Smells Like Teen Progress

Condé Nast will let young women supply the Web content

If all goes according to plan, some months from now glossy-mag giant Condé Nast Publications will launch an interesting Web site for teen girls. By this I mean it may interest even the nonteenagers out there, because, according to executives familiar with the project, the site's content will be created not primarily by Condé Nast staffers but rather by its users.

This embrace by Condé Nast, which publishes Teen Vogue, of "user-generated content" -- the toothache-inducing term for the stuff a media outlet's consumers create, which I'll call citizens' media -- comes at a critical juncture. Magazines as a medium are still struggling, with ad pages flat in the first quarter and showing signs of slowing thereafter. Meanwhile, total Internet ad spending is predicted to surpass the spending at magazines this year, according to Merrill Lynch (MER ). But some intriguing Web-based magazine initiatives loom. It may be premature to call this the dawn of Digital Magazine 2.0, but at least in some quarters Digital Magazine 1.5 isn't wholly far-fetched.

Unlike newspapers, many magazines have moved slowly on the Web or essentially ignored it. Incredibly, video, which garners higher ad rates, is virtually absent on the Web sites of Time, People, and Entertainment Weekly. (Time Inc. says it is planning to put more video on its Web sites this year.) Wenner Media's Us Weekly, the ridiculously successful celebrity mag, has a Web site largely consisting of a blog, "sneak peeks" at the current issue, and a subscription coupon. Condé Nast's The New Yorker did not have a bona fide Web site until 2001, and Vanity Fair not until 2004.

FOR A TIME, THIS STANCE didn't matter. Most magazines are monthly and don't face the breaking-news, daily-product pressures that newspapers do. Back when banner ads were state of the art, it looked much more likely that newspaper classifieds -- not full-color glossy ads -- would migrate to the Web. Oops. In April, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. shuttered its teen title, Elle Girl -- on paper, anyway. The magazine is gone, but the Web site will be revamped and add staff. This shocked observers, since Elle Girl's circulation and ad numbers were still rising. But "the trend lines showed we weren't going to see the light at the end of the tunnel in the time frame we needed," explains Hachette CEO Jack Kliger.

An insider says newsstand sales weren't strong enough to make the business work -- and teen magazines have to refresh entire subscriber rolls every two or three years, an expensive and dicey proposition for an age group growing comfortable forgoing print altogether. This is why, if there is a magazine canary in the current media coal mine, it's teen titles. So Elle Girl is becoming a Web site. And Condé Nast will let its teen readers create content to a degree previously unseen. (Sarah Chubb, president of CondeNet, would not comment on the name or the general contours of the teen site.) Some new magazine sites already do this. Time Inc.'s Web-only play for young men, Office Pirates, allows users to share and contribute pictures and videos. So does Hachette's more graphic bid for the same space,, the online companion to its upcoming photo-heavy magazine Shock. (When I say Shock will be photo-heavy, think car crashes and cleavage, not National Geographic.) At both sites, submissions are vetted by editors to ensure nothing too risqué is posted -- which, as one executive points out, "neuters" the notion of citizens' media.

Magazine executives are, of course, following the money. It couldn't have escaped their notice that Google's (GOOG ) revenues, which come almost exclusively from ads, rose 79% in the first quarter, to $2.3 billion. (Read that sentence slowly.) But these executives are following it in smarter ways than they did before. The companies may be thinking that it's those confounded, print-forsaking teens who got them into this mess, but at least they're willing to let the kids show them the way out. To paraphrase a pal, magazines completely screwed up their digital strategies in the past. But some of these new initiatives -- they're not completely screwed up.

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By Jon Fine

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