Reasons not to start an online magazine

TLDR: The magazine model is not the best choice for indie intellectuals trying to start something. Two reasons: (1) Accelerating digital culture requires you to move fast and group projects move slower than solo projects, and (2) accelerating media segmentation rewards increasingly unique, hyper-niche content, so smaller, in-house production teams are better able to express unique micro-niches. I discuss some other social-psychological bases for this view, and acknowledge some exceptions.

I recently consulted for an individual interested in starting a group publication online, but he wanted my feedback. Here’s a transcript of my answer. The audio will eventually make its way into a podcast or something….

The publication model a lot of people have in their minds, I feel like it doesn't work anymore. There's this mental model people have of putting together a kind of collective internet project and... People will think about that in this relatively traditional template as a "publication," right? You have an editorial staff, and then you solicit talent and you commission works and stuff like that. My sense is that — I mean, I'm not 95% certain of this, but it's a hunch and it's my own personal, strategic sense of things — that type of model is just broken. It doesn't work any more in the new digital context.

I do see some people try to do digital publications, kind of like on the magazine model — I guess there are a few that are kind of succeeding right now. Something like Jacobin would be an example, or N+1, I think, is still going strong, or even Jacobite is something of an example. But I think what all of those examples have in common is relatively large, captive audiences they're drawing on. So Jacobin, for instance, it's pretty much a DSA organ, they've monopolized a particular membership group of people that are already unified, already see themselves in the same subculture and they're already dues-paying members. So they have a certain willingness to pay. They're piggy-backing on that, you know? N+1, they're much older I think, and they came up before the real digital publishing revolution really had its effects. Also, those people are really well networked in New York circles and stuff like that. Then with Jacobite, I don't even know if they're an exception that proves the rule because I think they're probably just barely staying afloat. They punch above their weight in terms of impact, I think they're a successful venture, but I don't think anyone is really making much money and I don't think it's particularly growing in a really rapid or exciting way.

In some sense, they're an example of: You can do that type of thing well, and they've definitely had a pretty good impact. Though they're pretty well networked in Silicon Valley circles, and I think they probably have a few decently generous backers, is my understanding. Of course, there's a bunch of more traditional magazines or magazine models that just seem to be going down the tubes slowly…

I could go on at length about why I think that model is a bit dangerous at the moment and why it's not exactly the most promising or exciting thing, but that's not to necessarily push you off it! These sorts of things can be very worthwhile, even if they're short lived or they don't exactly take off in the way you might hope. I'm not necessarily saying don't do it. I'm just saying, I have been watching a lot of this stuff and I do have a sense that that's not the most exciting thing.

So you might be wondering, okay Justin, what's replacing it or what's the better model? I think people are just figuring this out, but one way I would summarize it... All the new stuff that is most successful and that also small groups can bootstrap with relative efficiency, without connections or backers... It has to be more subcultural and niche. Bite the bullet and embrace that you're going to really only be interesting to a pretty specific type of person. That's part of what is going on in a lot of the successful ventures.

The second thing is, the projects that are succeeding right now, they really leverage the agility and efficiency of either solo creators or very small group collaborations that get along really well. One of the problems with the magazine model is that it's this larger corporate structure, where there's a board or there's some sort of leadership panel, and then they organize other people's work and fund it and support it and edit it and publish it. And one basic problem with all of that is, it just takes a lot of time. There's a lot of friction, and transaction costs. You'll find that trying to get people to write for you is like herding cats, you know, because most... er... a lot of people just aren't that productive. They're just not that focused. Even smart people, even people who are capable. It's just very hard for people. Whereas, if you're a solo creator or you have a small band of three to four people who are pumped and productive and motivated, and they're on the same page sufficiently well enough that there's not a lot of time wasted on debates about what should be done and what shouldn't be done... That small group can just churn out content. And I think what's really winning right now is volume and consistency.

An outfit that can produce new stuff every single day, let's say for a few months straight. Even if it's relatively short stuff, even if it's not the most amazing stuff. If you can achieve that kind of consistency and volume, I feel like that's the stuff that is winning right now. Just because there's so much noise that, to really get through to any particular community that you want to communicate with, there's such a high quantity of stuff floating around — and a lot of it is crap — that the only way to really get through is if you have your signal being emitted out into the world regularly all the time. Because only a few people are going to see each tweet. Only a few people are going to see each blog post. But if you're able to do that every single day, then it adds up in a way that other tempos or publishing frequencies don't add up.

Also, the smaller groups or the solo projects, what they have to their advantage right now is real personality character. This is something that people are really into right now, people won't really subscribe for things or buy things or even read things unless the producer is a human that they feel some sort of connection to. And again, the magazine model, it's much more corporate and cold. The magazine model prides itself on high quality, long-form stuff, which is cool, but it just doesn't register with people today, psychologically, because even if there's a really, really, really profound, good 10,000 word article, that was patiently edited, and the spelling is perfect, and the writers are very talented.... People see that and they're just like, "I don't feel like reading this." Whereas, if it's some person that they know of and have some sort of identification or relationship with, or a small collective that they know of, then they're emotionally motivated to check it out. [You’re not giving up on maximum high-quality, because all that content can be gathered, edited, revised, and reconstituted into sophisticated long-form later, just as high-quality as a magazine’s feature article.]

The emotional motivation is the make-or-break variable that is deciding right now what rises to the top and what doesn't. Especially for purchasing decisions. For people who are going to make that decision, "Oh, I want to throw these people five bucks a month," or "I want to buy this book," or not. That is hugely emotional and hugely personal [because trust in institutions is unprecedentedly low]. And I think you can only win that game if you have a very human, small-scale type of high-volume, high-consistency production model with a very focused subcultural niche, which is just very human and raw and honest (though the humans should use lots of AI in their production processes behind the scenes, as I do). That's my two cents on what seems to be working right now and what seems to not be working…