What’s Up With Those Big, Fat New Economy Magazines?

Marching in lockstep with the growth of the “New Economy” has been the growth of “New Economy” magazines. A favorite observation regarding these big, fat publications is that they are, in fact, big and fat: The size of Vogue, the size of a catalog, the size of a phone book, etc. Another favorite ploy is to wryly note the irony of old-fashioned paper magazines being among New Economy’s most conspicuous success stories, what with their being so big and fat with ads.

With the Nasdaq index lingering well below its recent highs, it’s worth wondering whether the emergence–and, of course, the big-and-fatness–of these magazines says something fundamental about changes in the economy. After all, if the editorial mission of each is built around the idea that the Internet is “changing everything,” and the magazines cumulatively offer up thousands of pages of articles on this theme every month, well then, there must be something to it, yes? Well, sort of. These magazines do, in fact, say something about this economy, but it’s a little subtler than that.

First, the evidence, as gathered from my mailbox at the local Borders. I’m including the slightly older, but also New Economy-ish titles Fast Company (June issue: 418 pages) and Wired (June issue: 400 pages). And then there are the new New Economy titles. The May issue of Business 2.0 is 470 pages long. The May 29 issue of the weekly Industry Standard is 272. The debut issue of a Fortune spinoff called eCompany Now is 302 pages. The current edition of the quarterly Forbes supplement, ASAP, runs 224 pages. The June issue of Red Herring is 628 pages. Big! Fat! Why, if you stack them on top of each other, they’re almost as tall as a beer can!

And you might want to have a beer handy. Having spent a fair amount of time going through this pile, I can say with some confidence that, while each of these magazines has its good and bad points, there are not nearly enough interesting stories out there to fill so many pages. In fact, within these 2,714 pages, I found nine interesting stories. (Side note: Explaining all my potential conflicts of interest in making editorial judgments regarding these magazines would take the rest of the column, so I’m not going to get any more specific than that.) Since we all love coming up with new and creative “metrics” in the New Economy, I would like to introduce the pages-to-interest ratio, or P/I. The cumulative P/I of my control group–the number of pages divided by the number of interesting stories–is roughly 301. In contrast, last week’s New Yorker had a P/I of 33.

Anyway, there is apparently more to come. Both Red Herring and Business 2.0 reportedly plan to increase their frequency to twice a month. This, as few have missed, can be justified only for reasons having to do with selling more ads–which is perfectly legitimate. Fortune is a very hot magazine right now, but even so, it can sell NetValue only one four-page ad spread in its May 15 issue. Now, however, Time Inc. can also sell NetValue a four-page ad spread in eCompany at the same time. Makes sense to me.

But doesn’t a more Darwinian market spell more Darwinian times for these magazines? Again: sort of. Bear in mind what might be called the Rule of Boo. is the erstwhile online fashion merchant that spent lavishly on advertising before collapsing under the weight of bad technology and worse planning. The Rule of Boo states that while an Internet company that has raised tens of millions of dollars from investors may never make a penny, it still has tens of millions of dollars to spend on “building buzz” in the meantime. Thus, you want that company to buy as many ads as possible while its checks are still clearing.

The weird thing–and this is particularly true now that the whole business-to-consumer e-commerce model that created in the first place has fallen out of favor–is why these companies want to buy so many ads. In a magazine like Bride’s or Vogue, the massive ad glut makes perfect sense. In the New Economy magazines, it’s often unclear why a reader would be interested in many of the advertising companies, or even what they do. The aforementioned NetValue, for instance, is “the first panel-based service that measures all Internet activity.” Is this ad really bringing in any business?

This, I think, is how these magazines fit with the current Zeitgeist. They are, essentially, buzz feedback loops: Net companies desperate for attention buy more ads, meaning that more reporters at more Net magazines need to drum up more stories to fill more edit pages and so write up Net companies who are desperate for attention. (Or, as in the case of Business 2.0, edit pages have been filled simply by reprinting previously published stories in their entirety.) The companies clip the stories as proof they are getting buzz, maybe frame them for the lobby, use them to get private investors interested in early stage companies, giving them a war chest to start buying ads and building buzz. And so on. In some cases startups will buy an ad in one of these magazines solely to boost employee morale–as in, “Look, we have an ad in a big, fat magazine!”

And so that 682-page Red Herring has a little red burst on the cover touting the size of the magazine–“Our Biggest Issue Ever!”–as though the page count, in and of itself, might be some sort of selling point. And maybe it is. For now, at least.