If Hearst Corporation figures out how to make magazine subscriptions pay on the iPad and other tablets, Jim Meigs will deserve plenty of the credit.
The editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics is one of the leaders of the company’s tablet efforts — seriously, he recently gave a presentation to the entire staff — and he’s trying to find a business model that works.
Luckily, his magazine is the perfect guinea pig.
“We’re not one of the bigger magazines here and we’re a technology magazine so we’re always interested in innovation. We spend a lot of time with technology companies so their culture and world view is sort of natural for us to look at.”
The experiments are succeeding so far. Popular Mechanics won an award for the iPad app they released in 2010 and recently launched one for Android-based devices as well.
Half The iPad Readers Had Never Read Popular Mechanics
For Meigs, the subscription model is a game-changer and while he sees value in the one-off apps — for example, July’s 101 Gadgets cover story could be broken out into a separate digital offering — he doesn’t believe that route is the best way to go right now.
“I think for magazines that have a good natural audience on the iPad, we need to get the monthly down first and try to establish a habit and a business model for readers reading our magazine every month,” he said. “We’re in a business now where people buy our magazines 12 times a year; I don’t want to replace it with a business where they own one product for years. I’d like to keep them in the habit of knowing we provide them with a lot of good stuff they weren’t necessarily expecting every month.”
There a little bit of an “if you build it, they will find you” attitude. And it’s working. Meigs says that while half the iPad readers are subscribers to the magazine, the other half are completely new to the publication. Those newbies say they love what they find, a book that is “unapologetically male” in the editor’s words. (“We have to have shooting sparks or something exploding in each issue,” he said with a smile.)
Tackling The “The Big Reboot”
The magazine itself will soon undergo changes, as Meigs and his staff are in the middle of giving the four-time National Magazine Award winner “the big reboot.” It’s a process that involves deep thinking about magazine-making in the current environment.
“We’re basically challenging ourselves to really think hard about the print magazine and how it operates, but also the whole business model,” Meigs said. “Are we putting our priority in the right place?”
The goal is to create multiple revenue streams: in print, online, on tablets, in books, and more, with a minimum of effort. It is an ambitious project — a side room at the PM office is dedicated the “reboot room” — but one that needs to be tackled.
Meigs also has another project on his plate. Hearst recently purchased Hachette’s non-French magazines, and the company promoted the editor to editorial director of Car & Driver and Road & Track. He recently returned from a trip to Michigan to see one office and will travel to Newport Beach to see the other one soon.
(The immediate ramification of his new gig is the presence of multiple car magazines on the coffee table in his office.)
“We’re Not The New York Times”
And then there’s the actual journalism in Popular Mechanics. The ambition of the stories, from an in-depth look at last year’s oil spill to reporting from the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, is impressive.
“We’re not The New York Times, but in the last few years, I’ve sent writers to Iraq, Afghanistan, into the radioactivity cloud in Fukushima, to New Orleans hours after the hurricane,” he said. “We get in some pretty intense stuff.”
Increasingly, those stories will be available through a number of different outlets, creating revenue in new and creative ways.
The name Popular Mechanics might sound out-of-date — it was founded in 1902, after all — but the editor in charge is very much of the digital age.
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