Google, E-Readers and More

David Carr and Ken Auletta
David Carr(l) and Ken Auletta have a Google chat

Did you know that employees at Google’s Mountain View, CA campus get free oil changes and car washes on Thursdays? Or that there are five doctors on campus? How about the fact that engineers can spend 20% of their time working on what they want? This 80/20 rule, which has spawned Google Wave, Google News and Gmail, is part of a corporate culture where boss and cofounder Sergey Brin rollerblades (late) to meetings in his gym shorts. Every building has its own cafeteria serving everything from Mexican food to sushi and free food is everywhere.

These delicious facts emerged at the Magazine Publishers Association of America’s first ever Magazine Innovation Summit, where David Carr, media columnist for The New York Times, interviewed New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, author of the new book “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.”  “I went to Google and walked out of there with my pockets full,” confessed Carr. “Why wouldn’t you? It’s free!

The laughter that followed was one of the lighter moments in a conference where Google loomed large for its success in contrast to the devastating loss of magazine advertising revenue in the last 18 months. As Auletta pointed out, Google got it right in more ways than their unique corporate culture: they manage to give away much of their content while generating more money from search than  the combined revenues of all the major magazines companies gathered for the MPA conference.

In fact, the quest to avoid the mistakes of the music industry through innovation and collaboration were leitmotifs at the conference. Instead of the false optimism or beleaguered pessimism that have prevailed at recent MPA conferences, this time participants talked excitedly about new e-readers, shared magazine digital storefronts, mobile as the bridge to truly engaged content, and paid content as a no-brainer–the secret sauce that will hopefully do for magazines what Adwords did for Google. “In the end you have to have guts to say I’m not going to give content away for free,” said John Squires, Time Inc.’s Executive Vice President, who is leading an effort to join Time Inc., Hearst and Condé Nast in the creation of a shared digital storefront to showcase their magazines. The principle focus, Squires added, was the development of new paid mobile apps. “People will pay for content on mobile,” he said with great assurance.

At points in the conference, the technology talk was deafening. Doug Carlson, CEO of Viv and Managing Director of Zinio,  prophesized that “the world is going wireless and mobile. The future of the magazine industry is portable tablet devices so that consumers can have content with them wherever they are.”  Mary Lou Jepson, CEO of Pixel QI, confidently predicted that e-readers and laptops would soon merge. Josh Quittner, former editor of Business 2.0 and now Editor-at-Large at Time Inc., hailed the arrival of the Apple Tablet. “We all know it’s coming,” he said. “When Apple’s [tablet] device is announced, there will be a mass ascension and everyone will go to media heaven.” Those on the ground, he noted, can look forward to even more advances in the next six months including devices that give a great reading experiences through color, eight-inch-on a diagonal, multi-touch screens and broadband-only network access. “Tell your readers not to buy e-readers for the holidays,” he urged the audience. “They will be stuck with TV’s with rabbit ears.”  And speaking of TV’s, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings professed with great certainly that Wi-Fi- enabled TV’s will be here by Christmas.

Of course, whenever magazine executives gather, there’s no shortage of talk about the longevity of print, no matter how snazzy the new technology that threatens to eclipse it. When Scott Donaton, President and CEO of Ensemble, asked his panelists whether they cared if their brand existed in print, David Carey, Group President, Condé Nast publications, neatly sidestepped the issue: “Each platform will create a new audience,” he answered.  Efrem (Skip) Zimbalist III, President and CEO of Active Interest Media, shrugged and said it really didn’t matter. “A great e-reader can help the environment and make edited content very immediate.” But Maria Rodale, Chairman and CEO of Rodale, Inc., would have no part of that debate. “Fifteen to twenty years from now, what matters is that our brands stay relevant and viable,” she declared. “Magazines will still be here because everyone likes to read in bed.”

For more about the longevity of magazines, check out the MPA Video: The Twenty Tweetable Truths About Magazines

by Andrea Chambers

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