CAR 2.0: What does the future hold for a monthly automotive magazine?

By Sam Burnett

There’s something quite exciting about a magazine. Not the work producing it, but the sitting down and reading it. The smell, the feel, the discovery of what’s inside;the knowledge of being part of something bigger, knowing that there are thousands of other people sat opening, smelling, exploring their magazine.

It’s also quite apt that as I pull together some thoughts for this article that Tim Pollard, associate editor of CAR magazine, blogs about the excitement of a magazine (Pollard 2010). I wanted to look at what the future might hold for a magazine like CAR, faced with the challenge of the digital age. The internet is onto 4G or 3.0 or 3D whatever new experience is out there waiting to be experienced, but what about the magazine? They print them more colourful, much glossier, filled with pictures, they tweak the designs and they fiddle about with fonts, but what does magazine 2.0 look like?

I wanted to look at some of the current thinking, centred as it is around the messianic iPad, and see how it might apply to a monthly automotive magazine. That is, I wanted to, but Tim seems to have answered my thoughts already. He says: “I’m a magazine junkie, hopelessly addicted to print. The arrival each month of CAR – and indeed other magazines I subscribe to – still sends me into a spin. As editor of CAR Online, I’m an early adopter of technology and we’re already investigating new methods of delivering CAR.” The 45-year-old ABC1s that make up the bulk of CAR’s readership (Bauer Media 2010) might not be early adopters, but with their ‘significantly higher than average incomes’, I’m sure they’re happy to spend the money when other people tell them they should.

The magazine is old news – the car magazine has been around as long as the car itself, if you look at Autocar, started in the late 1800s. CAR magazine has been around since the early 60s, and although the style has changed and so have the looks, it still follows essentially the same pattern of news, followed by views, followed by reviews. It set the way for car magazines to do group tests, led in the installation of key opinion-formers as monthly columnists and became the best-selling car magazine in the UK by the late Eighties. That it is no longer the best-selling car magazine in the UK is a question for another time – but what is the next step in being a magazine, where is the room for innovation? Is it inside the pages of the magazine? Almost definitely not.

It’s not as if CAR hasn’t attempted recent innovation in this area – in mid-2009 a compact version of the magazine was launched for commuters to carry in their man bags and briefcases (Reynolds 2009) – but it seems to have been quietly dropped since then. We’re going to have to look at a different format to get an insight here.

Which is where the iPad comes in. The much-anticipated tablet computer launched by Steve Jobs early in 2010 sold a million units in its first month on sale in the US and looks set to change the world – if you listen to the breathless hype of the technical-types. Whatever the case, everyone in the media industry is talking about the iPad and what it might mean for the future of the magazine.

US magazine Popular Science has already announced an expansion into digital format (Diaz 2010) – which the publisher describes is “not re-creating the magazine; it’s re-creating the magazine experience.” Bonnier Corporation outlines its vision for ‘magazine+’, interestingly putting the emphasis more on making the internet a better experience than trying to enhance the magazine (Bonnier Corp. 2010). The magazine features still remain – regular output, designed by a team of professionals to be experienced in a linear fashion. Less a reinvention, more a digitisation.

Which makes you wonder what the revolutionary impact of the tablet computer will be – will it be as the car was to the horse, making the paper magazine all but irrelevant, or will it be as the printing press was to the book, bringing renewed life and a wider audience to a process we look back on as laborious and unnecessary?

In the UK, obvious gadget and technology magazines like Wired will be the first to offer a digital version that is more than a PDF with a fancy folding page graphic – simply because that is what they do and what their audience expects. What will be interesting is whether more mainstream magazines for an ostensibly different audience will follow suit.

In the automotive sector it seems obvious that in the medium-term, weekly news-based magazines will be forced almost wholly onto the digital format because of the costs of production and the competition from the internet. Autocar could cut out the 36 hours a week of printing and distribution by sending the magazine straight out to tens of thousands of subscribers as soon as the design is put to bed.

The BBC’s straw poll of media commentators indicates that the Times won’t be successful with its paywall plans (BBC 2010) – the introduction of an Iron Curtain around its online content that can only be breached by payment of a pound – so where does that leave the minnows in the industry? Autosport already has a digitised version of its magazine behind a paywall with other extra content to some good effect, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule for paid online content in the UK – Autosport has specialist stuff that people can’t necessarily get anywhere else.

