Not even sexy ladies will save them

playboycover

It’s no secret that the print magazine business, like the newspaper business, is in deep trouble, due primarily to a nosediving ad industry. The New York Times laid out the grim picture a few weeks ago. From Forbes to Time to the New Yorker, few have been immune. Playboy announced Wednesday that it lost $158 million in 2008 and may put itself up for sale. It expects a 27 percent decline in ad revenue in its publishing division in the first quarter of 2009.

It’s not just a matter of the plunge in ad sales, of course, it’s the fact that consumers are ever-more plugged in online, where the expectation remains that most content should be available for free. Last month Playboy stated it would cut costs by closing its New York offices and combining its print and online editorial operations. (Sources tell me that Hugh Hefner’s storied publication might face a particularly competitive environment in the online space, where reportedly there is upwards of 260 new alluring ventures launched each day.)

The print media industry has been under pressure for years per the rise of the Internet, but the economic crisis is causing it to implode. Dare I say there could be a silver lining in these circumstances. Because advertising is so depressed at a time when technology is rapidly changing media consumption, it could force more rapid innovation toward viable production and delivery of digital content.

Plenty of people are talking about what they think isn’t likely to work. (Howard Kurtz takes a turn running the list today.) But Slate’s Jack Shafer, arguing that not all information wants to be free, points to an interesting prospect — moving beyond the Web browser as we know it. Whether an autonomous online application such as Apple’s mega-successful iTunes, or Amazon’s Kindle book reader, or the New York Times’ experimental news reader, I agree with Shafer that it’s still early in a major transition period. Quality information eventually wants to be paid for — and produced with the right combination of creativity, authenticity and authority, in the digital future (when “Web browsing” may easily look antiquated) it may not have to ride on a bunch of SUV ads.

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