The very long tail – how magazines could make their archives sing

If readers won’t pay for this month’s latest tablet magazine, will they put their hand in their pocket for a title’s entire back-issue archive?

To commemorate its ninetieth birthday next year, classical music monthly Gramophone has digitised all 1,000 editions of its legacy, comprising 110,000 pages, for its app and web subscribers.

More than just a technological feat, the resurrection and archival capabilities of digital copying and storage that have brought back value for music and video owners may also offer new long tail prospects for magazines.

The consumer value benefits are intriguing. Gramophone only launched on iPad a year ago – now 1,000 copies are available in perpetuity to subscribers for the same £3.99-a-month (£39.99-a-year) price as the mere dozen-or-so it has published digitally since launch.

Other titles have shown an interest in giving their archive a second life. Vogue magazine has made available its 119-year, 400,ooo-page history. Current New Yorker subscribers can also read all issues dating back to 1925.

But, just because modern-media storage allows it, should publishers call back decades-old content for hoped-for reward? That depends on whether their archive can be mined for what a specific audience might regard as gold today…

The Vogue and New Yorker archive plays are unapologetically geared toward historical research. Likewise, as someone recently urged by his parents to clear out his old collection of Wired magazines, documenting the important inception of digital culture, I would gladly pay to shrink their shelf’s-worth down to iPad size, kept safely in the cloud.

Condé Nast UK digital director Jamie Jouning told me in February: “Within the next five years or so, I’d imagine most of our magazines will have an archive of back copies. It’s a big process. We’d want to do it so it’s searchable, so it’s more than taking flat PDFs.”

But, to leverage an archive 20 or 50 years from now, other publishers today might want to start conceiving content in a way that is distinctly evergreen – valuable even in the future. Gramophone‘s articles are, relatively uniquely, already timeless – most classical music is, by definition, old and the magazine has always had a knack for presenting it in the present tense. Others may need to work harder and change tack.

But publishers are already behaving this way on the newsstands, which are becoming dominated by highly-paginated bookazines and magbooks on key topics, issued at less frequent intervals like half-yearly, if not as one-offs entirely. Here, instructional and commemorative content excels. An instructive example might be a monthly cooking magazine that recognizes that, today, many of its recipes will remain relevant to future generations.

If publishers can achieve similar value in the bottomless digital realm, they could end up accomplishing the notion of magazine-as-service – a massive archive of content that is not just a historical curiosity but which has everlasting relevance, and an ongoing reader payment relationship like cable TV enjoys.

The economic pay-offs are also attractive, flipping the production cost base from one in which so much hard work and cash is spent on producing content that will soon be stale to one in which costs are considered an investment in a future-proof content repository that can keep on giving.

In other words, is there a profitable seam to tap in recasting the publisher as content database?