In a survey released this week by CXense, 37% of nearly 400 U.S. publishers said they believe print will continue to be the primary way readers access their content. Another 34% said print was the least important channel going forward, behind smartphones, tablets and PCs.
That bull-vs.-bear split nicely sums up the debate about the future of print. You either love it or hate it. It’s either driving your business or strangling it. Print titles are closing, and new titles are launching (or relaunching) – some from digital-native publishers. Magazine publishers toil in a world of contradictions and conflicting bullet points.
Beyond breathless romanticism for the “tactile feel” of a magazine page (which, thanks to low-quality paper stock, is far less gratifying than it once was), publishers have their reasons for maintaining a print franchise. Some are more defensible than others. I put them in two broad categories.
Print subscriptions and ad pages may be flat or declining across the industry, but for many publishers print still drives the revenue train. Digital traffic and ad sales are growing quickly but aren’t close to closing the gap with print revenues or margins.
Some magazine veterans continue to defend the power of print as an advertising medium. At a recent Hearst event, media critic Michael Wolff said that “advertising probably works better in print than any other medium; it represents the ultimate engagement,” and that “advertising is so significantly less effective in the digital world, we’ve created a world that can’t pay for itself.”
Vogue Publishing Director Stephen Quinn, speaking recently at Magazines Ireland’s Publishing360 conference in Dublin, said Vogue’s gross print revenues were 11 times that of its online revenues in 2013. Vogue’s print ad pages and revenue have grown each year since 2009. “The money is still in print – that is overwhelmingly true for Vogue,” he said.
An iconic fashion magazine brand such as Vogue can feed the conventional wisdom that in print magazines, readers consider the ads nearly as valuable as the editorial. Many publishers – and their advertisers – still subscribe to this mindset.
“As much as some of my colleagues on the editorial side may bristle at this, I recognize that readers often buy a print magazine for the ad experience as well as for the edit experience,” Fast Company editor and managing director Robert Safian recently told Adweek. “As long as marketers continue to believe that, we’ll be able to support creating that [print] content experience.”
Fast Company recently was named Magazine of the Year at the National Magazine Awards.
For a few iconic consumer brands, continuing to pour resources into print is a legitimate growth strategy. For the rest of us, including most B2B publishers, probably not so much.
Which brings me to the second main reason publishers hang on tightly to their legacy print business: They don’t know what else to do. Cultures are slow to adapt to a digital-first mentality, often because operations remain tuned to the legacy business. Sales programs and incentives are structured around print, with digital products offered as add-ons; editorial workflows and content management systems are based on weekly or monthly print cycles, with web/mobile/social tools bolted on, or maintained separately.
If the print business is not growing, this structure creates a downward spiral, often managed through cost-cutting in a feeble attempt to maintain profitability on the print side. Cost-cutting is not a growth strategy, unless those resources are being reinvested in growth areas.
Consider Meredith’s Ladies Home Journal, which last month announced plans to kill its monthly print edition. Meredith said the brand will live on as a “robust digital presence”and a quarterly, newsstand-only publication. That could be challenging, considering the entire editorial staff was laid off.
Print vs. digital does not have to be an either-or proposition. “The best way to tell a story is across multiple platforms,” Roy Schwartz, chief revenue officer of Politico, told Folio earlier this year in regards to parent company Allbritton Communications’ plan to launch a monthly print edition of Capital New York magazine. “The key to the success is to be able to offer clients a true cross-platform solution.”
The key is also to align costs so that you’re investing in the parts of the business that are growing. Some publishers are already taking steps to decrease emphasis on print – through reductions in frequency, for example – while funneling more resources to web and mobile development. It sounds fairly simple, but for legacy publishers that have been following a print-first path for decades, changing lanes can be painfully difficult.