Can VIBE magazine be saved? And should we care?

What will it take to bring back VIBE?

Oh the irony. In a week that saw a jaw-dropping surge in music sales, television ratings and internet traffic in response to the death of Michael Jackson, VIBE, one of the nation’s leading music magazines, abruptly stopped publication Tuesday. Magazine staffers received the news in a memo from CEO Steve Aaron as they labored to produce a special issue on the death of the King of Pop.

In some ways, the news shouldn’t have been a surprise. Rumors about the magazine’s impending demise had been swirling for months. There had been staff and salary cut. A slew of magazines have gone down the tubes in the past year, including popular music magazines such as Blender. However, the announcement came with stunning suddenness.

And as the news lens has shifted from Jackson’s home to the BET Awards to the tribute at the Apollo and the upcoming public viewing at the Neverland Ranch, millions of people continue to chatter, twitter and facebook about every detail. Watching all of this, I can’t help but wonder, could VIBE have modified its business model to have been better poised for such moments?

Obviously a media enterprise can’t base its survival on single spectacular news events. However, the use of Facebook and Twitter as a place for sharing news and making meaning of Michael Jackson’s death is significant. Blogher CE Virginia DeBolt noted that the patterns of recent news coverage demonstrated the shift in the roles between the old and new media:

In the next news cycle or during the next big story, will mainstream media remain inclined to wait for confirmation from the AP or The New York Times? Or will we begin to accept the word of sources that may be regarded as sleazy some of the time? Is news turning into the world according to Twitter?

VIBE’a magazine’s founder, entertainment mogul Quincy Jones, seems to think so. According to Ebonyjet.com, Jones , 76 , is working n a way to regain control of the 16-year-old enterprise. VIBE was sold to its current owner, Wicks Media Group, in 2006. Jones’ plan is to turn VIBE into an exclusively online enterprise, “because print and all that stuff is over.”

While going online will relieve the VIBE media group of the cost of print production, observers are quick to point out that the magazine already had, in Aaron’s words, “a profitable digital operation.” As Natasha at Young, Black and Fabulous put it:

Can VIBE pull it off even if they come back with a strictly online presence and Quincy Jones buys it back? Their latest editions haven’t been what they used to be. But time will tell…

What would it take for a magazine such as VIBE to succeed in this new media environment? I was prompted to think about this as I reflected upon how I and throngs of other viewers used social media to register our visceral reactions to the BET awards Sunday night. Of the dozens of facebook and twitter entries I scanned that night, I can’t recall a single reference to VIBE’s live-blogs of the event. (You can check them out here and here). Obviously, I’m not pretending that my feeds were exhaustive, or that I caught everything that came past, but I follow both VIBE and its editor in chief on Twitter. What could VIBE have done that night to draw my attention that night?

My curiosity is more than personal. Popular music is one of the United States’ major exports. At the time of its founding in 1993, VIBE had a winning formula that was rooted in the popularity of hip-hop, but that provided content that crossed demographic boundaries. That earned it favorable comparisons to Rolling Stone, among other kudos. (Check out TheRoot.com’s retrospective of notable VIBE covers to get a sense of its impact over the years. ) VIBE’s failure is partially the result of the faltering economy – the loss of key advertisers, such as the auto industry and the seizing up of the capital and credit markets. But it’s also the result of the same shifting patterns of media use that have decimated the record industry and the traditional news media. Writing for TheRoot.com, Todd Boyd acknowledged that VIBE’s star has been fading for a long time:

For those who never took to the shiny suits and the advent of bling culture, Vibe probably began to lose its luster a long time ago. Like “Kwame and them fuckin’ polka dots,” the magazine began to be played out around the same time that the music industry started to take a dip and the point at which the Internet began stealing the thunder of all those monthly publications that couldn’t supply information fast enough in the new 24/7 news cycle.

Dr. Sybril Bennett blogged about her experience of watching the BET Awards while connecting with friends via Facebook:

As more and more people joined the conversation about the BET Awards, from the opening number featuring New Edition including Bobby Brown, I slowly realized what was about to transpire. I didn’t have to watch the show alone or make a phone call. I didn’t have to text. All I had to do was remain on facebook and participate.

Based on her reflections and suggestions from her online friends, Bennett came up with tips that any news organization can use to make a collective experience more interactive. Among her tips: use existing tools such as CoverItLive and Ustream; have someone on the television show staff monitoring social media and engaging with the online audience.

Bennett’s tips got me thinking about other innovative ways in which magazine publishers can merge the best of what they have to offer – expertise, credibility and contacts in a particular field – with the community-building power of social media. Amy Gahran says the key for news organizations to join the conversations in which your audience already participates, rather than trying to initiate conversations from scratch:

Just as with journalism, to do social media right you’ve got to get out there and talk to people on their turf.

If I had a chance to advise Quincy Jones, I’d tell him to hire some smart programmers to create a widget that would allow readers to integrate their facebook twitter and youtube conversations. Then for special events such as award shows, hall of fame inductions or the occasional spectacle of a megastar’s funeral, make it easy for your readers to use your tools to share the experience the experience with their friends – whether on your site, Facebook, or Twitter. Make an API available and allow readers to remix your coverage. Come up with a strategy for highlighting the strongest content from the community on the main site.

And I’ll add one thing that no one has mentioned – encourage game development. A Michael Jackson trivia game, crossword or word jumble would have been a simple way of engaging readers while conveying information about the late singer’s life and achievements. As Facebook and Yahoo Games have amply demonstrated, such games are popular social media platforms. But beyond that, a content sharing partnership with a game publishing outlet might be worth exploring.

The challenge in all of this, of course, is how any of these ideas would have insulated VIBE from the reported 42 percent drop in advertising revenue in the first quarter of 2009 in comparison to a year ago. No one could have predicted the sudden surge in sales of Jackson’s music and memorabilia, and the thought of trying to make book on the next celebrity death is grotesque. But those aren’t the only kinds of events that can draw a crowd. For starters, how about a roster of virtual album release parties with celebrity live-chats and promotional offers on their music and memorabilia?

Even if you aren’t a hip-hop fan, the fate of VIBE matters if you care about what happens in the magazine industry. If an enterprise such as VIBE, designed to serve a niche that is passionate invested in hip-hop music and culture, can’t survive, what media organization can?

cross-posted at Blogher

Posted in Journalism, Music, News and tagged .

professorkim

My professional background is in public information, magazine journalism, blogging and journalism education. My current research is founded on the premise that democracy requires the broad participation of a computationally fluent citizenry. Civic media industries must reflect the communities they serve at the level of ownership, research and development, news gathering, presentation and community engagement. This adds greater urgency to the already critical need to broaden participation in computing. To that end, I have collaborated on curricular models for infusing computing into journalism education at both the scholastic and collegiate levels, and for promoting civic engagement in computer science education. My current interest is in exploring the potential of stochastic networks and as enhancement to social computing tools for broadening civic participation.
While most of this blog is devoted to my research in computational journalism and trends in journalism education, I occasionally do some storytelling of my own. This blog picks up where my other blogs, Professor Kim’s News Notes (http://professorkim.blogspot.com) and The Nancybelle Project (http://kimpearson.net/nancybelle.html) left off.