A brave plunge online or a cautious dip?

Two of the country’s best-known magazines, facing each other across the political divide and with quite different approaches to the business of getting onto the web.

On my left, the New Statesman, plunging bravely into the online world, and on my right, The Spectator, dipping a cautious toe into the water.

A lot of thought, effort and, it seems, money has gone into the New Statesman site and there is every sign John Kampfner and his team have decided that the ultimate future of their magazine may be online. Each week, the entirety of the print magazine is put up on the site, free to view, at the same time as the magazine hits the newsagent’s shelf.

The Spectator is more, well, conservative and much of its content is available to paying subscribers only. On the free-to-view side there’s some “online-only” content – such as a blog by some of the magazine’s writers.

The New Statesman’s view is that, if you have good content and make it freely available online, you’ll draw in a global audience that will in time dwarf your print circulation.

In the longer term, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the magazine becoming a web-only publication.

For The Spectator, putting all your content online risks cannibalising print sales – why meddle with a model that works?

Given this fundamental difference of approach, it’s no great surprise to report that the New Statesman’s site is a far slicker, better-designed and more professional affair. It reflects the magazine’s makeover under Kampfner, and is clear, appealing and well structured. They are making efforts to involve users in the site – there are blogs from key writers such as Martin Bright and readers can submit comments on all articles (though so far, few people seem inclined to do so).

Despite its web innovations, newstatesman.com essentially still feels like the weekly magazine online. Over time, I’d hope that it will develop its own identity and publishing schedule so that the weekly upload of the magazine is simply an adjunct to a rich and varied daily diet of online content.

It seems appropriate that a conservative magazine should be cautious, and The Spectator has chosen to make the best of its content available to paying subscribers only and hopes to attract readers to the website by offering “online-only content” – essentially a slightly desultory blog of articles by some of its writers.

Their view, it seems, is that the future is in print.

Spectator.co.uk is a less visually appealing proposition, partly because the magazine’s old-fashioned, text-heavy layout simply doesn’t transfer well on to the web. Its pages feel dense, grey and unbrowsable and the cartoons that help to break up articles in print are lumped together in a single section on the site.

Some of the navigation is less than clear. A section called “On Spec” turns out to be a selection of interesting articles from other sites, while “Elsewhere” contains articles from Spectator writers in other publications.

Punning and allusiveness may work well in print, but online it is far better to be clear. It is frustrating, too, that visitors to the site can’t post comments to articles – being able to debate and interact with your audience is something the web does better than any other medium, so why not take advantage of it?

Chris Fisher, Eastern Daily Press I use a mixture of the print and online editions.

Much of the New Statesman’s stuff is emailed to me these days, which is handy; I don’t have that facility with The Spectator. I don’t necessarily read them every week, I just dip into them when I feel I need to.

Journalistically I have no preference – it depends on who’s on the magazine that week. All I read them for is if there is a particular article that we know will cause a stir, and I can base a story on that. I don’t usually read them cover to cover every week, far from it. I quite like the quirkiness of The Spectator; by comparison, the New Statesman is a bit po-faced, a bit serious. There is an element of sense of humour in The Spectator that is missing in the New Statesman.

Jon Walker, Birmingham Post & Mail I read them both but I don’t use their websites. I like to actually buy the magazines and read them on the train. I’ve seen The Spectator website, I think it’s good. The Spectator sends me an email once a week. It has probably the best writing of any publication in the country and has also one or two very good main essays. The New Statesman at the moment is very good for genuine political news stories, and I enjoy Kevin McGuire’s Westminster diary.

Matthew George, 43, Western Daily Press I read both the magazines, but I don’t use their websites.

I receive emails from The Spectator with an advance warning of what is going to be in the magazine. I particularly like the political section and Boris Johnson’s articles in The Spectator, while with the New Statesman my main interest is more on a wider level, not so much a particular writer, but the specific topics and stories they are covering. It is less tied to who is writing but more to what they are writing about. I think The Spectator has got more of an identity with it, targets the right market and has got a good mixture between humour and seriousness. The New Statesman should have some quirky columnists, perhaps a bit more humour, and sometimes it is less clear who the magazine is aimed at.

David Rose, freelance I sometimes read The Spectator, I buy it to read their very good art critic. But I never look at their websites.

I find the New Statesman irrelevant. I don’t use any website, I don’t see the point. As a political journalist I get my information from reading parliamentary documents and from what MPs say. The New Statesman has no information that I cannot myself obtain from original sources. The Spectator is always best read from the back, because the critics are very good and the book reviews are very good.

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