Time Inc.’s John Squires: The latest to get the iTunes/print comparison wrong
Peter Kafka has an illuminating Q&A with John Squires, SVP of Time, Inc. He’s been tasked with, according to the memo from his boss Ann Moore, “putting the genie back in the bottle,” with regards to free online content. Unsurprisingly, the first model Squires turns to in the interview is the iTunes Store:
MediaMemo: I’m struck by Ann’s “genie” reference–are we meant to take that in a tongue-in-cheek way, or do you folks really think you can put the free-content genie back in the bottle? Or am I misinterpreting that?
John Squires: We’re not unrealistic about the challenge, but iTunes showed people will pay for something attractively packaged and fairly priced that they once got for free….We also wanted to get your attention. So I guess we’re genies.
Now, I understand the attractiveness of thinking that Time Inc., can look a little less like a collection of dead-tree magazines and a little more like the most successful single purpose online store in the world. But iTunes did not do what Squires and many other media execs seems to think it did. Music was “free” (and highly illegal) on Napster for just the blink of an eye. People have been sharing magazines, including People, mailing clippings, browswing in the dentist’s office, for etc, for decades and decades. The usage model is entirely different.
And Napster, as I recall, was pretty terrible as far as delivering entire albums, no artwork, ending up with bad quality files, etc. When the Apple iTunes store came along, they didn’t just replace Napster, they revolutionized online music access, dramatically. Full albums, artwork, bonus tracks, related artist info, reviews, minor label distribution, the list of improvements goes on. They gave people, in other words, a huge reason to pay for content. But they did not put the genie back in the bottle. Despite working with the record industry, iTunes has been a massive disruptor to that industry, forever changing the business model. My teenage self can’t believe Tower Records has been gone from NYC for years, and Virgin Megastore just shuttered, but honestly, I can’t remember the last time I went into either of those stores anyway.
How this relates to Time, Inc.: There is no more genie, and there is no more bottle. The genie, Time’s content, has become less valuable with the explosion of competing outlets, fostered by the Internet. I don’t mean to say that Time doesn’t hire some of the best writers and editors in the world for their magazines– they do. But they are consistently outgunned in the online world by speed, volume and accessibility. For Time’s magazines to recover from this, they would have to aggressively move online–and then guess what? They would be just another voice in the crowd, while cannibalizing their print business. And they’d be in direct competition with sites that have spent years developing their traffic, reputations and content to work only on the Internet. And none of them are using an iTunes model to monetize content, because a story is not a song.
The bottle is the delivery system, the way Time would sell content. And here’s where the iTunes model really breaks: when you want a song, you don’t just want, say, a “rock song.” You want a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Specifically, you want, “Sweet Home Alabama.” iTunes sells that song, and when you download it, you know what you’re getting. But when you want to read a story on say, Obama’s health care plan, there’s really nothing that’s going to pull you to Time Magazine’s story vs. The New York Times’ or The Atlantic’s. These days, you might even prefer to read Politico’s inside baseball coverage, where you can read five stories about the health care issue in one sitting.
In other words, much of Time Inc’s content is simply not as unique as it once was, and it’s certainly not unique enough to inspire people to pay for it. The likelihood of a free source satisfying your needs as a reader is great enough to all but eliminate the likelihood of your buying an article from an iTime Store or whatever. That’s a stark contrast to music: No one is going to buy an MP3 of a cover band playing “Sweet Home Alabama,” unless that’s what they actually want. Nor is anyone going to buy a song where someone hums “Sweet Home Alabama” and talks about how great a song it is. That’s not the experience of hearing Skynyrd. The difference is too great. But the difference between two well written stories, where both reporters talk to the right sources, get the right quotes and details, and do a good job of explaining the issues, are not nearly as vast, and when one is free, guess which one most people will pick? Likewise, the difference between a good story a really good blogger like Andrew Sullivan commenting on a story and providing analysis for someone who already knows the story is its own value proposition. Time’s stories are not unique snowflakes; they’re part of a blizzard that everyone’s trying to shovel through.
For nearly everything Time Inc. publishes, from Sports Illustrated, to Time, to Fortune, to Golf, to Real Simple, to Southern Living, the sad truth for Time Inc., is that if readers are forced to pay to access that content online, many will simply choose to visit a different website or read a blog summary of the content or just subscribe to the print magazine.
Squires, later in the interview, does talk about adding value to Time’s products to convince people to pay for them online. That can work, but only with a change in perspective: I think the problem is that Time Inc. wants to be Apple in this equation, but in reality, it’s going to be a record label. Someone else has already come up with the business model, and of course I’m talking about Amazon’s Kindle. As record labels found with iTunes, Time is going to make far less money and have far less control on Kindle than they’re used to. But they do have an opportunity to create a real value-added magazine product that’s available only on the Kindle or e-book platforms. Yet right now, Time Magazine’s Kindle version gets really bad reviews for its incompleteness.
But so do most other magazines and journals. So, John Squires, here’s a suggestion: why not hire a graphic designer, a programmer and an editor, give them a small budget, and put out the best damn Kindle newsweekly you can? Why not optimize photos and layouts for the e-ink screen? Why not deliver the magazine to users not when the issue hits newsstands, but when it hits the printing press? For that matter, why not include a midweek update with the arts and culture essays that have already closed for the week, and a few Kindle only stories or sidebars? Call it Time Ahead. On Kindle, most of your competition stinks, earning the same complaints as you do. Are you going to make a lot of money on Kindle? Definitely not at first, but it’s time to stop being shortsighted about these things. Why not own your competition on the device, while you still can, and use the experience of building a better Time on the Kindle to rebuild all of your magazines for digital distribution?
All of this though, would be predicated on Time admitting to itself it’s not the Apple of this equation, but the Warner Bros. Can they do it?