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Saturday, June 30, 2012

What closing a magazine tells you about why you had to close a magazine

We had to close The Word yesterday. We'd told the team the day before. All that remained was to announce it to the readers, advertisers and other interested parties.

Not long ago this would have meant a call to Media Guardian. There would have been some bargaining over exclusivity. A press release would have been sent. There would have been a tense wait to see whether the story was treated sympathetically or shoehorned into a larger narrative. Then you would hope that your readers and interested parties happened to read Media Guardian.

This is what actually happened. Before I went to the office I posted a statement explaining the closure on the Word website. Then I tweeted saying that the magazine was closing in both mine and the magazine's account. This linked to my statement.

By the time I got to work forty minutes later the story was everywhere. The Word site had fallen over twice through weight of traffic. People I hadn't seen for years were in touch. Slower ones were told about it by relatives in China. Media Guardian were on the phone, chasing after the conversation that they once would have started.

People love a funeral and in the digital age they don't even have to dress for it. This funeral was even more attractive because the deceased was there to hear what was said about them. The words of tribute were kindly meant but sometimes over the top. A surprising number of them were laced with anger. Surely somebody must be to blame for this. Somebody suggested getting up a petition, which made me wonder who they would present it to. Others seemed to hint at a wider tragedy about the decline and fall of so-called intelligent debate. Speaking as one who's played that card occasionally when in a tight spot this kind of forehead-smiting, woe-is-us reaction is, to use the adjective of our times, "inappropriate".

Here's what I learned yesterday. The speed with which this item of news spread and became a news event in which people could happily participate and the "disintermediation", to use a jargon word, of the traditional news outlets was a live demonstration of the same forces which mean you can't publish magazines, or indeed anything, the way you once did.

Even the most established and successful ones are having to go about it in a different way. The boss of Hearst Magazines in the United States said recently that all magazines needed to have five revenue streams. They used to have two. It was hard enough to get those.

The organs of the media once sat athwart the roads down which information travelled, charging readers a premium for access to information they couldn't get elsewhere, and advertisers for access to readers they couldn't identify any more precisely.

That doesn't apply anymore. Both readers and advertisers have got hundreds of choices and they use them, which is fine. I don't yearn for the old days. I think the new wide open media world is more interesting and fun than the old one. But I also wouldn't be surprised to see any media enterprise - from massive household name newspaper brands to tiny ones like The Word - shut their doors tomorrow. I wouldn't bat an eyelid.