In 2003, when I got my first job in media—an unpaid internship at Esquire—magazines didn’t have websites. Not real ones, at least. The sites that did exist were little more than places to go to find out what you’d missed in that month’s magazine. If you were lucky, you could find a table of contents and a phone number to call to replace an issue that never showed up. In the 11 years I was at Esquire (not all of them as an intern), I got to work with the best editors and read the best writers. Of all the things I learned from them, among the most useful was the importance of authority and a consistent voice. The authority part is pretty obvious: You hope the person telling you something knows what she’s talking about. But a good magazine combines that authority with a consistent perspective—a personality that readers can identify with. Subscribing to a magazine should feel kind of like making a smart friend, except for the part where he hands you a bill at the end of every year.
As the journalism community shifts online to keep up with reader interests, we’ve struggled with how to scale up those important attributes. Now that I’m the deputy editor at Popular Mechanics, I’m much more responsible for overseeing and defining that balance. We work with the web and tablet teams every day to plan related and original features outside of the magazine that take advantage of the scope (and unlimited word count) of the different platforms. It’s a challenge. What’s easy when you’re putting out 30 stories a month in a magazine gets tougher when you’re posting 100 stories a day. In a magazine, when you read about movies, you read it from a guy who knows movies. Online, you’re often reading a guy who likes movies. The same expertise just isn’t there. It can’t be.
The good news is that a lot of readers aren’t looking for that authority. They’re looking for something mindless and fun. Now that everything is online, we have these big monitors at the office that show exactly what people are reading, and how long they’re taking to read it. It’s cool, scary, in a big-brother way, and kind of depressing. As a print guy, seeing what people are interested in reading online feels kind of like you raised your kids on healthy meals, then sent them to college and found out they subsist only on Corn Pops and M&Ms. But it’s a big part of the future of journalism. It’s certainly where the ad money is. And if any of us want to keep up, we’re going to have to learn to write more about Prince Harry. Or at least work his name into the headline.