Esquire's Smart Print Strategy

Esquire has somehow become the leader in cutting-edge print magazine technology. The magazine rings in anniversaries with twinkling electronic ink, invites readers to mix and match the faces of George Clooney, Justin Timberlake and Barack Obama, and now they've installed bar codes within articles for readers to scan with their smart phones and pull up additional information online. This is cool, I guess, for people with bar code-reading apps on their smartphones. But I think Esquire's emphasis on magazine technology is smart for a subtler reason.

First, the new stuff:


In its March issue, Esquire will print Scanbuy codes in a spread on "The Esquire Collection" -- "the 30 items a man would need to get through life," said David Granger, editor in chief. Printed near each item will be a small code that looks like a group of black and white squares. Readers scan the code into an Internet-enabled phone, and the code takes them to a mobile menu that provides Esquire's styling advice for the item and information on where to buy it.

I'm interested in this because it seems so backward. Esquire's Web site isn't very good. But instead of spending money on website technology, the magazine is spending money to bring web technology to the print magazine. Thing is, I think it's a defensible strategy.

Last year the New York Times reported that Hearst, the company that publishes Esquire, was faring much better than expected in the recession despite having a limited web strategy. I'd guess Hearst was faring much better than expected because it has a limited web strategy. In the last 10 years, publishers have given away their content for free online, thinking they could make up the revenue with online ads. As a result, consumers today consider magazine stories to be ad-supported commodities. But the production of a long magazine story is anything but cost-free -- it's a long, expensive process with wide travel and long hours. I think Hearst's limited web strategy has actually avoided the fate of other magazines, whose superior websites have cannibalized readers by encouraging them to drop subscriptions and read everything online. In a weird way, their inferior website have helped buttress their print magazines' circulation. Esquire's technology revolution hasn't been online. It's been in print. Strange. But not as strange, perhaps, as assuming that "Everything is Free" was a workable model for magazines.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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