Blurt: mag to web and back again

This may be a first: A magazine that folded and morphed into an online-only product is now set to launch... a magazine.

Harp magazine, one of the best music titles to debut in the past decade, folded last March. It was purchased by JazzTimes parent Guthrie Inc. in 2003, and in announcing its closure last year, Guthrie CEO Glenn Sabin said, "Unfortunately, Harp's critical acclaim never translated into sustaining commercial success. Harp's lifecycle was ill timed with the precipitous decline of the music software industry, coupled with the consolidation of the consumer magazine newsstand business and rising paper and postage costs."

Those behind the mag, including publisher Scott Crawford, quickly regrouped and launched Blurt, an online magazine/web site. It is essentially Harp online, with a normal daily-updated web presence and a quarterly magazine. That product was essentially a magazine in all aspects but the presence of paper. Instead, users would click through pages in a dedicated web-based viewer.

At the time, Crawford lauded the “green-minded, digital-only format,” conveniently forgetting that Harp's old-fashioned print-on-paper format was doing just fine until commerce intruded. And now?

“It’s sort of a new paradigm,” Crawford told FOLIO: magazine. “We’ve gotten to the point of wanting a physical product to help brand the site—we want it to be the ‘soul’ of the web site in print.”

Translation: web ads sell at only a fraction of the cost of those in print, and if we want to survive, we'd best get ourselves on the newsstands. The magazine will appear quarterly and will retail for $4.95. It will debut in mid-March.

It's an interesting trajectory, the polar opposite of most newspapers and an increasing number of magazines. It will be interesting to see if the magazine repurposes online content, or vice versa, or whether it will offer completely original content. As a commenter on the FOLIO: piece points out, many web sites have tried and failed the move to print, including eBay and Motley Fool. Blurt's leg up comes from the fact that most saw that as an extension of a print title that already sold 60,000 copies a month, which should make Blurt's 30,000 print run a reasonable proposition.

I for one welcome the change. While I was a Harp subscriber from the beginning and have kept up with some of Blurt's coverage, I've read no more than the first digital issue. If I want to see stories laid out on a page, I want to be able to hold that page in my hand. Blurt online would do better to ditch that aspect of its presentation and stick to frequently updating its web page, leaving longer-form pieces to the print product.

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A voice of reason in newspaper/online debate

Allan Mutter offers the first analysis in the debate about whether newspapers could stop printing on paper that actually makes sense. Others, always unfathomably gleeful about the notion of the news no longer coming on paper, suggest that simply shutting off the presses is a logical solution to financial woes. Get rid of the cost of paper, printing and distribution, and you cut the business to its core, they argue. Cedar Rapids Gazette Editor Steve Buttry asserts that subscribers are paying for those costs with their subscriptions, not the news (thus ignoring the fact that they might also be paying for convenience or because they prefer that method of news delivery).

Jeff Jarvis raised interesting if flawed points in a December post about The Los Angeles Times when he took news that its online operation made enough to cover the editorial payroll as an indication that the Times could cease printing and go online only. What he ignores, of course, is that:

--the paper makes exponentially more on the paper product, and thus would lose those revenues,
--there are dozens (in this case) hundreds of people who sell and create those ads, as well as those who maintain the web site, none of whose salaries are included in this computation,
--no discussion of benefits or other costs is included in the discussion,
--any such move means drastic cuts in budgets and staffing. Preach all you want about crowdsourcing and the democratization of news, but coverage will suffer, at least in the short term.
--people might actually prefer the print product.

Mutter explores these (save for the last, which no one seems to care about) in his post. The most direct line, which I'm amazed even needs to be stated at this point, is this:

"But we are a long way from seeing a publisher make the proactive decision to pull the plug on a profitable print-on-paper operation. That’s because pulling the plug is not a decision a rational publisher can afford to make."
Those with no stake in the outcome but who have learned that being loud and cantankerous can double for veracity in the blogosphere will argue otherwise, but Mutter is exactly right.

Print may well go away as we move to online-only formats, but it won't happen any time soon. And I realize that the fact that I prefer to read a newspaper at the breakfast table with my family rather than sit by myself in the office scanning an RSS feed makes me some sort of out-of-step dinosaur, but as long as there are a few of us left, newspapers will need to cater to us if they hope to earn advertising revenue. If Jarvis got what he wanted and newspapers all stopped printing on paper tomorrow, most of those companies would be out of business by the end of the month.