On Conde Nast Shuttering Domino, And The Folly Of The Magazine Spin-off

Posted by: Jon Fine on January 28, 2009

Some years ago, when consumer spending was absolutely on fire, I was talking with a top magazine executive about Conde Nast’s Lucky magazine—a.k.a. “the magazine about shopping.”

As journalists sometimes do, I misread the moment to assume that Lucky was A. an infallible idea, and B. this kind of magazine—very focused on consuming, almost everything “useful” and hardly anything resembling, you know, actual articles—could be transposed onto a gazillion topics. Lucky-for-the-home was on the way—Domino. I thought Lucky-for-travel should be next. As I told the executive, I could see such a magazine perfectly. A travel title for people under the age of 50. A less stuffy feel than the existing players. Lots of photos, and short articles packed with practical information. (I mean, does anyone actually read the long articles in the big travel magazines?)

A slam dunk of an idea, right? (By which I meant: I would read it.)

To the executive’s credit, I got in response a knowing grin and was told that that travel magazine was not going to work--something about advertisers only wanting to reach the well-heeled, I think, and the well-heeled tend to be older--and that Domino was probably as far as the Lucky idea could be extended.

As we found out today, it couldn’t even be extended that far as Domino. Conde Nast shuttered it today, after it had spent months on magazine insiders’ personal deathwatch lists.

The death of Domino is the latest and clearest sign of the troubles facing the magazine world: in the past ten or so years, the assumption was that certain magazine forms could travel –hello, Lucky and Domino—and that certain brand names could be slapped on all manner of offshoots—hello, O At Home, Teen People and Cosmopolitan’s CosmoGirl.

This proved unsustainable. Elle Girl, CosmoGirl, Teen People, O At Home, Domino, Cargo (Lucky-for-men!), Men’s Vogue, Blueprint (Martha Stewart Living for young nesters), Travel & Leisure Family . . . all gone.

Which means that the easy ways for magazine companies to grow—by launching off existing franchises—doesn’t really work. (Perhaps it never did, long-term.)

So what’s the way for magazine companies to grow, to be something a bit grander than an assemblage of familiar names that are all either mature or outright declining?

Good question. Anyone got any answers? Because the people running these companies don’t.

Reader Comments

Drew Kerr

January 28, 2009 4:07 PM

You left out Cargo, the "male spin-off" of Lucky.

Jon Fine

January 28, 2009 4:11 PM

Drew--
how could I forget Cargo? I was the guy who, in the pages of Ad Age, was begging Conde to start Lucky-for-boys. Anyway, it's there, a few paragraphs up from the end.

Don

January 28, 2009 4:23 PM

I only get one weekly in print and noticed that issues once running 95 pages were running in the 60s.

The shame of that idea is that there is no particular way for me to find out about the travel information I want to know. (Inexpensive sub-$2500 vacations, new locations, family friendly / non-athletic, authentic experiences but with educated reviews.)

I can't trust something like yelp when yelp reviewers in college or fresh out can't get anything right about my own city (gushing about the bland- what I sometimes want to call Hooters syndrome where what's attracting a numbskull to the restaurant doesn't matter to me), let alone another one and as suggested above the known travel magazines regularly discuss packages in the $10k range for families.

Honestly though, I tend to believe that no advertiser-supported media outlets are sustainable in the long-term, not any, not the WSJ or NYTimes, but that we mustn't look past the mid-term of let's say a 10-20 year existence. Life wasn't successful in the long-term, but that shouldn't discount it's ability to reach people during WW2 (and inspire competitors like Look and I think Colliers).

The only way for a magazine company to grow that I can think of is to create an immersive experience with a social networking angle where the reader is asked to become a site member, upload personal information (such as photos of how they decorated their rooms for a Domino-style publication) and are asked, via well-planned interactive voting to decide the tack the publication should take on various issues. Interface and ease of use should be key.

For instance, if I could pick up a tired product like Spin, I might create a section for consumers to review dozens of new music tracks every week, then remix their comments in print at the same time the mag runs the review. Amateur photogs should document important tours (let's say 50 or so tours each month) and share their photos and comments about the tours, the most interesting of which would make it into print. The bands in question would be asked and not in a lazy way, to comment on the user reviews. Interviews would be built upon the top user-voted questions that were supplied and not for one or two interviews, but for 20. Contests and related benefits to the readers would need to be UBIQUITOUS and not stupid. None of that "win a case of an energy drink" junk. More like every intern they have will take a cd (or baseball or drum head or t-shirt) to 50 touring bands playing NYC and get autographs, etc. The amount of online content should dwarf the print content- that way the printed magazine morphs into an online community that's greater than the sum of its parts. It would take some serious management of users (instead of an editor used to hiring writers), but I think it's doable.

Nelson Rodriguez

January 28, 2009 9:18 PM

"Which means that the easy ways for magazine companies to grow—by launching off existing franchises—doesn’t really work. (Perhaps it never did, long-term.)"

Pardon the cliche or preachiness here but the idea would be to not go for an easy way on anything... The easy win is also the easy loss... but back to the magazine business.

Conde's decision to shutter Domino has to do with factors and internal data that we don't have at our fingertips... I remember pondering hard on the Jane Magazine shut down as I also saw that their advertising revenue streams were growing not decreasing.