Whilst the larger magazines such as Autocar, CAR and Evo experiment with added content on their websites, it has been the smaller magazines that have taken further steps to digital nirvana. Car Dealer Magazine has an iPhone/iPad app that aggregates news from its website straight to your device (Car Dealer Magazine 2010) – “The aims and objectives were very specific. Provide an iPhone App that can deliver CDM unique content in real-time, while expanding CDM user base by reaching out to the iPhone community”. Editor James Baggott knows that the small magazine needs to take risks and try new things to stay ahead of the game, but he tells me that the magazine can be more reactive and quicker to act than the big boys. (Baggott 2010)

BusinessCar has a digitised PDF of its bi-weekly issues available on the website which editor Paul Barker says around 3,000 people already read regularly without it having been advertised (Barker 2010). None of these innovations offer anything above and beyond the regular magazine or website except convenience, however. Is this what will hustle the death of the printed page – the need for convenience rather than any great leap forward in technological prowess and interactivity? You hope not. Paul tells me that the ‘digimag’ that BusinessCar offers is an extra service – to fit in with their firm’s environmental policy, or simply because they prefer an electronic copy of the magazine. He says the death of the print magazine is greatly exaggerated (Barker 2010a).

But what is it about magazines that people like? Is it the smell, as Tim Pollard says, or is it the content and the brand that comes with it? Adam Woods quotes Marcus Rich (Woods 2007), a group managing editor at Emap, who says that the trend might even actually be towards magazines, rather than away from them. “[Magazines] already have a relationship with the community they serve. If you are Motorcycle News, you are pretty trusted, so for a reader to go online and buy a motorcycle at motorcyclenews.com is not a huge leap of trust. That’s why we will see a lot of the dotcoms reverse themselves into magazine publishing – to try and tap into that deeper bond.”

People have a bond with a magazine that you just can’t replicate with electronics – it’s the sort of tacit thing that leads an associate editor to wax lyrical about the smell of print on his publication’s website, it’s what makes Sky magazine the top monthly in the country and What’s On TV the top weekly (Media UK 2009) – all of the details in those publications are available online or at the press of the red button, but still people choose to spend money on the pages. Marcus Rich is promising a minor resurgence in publishing as internet-types realise that people are more likely to put their faith in the tangible and the smellable.

This brand relationship perhaps covers the danger to established magazine brands that the market will be saturated with home-grown efforts in the same way that MySpace, YouTube and Blogger have undermined the music, television and news industries. Clearly magazines have to ensure that the technology ties in with their brand and the expectations – Simply Knitting is not going to benefit from a nosedive into an interactive digital edition. The changes are far more to come in the guise of creeping change rather than an ice bath switch. It’ll take investment, and not just of money. After all, Anand Mohan said in 2009’s Coventry Journalism Review on innovation in car magazines that “building a lasting relationship with your audience is equally important.” (Mohan 2009)

I appreciate and enjoy the tactility of a magazine though – what will the iPad experience offer to counterbalance that loss of tactility and the sense of occasion? Of course, it’s interesting to see the demonstrations so far that show the main picture from a feature leading to a video or a photo gallery (Glass 2009). The demos are very hyperactive though – where’s the nice sit down and a cup of tea?

The iPad only wishes to induct magazine readers into the busy breathless world of the internet rather than pausing to reflect on the fact that one of the pleasant things about a magazine is switching off your computer, ignoring your phone and enjoying yourself. This is ultimately what I call ‘the toilet test’ – you wouldn’t take your iPad to the bathroom. Sometimes, on some occasions, you just don’t want to be connected to the rest of the world.

In this sense, as Adam Woods says, “magazines are technology proof” (Woods 2007) – they offer supreme portability, you don’t have to fear the battery and the screen is not going to get cracked. They also offer a wide range of personalisation straight off the bat – you can buy whatever magazine you like, so long as the newsagent stocks it.

On the positive side, however, what tablet computers do is fuse the internet and the magazine into an orgastic multimedia extravaganza. Websites are basically – despite designers’ best efforts to stick in films, flash clips and fancy backgrounds – just clumps of text. People don’t have the willingness or capacity to endure thousands of words of text on a computer screen (present company excepted) – looked at from this point of view, the tablet PC is the saviour of the website. Where that might impact on magazines is less clear in my opinion, despite the current lyrical enthusiasm of technical-types (Johnson 2007) and early adopters who would jump at anything to give it a try once.

But these people are influential – Andreas Wiele, president of Springer Verlag’s magazine division in Germany, says that “we are making a lot of sales online, but overall we are still making a loss. But we basically had no choice. Our advertisers are demanding an Internet strategy and we have to have one.” (O’Brien 2009)

This is basically the nub of the problem for car magazines owned by big corporate publishers – the advertisers demand it, management demands it, and this is going to be the only big source of money for development in the foreseeable future. Hanzade Dogan of Dogan Media says that the German newspaper market in particular “is saturated. There is simply no growth in the newspaper business there.” (O’Brien 2009)

The same is true of the UK market and indeed most other markets – they are saturated. What they need is a clean slate, a dotcom boom for the publishing industry, a gold rush, that will open up new areas for revenue generation. This is where the enthusiasm for the iPad comes from – a corporate desire to find new ways to make money, to build on greenbelt. Magazine 2.0 might not even be what people – the readers – want, but rather what publishers want. The hype surrounding the next generation of publications isn’t the clamour of the general public wanting something more, but rather the damp fervour of enthusiastic journalists and commentators.

