Thursday, June 17, 2010

Techdirt saves journalism - Harper's Magazine

Last night I was lucky to be invited to join a group of super smart people at an event hosted by Techdirt (and sponsored by Google). The event was provocatively (and with tongue planted firmly in cheek) titled "Techdirt Saves* Journalism" (see the disclaimer at the bottom of the page for more about the title) and was a collection of techies and journalists (print & online), along with a mix of lawyers, consultants, and other interested parties.

Things kicked off with Google's chief economist Hal Varian giving a version of his FTC presentation in which he detailed the declining economic reality for the journalism business:

031310 Hal Varian FTC Preso - Revised

Ian Rogers, CEO of Topspin, followed and gave a brief discussion of the changing nature of the music business, along with some data that suggested that that industry may finally have started to turn things around (revenues in the UK were actually up last year after years of decline). And then Mike Masnick (CEO of Floor64, the company behind Techdirt) very briefly outlined his CwF+RtB concept ("connect with fans, give them a reason to buy) before breaking us into smaller discussion groups. Our charge: pick a publication and spend 45 minutes saving it.

My group - which consisted of two people from public radio, an AP bureau chief, a contributor to a leading online-only news pub, an editor for a blog network, me, a telecom exec, a Floor64 employee and our leader was a product strategy exec - picked Harper's Magazine. From our (admittedly minimally-informed, this was a quick process) vantage point, Harper's struck us as a magazine with huge brand cachet, a tremendous archive, loyal readers, and less digital presence than similar publications (like the Atlantic or the New Yorker).

We don't know what Harper's financial situation is, other than to note that it's funded through a foundation (which resulted when the magazine was about to be shut down 30 years ago). From its about page, we know that it is the nation's oldest continually published magazine. Most of the articles that are online (not all are) are protected behind a paywall.

As we wrapped up, I tweeted about the experience, and that the 8 of us found it to be a pretty invigorating process. Other groups had mixed results - some picked specific publications (as we had); others chose to think more holistically about the industry in general.

Fast forward to this afternoon: Harper's replied and asked what our suggestions were. Which brings me to this post. Our thoughts:

  • The Index is the hook. Many of us are or were subscribers to the magazine, and for us the most vivid connection to the magazine we had was the Index. We thought about using the Index as a way to encourage a more active community at the magazine - what if fans of the Index could submit their own? What if the best submissions (as judged by other members) had a shot at getting published? Several different directions seemed likely here - maybe the best contribution each month got a free subscription to the magazine. Or let members (paid or just registered, doesn't matter) collaborate on building an Index around a particular topic. If our visceral connection to the Index was any guide (yes, there's a sample bias), there's an appetite for engaging people on the intellectual challenge and potential reward here. (Side note - we loved the ability to search the Index, and that search results included hover buttons to tweet each Index stat: Harper's practically invented tweet-able nuggets of info. But the fact that these are all contained behind a search box means that they're not easily discoverable by search, and the static archive pages of past Indexes don't include the same functionality. Neither do the subject pages.) 
  • Events: the success the New Yorker has had with its events prompted several people to see potential for Harper's in giving its fans a way to connect with writers, contributors and other readers as a complement to the offline experience of reading the publication. Cultivating the personalities who write for the magazine, maybe pivoting on the topicality of a particular index (heck, any month's Index could be the agenda for an entire conference) -- there are lots of ways of having the events foster a stronger sense of community among readers, become revenue generators unto themselves (sponsors would want to not only help cover costs but would want to have ways of associating with events that are valued by the attractive demographic Harper's audience represents), and expand Harper's reach beyond its current print audience.
  • Online content: too much of the rich content contained within its archives is unavailable to non-subscribers. That means that even when Harper's has information relevant to current topics (here's a collection of Index stats about oil, for instance), much of it's inaccessible. Build topic pages around timely issues, share the rich content from Harper's archives that demonstrates the contributions that Harper's has been making to the American dialogue for over a century. Not only will that help Harper's deliver on its mission today (being an independent voice in American culture) but it'll grow the community of people who want to be included in that voice and maybe even contribute to it. (In fairness, the topic pages do exist but are tricky to find - here's the topic page for Iraq - but most of the content's behind the paywall.)
  • Print: We were floored that there hasn't been a book of Harper's Indexes (indices?) since The Harper's Index Book, Vol. 3 published in 2000. If ever there was a perennial coffee table book, this is it. Heck, I'll bet there's even a market for framed prints of Harper's Index stats (one per print, with an illustration?). In each case it's not necessarily about generating revenue but covering costs and extending the connection fans have to the brand.
I'm sure I'm missing some of the conversation/suggestions that flowed from the discussion - as I mentioned, it was an engaging 45 minutes. And I imagine that some of what we talked about above is either being done or has been tried by Harper's, so this may be of limited value to the Harper's team. But the exercise was more about the thought exercise - what would we do, how would we try and tackle the challenge - and in that I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and the outcome.

What do you think? What else should Harper's (or someone like Harper's) be thinking about? What opportunities are out there that they should jump on?


  1. Rick,

    Great write-up of our discussion.

    Derek Kerton.

  2. Rick,

    Terrific account. I like the fact that y'all picked a specific brand and were able to identify 4 key areas in such a short time. Whether Harper's takes the lead on any of it is largely irrelevant to seeing how its brand could be extended and made more digitally engaging.