Man, there’s been a ton of hand wringing over “the media” of late, from all the fuss over First Look and the New Republic to questions about whether a publication can survive if it’s not at 20-30mm uniques and growing – like current darlings Vox, BuzzFeed, and Vice.
To me, just one question matters when it comes to a publication and whether it has a chance of long term success: Is it a must read?
Back when we were just starting Wired – 22 years ago – I remember coming into founder Louis Rossetto’s office with some pressing matter. I was the Managing Editor, and it was my job to have a lot of pressing matters – the majority of them tactical in nature. I needed to edit pieces, I needed to get pages out the door, I needed approvals on headlines and captions and budgets and scores of other details. I’m not sure what I needed from Louis that day, but I do recall what he was doing – he was sitting down, a Wall St. Journal spread out across his desk, and he was slowly and deliberately turning the pages, studying the newspaper from front to back.
I had seen him doing this enough to know it was a regular habit, and the pile next to him, consisting of the NY Times, New Yorker, and other long form, old school periodicals – told me he was going to be at it for at least another hour if not more. As a harried Managing Editor of The Coolest Magazine In The World which covered The Digital Revolution, the idea of steeping myself in “old media” for an hour or more a day seemed insane. If an article in the Journal or the Times was really important, someone would tell me about it in email or on the Web. I interrupted Louis and I asked him: “How can you afford to take the time to do this every day?”
I’ll never forget his response. He looked up, genuinely nonplussed, and said “How can you afford not to?”
Looking back, with the benefit of having sat in Louis’ chair (as CEO of a media startup), I now understand his response. As CEO, Louis had to understand what the most important people in media were reading, and in order to do that, he had to read the Journal, the Times, and the New Yorker, at the very least. These publications were essential reading if he was to be fluent in his core community, the people in that club were the people who would determine Wired’s ability to get funding, to prosper, or to fail.
It may no longer be true that aspiring media chieftans must read the Journal to be fluent in their craft (certainly not in paper form, any way), but the lesson of that exchange stuck with me. If a publication is going to succeed, it must be required reading for a core of influential people in a given market. At the end of the day, that is what matters most. It’s why Wired worked – lots of people may have wanted to read Wired, but a core group of them felt they had to. For four or so years, the same was true of The Industry Standard. And it was true of many of the best sites that aligned with Federated back in 2005-2010 – TechCrunch, Mashable, and GigaOm among them.
For me, the true test of a publication’s endurance is its convening power – does it bring together the most important people in a given community? If it does, it has the best chance of success, regardless of its overall reach or number of pageviews. Certainly it’s no guarantee of success – you still have to be deft and thoughtful when it comes to making money. But it all starts with that one simple question: Is it a must read? All else flows from that.