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What Digital Media Can Learn From Magazine Publishers’ Walls

2009 October 27

At the heart of the disconnect between the online and offline worlds are Publishing Walls.  The walls which magazine editors erect to arrange each issue and maintain independence are essential edifices for magazine publishers, but seem ridiculous to the online world.

However, the digital world is often too quick to dismiss successful practices that they don’t understand.  The walls that publishers have built were not erected on a whim.  They are successful business practices developed over decades of hard experience.

As magazines struggle to make the transition to digital and online media struggle with low ad rates, both will have to come to terms with their own publishing walls: where to build them, how high and who to let in.

Chris Anderson’s Wall

In Chris Anderson’s book, “Free,” he recounts an awkward scene.  A friend of his who worked for Google came to visit him in his office at “Wired” magazine.  Chris showed him his “Magazine Room” where they post draft pages on the walls for each issue.

Starting from the first page to the last, each page is placed, compared with it surrounding pages and then moved again until perfection is attained.  By arranging each issue this way the editors can get a good feel for how readers will experience the magazine.  Anderson mentioned that part of the function of the walls was also to avoid placing ads next to relevant content.

His friend was shocked.  After all, Google hires thousands of very smart people to more effectively place ads near relevant content. So, the notion that his friend Chris at “Wired “made went to great lengths to keep ads away from related articles amazed him.  How does that compute?

My Own Trip to “Wired”

I had my own surreal experience in the same office with Chris Anderson’s Deputy Editor.  I was there with a group of other international publishing executives and a guy from Australia asked our host how the editorial department works with their marketing people.

“We don’t,” he replied.

“If ‘Wired’ was in trouble how would you know,” I asked.

He thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know, I guess we wouldn’t.”  He seemed a bit troubled by the thought, but not very.  He then shrugged his shoulders and moved on.  It was one of those, “Gee, I never thought of that, what’s for lunch?” moments.

For him, keeping his product away from business side interests was more important than the business itself.  Publishers call this a “Chinese Wall” and it is sacrosanct, one of the primary motivations for the “Magazine Room.”

What are Magazine People Thinking?

For anybody outside the publishing world, I imagine it’s hard to read the passage above and not think, “Are magazine editors completely out of it?  Don’t they know that they have to change or die?”

Yet, it’s important to remember that “Wired” is one of the most successful magazines for one of the most successful publishing companies in the world (Conde Nast).  What Digital people would so soon dismiss they would be much better off paying close attention to.  If they do, they might be able to stop whining about low ad rates and actually start making some real money.

What the Magazine Room at “Wired” says to readers is this:

We take responsibility for your entire experience with our product; every word on every page and every pixel in every picture.  We want our product to be a seamless experience for your senses, your rationality and your emotions. We will build a ‘Chinese Wall’ around our content and you will know, right or wrong, mistaken or not, every opinion we share with you is our own, and we come by it honestly.”

It is that passion for guiding readers through an experience that creates top magazine brands which command the very highest ad rates.  Good magazines don’t attract eyeballs, they inspire a devoted following.

Do Digital People Need Publishing Walls?

Contrast the above with blogger Chris Brogan.  When criticized for getting paid to give his opinion about products his response was something to the effect that “Hey, I have to make a living.”  He recently published a book and called it “Trust Agents.”

Chris Brogan seems to be a nice guy and he seems to mean well.  However, he could benefit by educating himself about Publishing Walls.  They create order and consistency, which builds trust. A free-for-all, anything-goes product won’t stand the test of time.  If the product is oneself, the stakes are even higher.  Why would Chris Brogan want to set a lower standard for himself than a magazine editor would?

Walls are a creation.  You can decide where to build them, how high they should be and whether they include doors and windows.  You can even decide to take them down at some point.  Nevertheless, walls are there for a reason.  They serve a purpose.

Why Does Google Care About Relevance?

Google is about nothing. Nobody has a passion for Google anymore than they have a passion for a well paved highway.  I’m not criticizing Google. They make an enormous effort to achieve their lack of voice and succeed brilliantly.  If Google had an opinion why would anybody want to use it?

Relevance is of paramount importance in the online world.  Relevance says, “We will connect you with the right consumer who will be happy to hear from you because he is not doing anything interesting right now.”  People don’t respond to McDonald’s ads when they are eating a steak dinner, but they will when they are hungry.

Relevancy is also about dissatisfaction.  Google’s ads give people who are dissatisfied with where they are a chance to go somewhere better.  They need something and Google offers it to them.  Nobody clicks on a Google ad if they are engaged and no publisher places Google Ad Sense on their site if they can sell their own space for more money.

Google creates value where there was none before.

Cognitive Dissonance

Much of the philosophical tension between the online and offline worlds can be encapsulated though Publishing Walls:  Digital people can’t imagine that anybody cares what editors have to say and editors can’t imagine that anybody doesn’t.

Yet, people do.  “Wired” has a devoted following, as does Cosmopolitan, and Vogue and the New York Times Editorial Page and others.  People don’t just read, they define themselves and others by what they read.

Relevance is built in.  Talented editors lead their audience; they show them where to go and what to look for.  They don’t just produce content, they design an experience.  Their ability to do that is far from ethereal or theoretical.  The passion shows up in the ad rates and on the bottom line.