Would the content of CAR magazine be different if it was available on a tablet? Probably not. Which is where the whole endeavour falls down – the enthusiasm needs to come from the writer, not the publisher. With writers dragging their heels and just wanting to get on with the business they enjoy of simply writing, the innovation is going to have to come in gentle steps, if at all. It begins with a blog post on the website, a video here and there, maybe the odd podcast. That’s where we are – but from here to fancy e-mags? Goodness only knows how long. Or, as Tim Pollard (Pollard 2010) says, “judging by the pleasure the magazine brings us and, we hope, tens of thousands of you, there’s life in the printed word yet.” CAR 2.0 will have to wait – we need to get to CAR 1.1 first…

Bibliography

Baggott, J. (2010) Editor of Car Dealer magazine. [interview by S. Burnett] Online, 20 May 2010

Barker, P. (2010) Editor of BusinessCar magazine. [interview by S. Burnett] Foots Cray, 29 March 2010

Barker, P. (2010a) Editor of BusinessCar magazine. [interview by S. Burnett] Online, 2 June 2010

Bauer Media. (2010) CAR magazine: Brand description. [n.d.] available from <http://www.bauermedia.co.uk/Brands/Car/&gt; [1st June 2010]

BBC. (2010) See Also: Will the Times’ paywall pay off?. [26 March 2010] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/seealso/2010/03/will_the_times_paywall_pay_off.html> [19 May 2010]

Bonnier Corp. (2010) Bonnier’s Popular Science+ debuts on iPad as the magazine of tomorrow. [2 April 2010] available from <http://www.bonniercorp.com/news/bonniers-popular-science-debuts-on-ipad-as-the-magazine-of-tomorrow-1000081993.html> [19 May 2010]

Car Dealer Magazine. (2010) How your dealership can get an app. [May 17 2010] available from < http://www.cardealermagazine.co.uk/publish/how-your-dealership-can-get-an-app/36529> [May 19 2010]

Cooper, P. (2010) Will the Apple iPad change the way you read magazines? [22 March 2010] available from <http://blog.magazine-group.co.uk/digital-magazines/will-the-apple-ipad-change-the-way-you-read-magazines/> [19 May 2010]

Diaz, S. (2010) The future of the magazine, courtesy of the iPad. [5 April 2010] available from <http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/the-future-of-the-magazine-courtesy-of-the-ipad/32711> [19 May 2010]

Glass, C. (2009) Is the future of magazine publishing? [3 December 2009] available from <http://www.digitalbuzzblog.com/is-this-the-future-of-magazine-publishing/> [19 May 2010]

Johnson, B (2009) Is this what the magazine of the future will look like? [18 December 2009] available from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2009/dec/18/berg-bonnier-magplus> [19 May 2010]

Media UK. (2009) The most popular magazines in the UK. [13 October 2009] available from <http://www.mediauk.com/article/32697/the-most-popular-magazines-in-the-uk&gt; {1 June 2010]

Mohan, A. (2009) An auto mag, right on paper. [28 May 2009] available from <http://cjr2009.wordpress.com/2009/05/28/an-auto-mag-right-on-paper/> [19 May 2010]

O’Brien, K. (2007) ‘Magazine publishers see future, but no profit, in shift to internet’. New York Times [online] 18 March. available from <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/18/business/worldbusiness/18iht-mags.4943417.html> [19 May 2010]

Pollard, T. (2010) Confessions of a car magazine junkie. [19 May 2010] available from <http://www.carmagazine.co.uk/Community/Car-Magazines-Blogs/Tim-Pollard-Blog2/Confessions-of-a-car-magazine-junkie/> [19 May 2010]

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Woods, A. (2007) 10 reasons why magazines have a great future. [10 July 2007] available from <http://www.mediaweek.co.uk/news/features/670022/10-reasons-why-magazines-great-future/?DCMP=ILC-SEARCH> [19 May 2010]

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    • darrenmoss
    • June 16th, 2010

    As far as the future of the motoring press goes, I think there is still a lot of value in the printed word. Especially in media areas such as motoring where the magazine has a loyal and mostly interested audience. they don’t in my opinion have to work as hard to keep their audiences interested.

    But there is also space for motoring journalism online. As you’ve said the question is whether online motoring magazines will be a digitization or reinvention of the magazine. Currently most motoring magazine websites seem to simply be a summary of magazine content with a video or two thrown in. I think in CAR 2.0, more will need to be done to keep the interest of an audience that, whilst is still interested in the subject, will still become increasingly distracted by wealth of content at their fingertips.

  1. I don’t think monthlies will become digitised like that – perhaps the regular news content might be packaged better, but I do think tablet PCs are going to mean more of a renaissance for website content than what is currently printed content…it will be interesting to watch, at any rate.

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