Magazine madness?

Check out Lesley M. M. Blume’s article in Slate’s The Big Money about Condé Nast pulling back from the Webconde1 by firing many of its staffers from CondéNet, which oversees such sites as epicurious.com and style.com:

What is behind Condé Nast’s bellicose approach to the Web? Other traditional media outlets properly regard the Internet as both destroyer and savior and have gone into overdrive to translate themselves into online brands. By axing its online properties, Condé Nast is revealing its apparent online strategy: looking the other way while Jaws devours the back of your boat.

Magazines, as a whole, are four or five years behind newspapers in their transition to the Web, mainly because advertising is just starting to erode in magazines. Blume points an exception — People (8.7m uniques, 733m page views a month) — but notes how People’s Web traffic still pales in comparison to CNN.com and ESPN.com.

Condé Nast’s move reminds me of the dotcom bust of 2000, when many newspapers pulled back from the Web. (btw, that move spawned, among others, MaxPreps.com, which is taking over high school sports coverage nationwide.) In hindsight, we know that wasn’t the best strategy.

Condé Nast owns some wonderful sites. It remains to be seen what impact the Web layoffs will have. Mansueto Ventures (Fast Company and Inc.) cut its digital division in October, and shifted online responsibilities to the print publications, which is a better solution. Having a centralized digital division that controls the Web sites for individual publications doesn’t work, as Knight Ridder found out.

This transition to Webworld is a challenge made in heaven…for the brave, not the faint of heart; for those who like wobbling along on a tightrope for a few years (e.g., magazines’ online revenues are still tiny — in the low single digits), who like exploring new territory and leading others into it, who tolerate making mistakes, because they know that mistakes provide very useful information.

These folks can’t fathom how erudite people can ignore the massive changes happening around them, and make decisions that are the absolute opposite of what’s in their best long-term interests. For some insight, check out Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It taught me that the best strategy is to focus on the people and organizations who are willing to learn to ride the big waves, instead of those who are comfortable wading in the shallows.

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