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June 5, 2012, 1:57 p.m.
Business Models

Wilson Quarterly is ending print publication, moving to digital

The summer issue will be the last one in print for the Washington-based public affairs magazine.

The Wilson Quarterly — the sometimes wonky Washington-based public affairs magazine — will apparently put out its final print edition this summer. With that same issue, WQ will make its debut on Apple’s Newsstand, a move that suggests a digital-only future for the 36-year-old publication.

Perhaps it’s fitting that its most recent issue was branded “The Age of Connection,” and explored the cultural impact of technological advances.

Wilson Quarterly hasn’t explained the decision to stop printing, other than to say on its website that the quarterly will be “available in print form thru the Summer 2012 issue” and that, along with Apple’s platform, it “will also be available on the Nook, Kindle Fire, and Sony Reader.”

The magazine is published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which was established through an act of Congress in 1968, and now gets about one-third of its funding from the federal government and the rest through private donations. (According to the center’s most recent annual report, some of its most generous donors include philanthropic institutions like the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, as well as private companies like defense contractors and Exxon Mobil.) In 2010, the center spent $1.96 million on the magazine against $950,000 in revenue.

The Quarterly, launched in 1976, characterizes itself as “a nonpartisan and nonideological window on the world of ideas,” including coverage of foreign affairs with a policy-not-politics approach, as well as extensive book reviews. (The Quarterly’s blog is occasionally home to lighter fodder — take the recent “What We’re Drinking” post that coincided with the long Memorial Day weekend, for example.)

A shift to digital will no doubt cut expenses for the quarterly, and it could give WQ staff more ability to focus on the web, where much of the world of ideas has shifted. But it also risks its connection with readers: If WQ’s readers are print purists — and the cerebral, dense content in the magazine suggests they’re more likely to carry AARP cards than fake IDs — then how likely are they to follow the quarterly into a digital realm?

It’s unclear what pricing will look like. Digital PDF copies cost $6 apiece, while single print copies are $9 (shipped), so it will be interesting to see what WQ charges for access to a tablet edition. (It already sells a Kindle edition for $7 an issue or $24 a year.)

I couldn’t immediately reach editor Steven Lagerfeld on Tuesday afternoon, but he articulated his worries about the larger digital media shift in a column last year:

So let me introduce myself. I am a wristwatch. Or, more accurately, a wristwatch maker. Okay, so I’m really the editor of a print magazine — the media world’s equivalent of a wristwatch.

Now, if you’re a wristwatch-maker and cell phones come along, you have some choices to make. You could go into the cell phone business. But that doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Or you could drastically reduce the quality and price of your watches — dumb them down — in order to sell more of them. Also not a good idea. Actually, it looks like it’s really not such a bad thing to be a Rolex in a cell phone world. A fancy watch isn’t just a device for telling time. But I don’t think I’d want to be a mass-market watch, like Timex.

Lagerfeld went on to describe himself as “agog” at the web, which he characterized as a great place to experiment, but also a space that makes journalists susceptible to misplaced “mania” over what’s to come. (“When the iPad came out, I thought, ‘Oh my God, we have to have an app!’ Well, I cooled down and it turns out it really didn’t make sense to go to the expense of creating apps right away. You’ve just got to keep your head.”)

He concluded:

Will the iPad and other tablets be the salvation of magazines and books? I don’t know. What I do know is that print-based people like me need to be prudent, but not gloomy or defensive. It’s a scary time but it’s exciting too. We need to throw ourselves into it with the same dedication and passion we bring to print.

In sum, you could say my position is that we need to embrace the web but wear a condom. Thank you.

POSTED     June 5, 2012, 1:57 p.m.
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