Saturday, July 18, 2015

Cultural publication 'flirts with the Dark Side' in Spain

El Pais announces the alliance on its website.
(Updated Aug. 22, 2015; versión en español)

The iconoclastic Spanish culture magazine Jot Down is a strange creature in many ways. At a time when people supposedly read little and do it rapidly, it publishes long interviews and essays.

In an age of minute-by-minute updates and clickbait, Jot Down makes its money by charging about US$16.75 for each copy of its massive 320-page quarterly, which carries only two or three pages of advertising.

Another oddity: its target market is not the famous millennials so sought after by many media but rather more-mature folks in their 40s and 50s. It is an edgy publication that attracts people “who think of themselves as young,” says publisher Angel Fernandez, 44, who co-founded it four years ago.

Marriage of convenience

Surprisingly, it is viable, profitable, and growing. But possibly strangest of all, it has just reached agreement to share its content with one of the media icons of Spain, in fact a symbol of much of what Jot Down criticizes about traditional media, namely El Pais. Ironically, several of the magazine’s contributors were laid off by El Pais during the long economic downturn and have not hesitated to bash their former employer.

So it came as a shock July 17 when El Pais announced that it was joining forces with Jot Down to create “Jot Down Smart,” a magazine that will be sold on newsstands as part of El Pais on the first Sunday of each month starting in October. In addition, Jot Down will publish two articles daily on the newspaper’s website. 

Jot Down also announced the agreement (Spanish), but in keeping with its tone, it could not resist using the ironic headline, “Jot Down flirts with ‘the Dark Side’.”
The press announcements did not give financial details, but Fernandez told me in an interview via Skype that the newspaper is going to pay Jot Down a service fee for providing the online articles and the magazine content. 
Jot Down will not get a share of any advertising sold against its digital content nor in each 144-page edition of Jot Down Smart. 

Fernandez, an entrepreneur who has a computer services company, said that he had been looking for a powerful partner that could help Jot Down expand into Latin America. He had made contacts in Miami and Colombia without a satisfactory result. At the moment, only one-fourth of Jot Down’s digital audience of  800,000 monthly readers is outside of Spain, according to its internal Google Analytics, compared with El Pais’s monthly digital audience of 14 million, according to ComScore. 

In contrast with the growth trends of Jot Down, however, El Pais, like the other big dailies in Spain, has lost circulation — now down to 223,000, a decline of 16% in the past year  — and has seen a 5% drop in advertising revenue. 

Fernandez sees El Pais’s digital reach as an important part of a growth strategy. As the digital audience grows for Jot Down, he said, sales increase for the quarterly review both by subscription and in some 200 bookstores. The print version is the engine of the business. 

Jot Down by the numbers

  • Initial investment, $34,000
  • 50 partners also invested $3,400 each 
  • 2014 revenues, $660,000
  • 70% of revenues come from sales of the print magazine, 30% from advertising, nearly all digital
  • Earnings of  $17,000 in 2012 and $7,800 in 2013; loss of $7,800 in 2014
  • Sales of 5,000 to 15,000 copies per issue; when an issue runs out, additional copies are printed
  • 10 full-time employees, 10 half-time
  • 60 collaborators each month, paid $85-170 per article

Fernandez said the partners have adopted an internal rule to take no more than 10 percent of the profits. The policy is to reinvest profits to improve salaries and the product. 

Fans are worried

Some fans of Jot Down have criticized this partnership with “the Dark Side”.
Javier Perez de Albeniz, writing in a blog of Vanity Fair, described the agreement as “curious” and added, “Today El Pais is a rabidly conservative newspaper that is dying on the newsstand. It is the worst El Pais in its history, without doubt. Apart from being unnatural, this agreement is worrying because of the inability of El Pais to produce its own quality content.”

Maikel Perez wrote in 19magazine, “I fear that this is a misguided decision for the magazine, in spite of the fact that it might provide short-term economic benefits — we will have to see about the long term — for the magazine’s bank account. As for El Pais? For the daily it appears to be a good move in an attempt (desperate?) to maintain, keep, or recover — choose the verb that you think fits best here — some of the intellectual prestige left in the corners after the disastrous departure of major writers amid all the layoffs of recent years.”

The promise of synergy

I had not heard of Jot Down until a few months ago when my students at the University of Navarra began mentioning it to me as an example of independent digital publishing.
Many of these types of alliances are based on the notion that the traditional publication's mass audience combined with the digital publication's niche audience will create synergy and new opportunities for both: the digital publication will reach new audiences, and the traditional publication will attract new readers and advertisers, strengthening both. 

I have tried some of these alliances myself as a publisher and have seen others try them. Usually, the cultures clash, and one or both parties fail to commit enough time and resources to make the alliance work. But I wish both of these publishers well in the new venture.

Jot or hot
 In a radio interview on the alliance, Carles Foguet, communication director for Jot Down, was asked whether to pronounce the name of the publication with the English "J" sound or the Spanish, which is pronounced like an "H" -- "Hot Down". Foguet suggested using whichever the person preferred.


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