I disagree with the notion that brand off shoots can't (or don't) work... to some extent, they are the future for magazines. The magazines that focus on their brand missions and the user experiences that they inspire will have more opportunities to "offshoot" on other channels or platforms.

Case in point:

The success of...

Time Inc's
People StyleWatch (planned increase in frequency)

Time Style and Design (same)

Wenner Media's
US Weekly (planned fashion quarterly)

Perhaps Conde's closing of Domino has more to do with their being late in the online space (in comparison to Time Inc.)...

The magazine sector mirrors the music industry in that the internet is forcing it to redefine it's business model... we'll see, but the ride won't lack for excitement.

Jon Robert Hogan

January 28, 2009 9:48 PM

Now that they've gotten rid of that piece of c#$p (and hopefully Paige Rense's hubris), let's hope Conde Nast will re-incarnate House and Garden for a third time- and implore Dominique Browning to return to the helm of a truly legendary monthly.

[withheld]

January 29, 2009 10:41 AM

Domino could have survived -- it were more effectively run and published somewhere other than Conde Nast. Conde needs to get their act together and bring costs down in a meaningful way; I've never observed a more wasteful operation.

Deborah Needleman, as nice a person as she is, is not EIC material. She is incapable of making decisions, and this trait set the tone for the whole operation. They burned so much money by both overshooting and re-shooting *everything*. Definitely not a good long-term strategy to compensate for indecisiveness.

The magazine industry in general, but Conde in particular, needs to let go of this idea that their living in a lavish, glamorous industry. It's the trenches, bitches, and you better have a good plan.

Jack Brady

January 29, 2009 10:42 AM

And is it my imagination, or is New York magazine doubling up on issues instead of publishing weekly the past few weeks?

JB

January 29, 2009 11:28 AM

Nobody remembers now what made Esquire great back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. No one surveyed readers back then to find out what staffers should write in a magazine. That would have been an affront. I read it voraciously to learn what THEY had to say, what THEY thought was important, which then became important to me. I, a mere reader and follower, would never have suggested "user content". Magazines have bent over today to try to keep the reader in the content loop, and usually it's what the other poster called the "numbskull theory" in action. I don't want to read things of interest to the American Idle audience, I want to know what thinking, sensitive people care about in their pop culture. Not an impossible task. Goodbye and good riddance to all these magazines that hope to spin their content in a way that primarily delivers advertisers' messages to consumers' minds. That whole sales-driven mindset is poisonous to the magazine experience. JMHO from out here in the boondocks. Thanks for reading.

Katharine

January 29, 2009 11:59 AM

As a reader, not a media professional, I thought Domino had it's fun moments-- but I am so glad to hear Jon Robert Hogan's comment about House and Garden- a classic publication I miss immensely. Beautiful, educational, artistic, those gardens AND Dominique Browning-- I still have back issues and clippings that I actually use as new interior or exterior projects arise.

Greg

January 29, 2009 1:20 PM

Just a quick note to JB: I was given a copy of the January 1961 issue of Esquire as a gift last year, and editorial product aside, what made it a successful business proposition was A) a monopoly on the distribution of content and B) an advertising base that has largely ceased to exist, i.e. pages and pages and pages of liquor and cigarette brands, literally one on every page. Romanticism aside, magazines were a mass medium for a "masscult" culture (to quote Dwight Macdonald). It won't be much longer before the magazine business is the book business: low margins, high-status, no growth, and populated with romantics, like me.

Don

January 29, 2009 2:03 PM

I'm not sure that "no one" remembers the greatness of Esquire, I keep getting New Journalism analysis books for Christmas.

dawn

January 29, 2009 6:52 PM

I loved Blueprint and it is gone. I loved Budget Living and it is gone. Domino had expensive stuff but some great ideas.Not everyone has a billion dollars. I'd like to see magazine showing things and places that I can actually afford. I subscribed to both of the magazine above. I stopped subscribing to Glamour and that ilk because they just didn't fit my lifestyle. I just subscribed to Ready Made so I bet it will go away too.

Akoto

February 3, 2009 12:07 AM

Dominoe's fold lends itself to a larger question- what the heck is the magazine industry going to do?!

From my point of view, certain magazines have an advantage in this digital age. Let's face it- people WANT to buy bridal mags, fashion mags and home decor mags. The visual use of these types of publications just doesn't translate as well on the web.

On the contrary, I'm not sure how many people are clamoring each week for People magazine to reveal the latest bit of useless Bragelina news, especially when we can google all sorts of useless news in a nano second.

So, according to my own observations, Dominoe should have made it. Men's Vogue should have made it, too. So why the are all of these magazines with great potential to do well slipping into magazine oblivion? Because no one is thinking outside of the box!

Magazines think it's enough to just go wherever the consumer is going. They want us online- we'll give it to them. They want RSS feeds- we'll give it to them. But the magazine industry will suffer if they don't figure out what the consumer wants even before the consumer does.

It's ironic how an industry whose products ooze creativity lack creativity in its business model. I certainly don't have the answer, but in my view, magazines need to totally reinvent themselves, or Dominoe will not be the last in 2009.

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