’s always the portable, offline version called the actual physical magazine 😉

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