It should be mentioned here that Magazines in the US have not just been profitable, they have been fabulously profitable! American Magazines are the envy of the world. No other country consistently produces editorial products that are international icons.  The US stands alone.

The new digital reality has very little to say to successful editors, but should be a wake-up call to the ones that have been coasting.  The web preys on dissatisfaction.  It says, “If you’re not happy, you don’t have to be.  I’ll take you somewhere else.”

Building Digital Walls

Walls are about choices.  They entail decisions and define structures.  They require discipline and rigor.  While Digital Media is enjoying a period of explosive growth, Walls might not seem necessary, but they are and will become increasingly so in the future.  Parties are fun, but they end.

Although the Magazine Industry is going through a rough patch, it has proved amazingly resilient historically.  In fact, magazine ad revenue shares have actually increased since the birth of the web.  The thought, passion and skill with which magazine publishers have built their Walls offer lessons to be learned and insights to be gained.

Walls for Designing Experience: An experience is a precious thing.  That’s why people are willing to pay far more for a meal in a fine restaurant than they will for a take-out meal bought in a grocery store.

Creating an experience requires planning, discipline and tough choices.  These are all hard things to do and that’s precisely why they are valuable if done well.  If you don’t have the passion to lead, who will follow?

Smart web sites know this and build functional models before they start programming.  They conduct usability research the same way that magazine publishers conduct focus groups and reader’s circles.  However, many online players do not and they need to start.

Lack of quality user experience is a primary reason why so many technically proficient companies fail.

Chinese Walls: Chinese walls also entail choices.  They announce that some things are not for sale, that they are too valuable.  That value shows up in higher ad rates.  You deny yourself revenue to earn greater profits elsewhere.

Instead of whining about low digital ad rates, web sites need to create value by building their own walls.  Everything can not be for sale.  Choices must be made.  Digital people need to grow up.

Both pure online players and publishing incumbents would be wise to heed the hard earned experience of many decades.

Technology changes – Principles don’t.

– Greg

9 Responses leave one →
  1. October 27, 2009

    Interesting post Greg. Do you have any examples of sites that are effective using digital walls now?

  2. October 27, 2009


    I can only say for sure about sites that I worked with, and we built functional models for each site and service. We had all functionality designed and tested before we programmed and then did usability ongoing usability testing to continuously improve. We also had strong editorial policies and never sold content.

    I also think that it’s safe to assume that most top branded content sites do as well. I very much doubt that CNN or New York Times sells content and it’s clear from the results that they take usability seriously. I would also put Yahoo in this category as well. Most large scale enterprises have people with offline experience involved so expertise transfers over.

    However, many start-ups and in-bound marketers rush into content without taking heed of lessons learned long ago in offline media.

    – Greg

    – Greg

  3. October 27, 2009


    This is very thought I am about to launch a new site,, tomorrow, it is definitely a mindset I’ll work to adopt in my thinking.

    “Creating an experience” it is exactly the reason I am asking my readers to contribute to what I am calling a, Crowdsourced FRD. I want the readers to define the experience. You can find the page here:

    Hopefully tomorrow you will check out the site and let me know what you think.


  4. October 27, 2009


    Thanks. Good luck with

    – Greg

  5. October 28, 2009

    Nice of you to give Jeremy a backlink, Greg. Nice gesture to repay a reader for his attention.

  6. October 28, 2009


    The company I work for is at the heart of this issue, so I have to ask this question. Why couldn’t a magazine publisher who also has a web presence that repurposes their assets benefit from editorial content that’s designed for online reading experiences (comparable quality to their printed word), and at the same time utilize an online publishing platform and service provider that places contextually related content in their “vertical box” along with other content partners and contextually relevant adverts? Is that not a win-win-win for the content providers, their consumers and advertisers? If you’re not convinced, we’d love to send you a private beta invitation. Very thought-provoking read, though, and very supportive of an industry appearing to be suffering like so many others, but like the auto industry must adjust to the times.

  7. October 28, 2009


    I’m not sure that I understand your question, but I do think conflicts are tough issues with a lot of gray areas. For instance if Toyota is sponsoring a section that reviews their cars, the editorial probably wouldn’t be very credible. If their banners are placed in a car section and those banners randomly appear on a page where a Toyota review appears, it’s less damaging.

    The main point is that credibility issues are all to often ignored, which is why strong branded content demands much higher ad rates than contextual ads.

    – Greg

  8. August 17, 2010

    Hi Greg

    Thanks for your comments on my post. This is really thought provoking stuff and I’m going to pass it on to some of my colleagues here at Zone.

    I certainly feel that your post has real relevancy to the issues I was discussing. I also like your exploration of the concept of publishing walls. I certainly agree that carefully constructed walls help to define user experience and ultimately results in loyal followings. I think the explosion of social media over the last couple of years presents a new challenge. ‘Wall construction’ on owned digital spaces is significantly easier (and more transparent) than in earned spaces, where there are often a number of ‘owners’ (content/network/community/business) resulting in a less than straightforward picture of authorial power.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your final point on principles, technology and credibility. Two words. Iggy Pop.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts in future.


  9. August 17, 2010

    Thanks Adrian. Keep up the good work at Zone Content

    – Greg

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