A quick summary for those who haven’t been keeping up:
• It was founded as a print-on-demand hobby magazine, and then turned professional in ways its husband-and-wife founders, Derek Powazek and Heather Champ didn’t like. The founders were given the boot; Powazek went on to help launch Magcloud and Fray.
• JPG‘s sister magazine, a short-lived travel magazine also created from online submissions called Everywhere, was suspended in August 2008. (Disclosure: I wrote for it once, by invitation – which seemed somewhat to go against the whole ‘community created’ thing to me.)
• Despite its failure, some saw JPG‘s model as the only realistic future for the magazine industry; others felt it was not aspirational enough and the cover price was too high; or maybe it just didn’t get the right distribution, appeal to advertisers or do something that Flickr didn’t; in the end it just proved too expensive for its publisher, particularly in a troubled ad market
There seem to be three realistic paths for the magazine’s survival, if indeed that’s to happen:
1) As a bonus for paying members of a photosharing site, monetizing the existing community and getting new users away from industry leader Flickr. Hence SmugMug‘s interest. Or maybe Flickr will pre-emptively take it over to stop that happening.
2) As a supplement inside an existing photo magazine, such as Amateur Photographer. Great way to create a new readership, give members a special “3 issues free trial”, and so on.
3) Ironically, printed on demand via Powazek’s MagCloud (or similar). In this scenario, the community decides to go it alone, and a few keen young designers decide to take it on to boost their portfolio. You know, for kicks.
If either 1) or 2) come to pass, then 3) will probably happen as a spinoff anyway, as there will always be users who don’t want to pay to play.
Distribution certainly played a part in the magazine’s downfall; the high cover price probably did too, as did the advertising downturn. However, I don’t think they were the fundamental reasons for its failure.
As a way to create a magazine, it was indeed fairly revolutionary: take online content, pay little for it, and encourage a growing community to keep submitting. It tried to place amateur payment alongside professional standards and advertising, not an easy sell (and part of the reason for Powazek’s walkout) but probably the only way to make money from UGC in this kind of a magazine format – ignore the whingers, and skim off the willing cream. The whole thing took advantage of available online community features, and did a decent job of community management too. All fine and good, but the stumbling block was the magazine itself.
For something built around community, what it didn’t do was carry that group-hug, interactive feeling into the magazine. Reading the magazine didn’t feel like being a part of any community. The attitude of the magazine didn’t make you smile, the photo mix was fine but rarely jaw-dropping, the amateur snappers’ advice was all fine and good, but not illustrated in an effective manner. Overall, it felt… average. On a good day.
I really wanted to like it, given its courageous and interesting publishing model. I did enjoy some of its themes – Noir, above, for instance remains my favourite feature of those I’ve seen – but when I saw the result, I didn’t really understand why anyone would buy it when it was available online for free (though the giveaways stopped after issue 15); I also didn’t think the paper version ever really looked coffee table enough to justify the high price, or indeed any price at all, and it didn’t have any compelling reason to own it, unless my own pictures were inside – in which case I’d get a free copy anyway. Having a community of 197,000 users is one thing, but that doesn’t mean they’ll overlook the quality of a bland end product when faced with a newsstand (not to mention an internet) filled with other options.
The SaveJPG.com community may be crying out for a saviour, but 8020 almost certainly couldn’t have raised the necessary cash from that same community in the way that, say, Bitch did. Because the community would just say, why don’t we just keep the money and do it ourselves? (They might yet do that, and go back to making their own niche print-on-demand hobby mag – which is how the whole thing started.)
Overall, 8020′s model was a brave stab at monetising and creating a print magazine using some of the features of this brave new world of UGC. Everyone wanted a piece of that just a few years ago. The magazine even sourced some decent photos among its content, and seemed to attract a few big name advertisers.
But if 8020 was going to handbuild a brand new publishing model, then they needed to create a truly remarkable magazine to show it off, alongside some clever marketing and clear advertising appeal. ‘Not bad’ was never going to be good enough to change an industry.
And so it wasn’t. I remain doubtful that most forms of UGC will ever be monetised far beyond subscription fees; it certainly won’t until/unless the advertising millions find a way of making money off communities, something MySpace, Google and Facebook are still headscratching over. One thing’s for sure: it’ll take a better magazine than JPG to prove me wrong.