Changing business models in publishing

The pandemic has forced many publishers, large and small, to re-evaluate their business models and find new ways of making money. Carolyn Morgan looks at what we can learn from the activities of six publishers.

By Carolyn Morgan

Changing business models in publishing

The last year has been extremely disruptive for all businesses, with publishers no exception. Newsstand has crashed, advertising has nosedived and in-person events have simply ceased to be. But amid the wreckage of the old-world business plan, a fundamental truth holds strong. Passionate readers value quality content and are prepared to pay. And organisations keen to reach that audience value the insight and editorial craft of publishing teams.

So, from adversity has come great ingenuity – and you don’t need to have a deep pocketed PLC or shareholder behind you. There’s plenty of flexible thinking and innovation coming from independent publishers who are close to their audiences and prepared to pivot and experiment. I have brought together a few examples of smart rethinking of business models, and some practical observations to apply to your own media organisation.

Passionate readers value quality content and are prepared to pay.

Cognitive Publishing

Cognitive Publishing operates in three main sectors: rail, public sector and health. Until a couple of years ago, their business model was driven by print magazines, controlled circulation, and bolstered by exhibitions with paying delegates. But a change in audience and client expectations has forced a rethink. The magazine has moved completely from print to digital, and advertisers have been happy to transfer spend, appreciating the better analytics and illustrated ROI.

Publisher Roy Rowlands resisted virtual events for several months whilst waiting for the marketplace to mature, before embarking on a project to deliver all year round, digital communities – hosted on a platform that offered excellent networking opportunities. The community gets regular live sessions featuring speakers and panellists, available on demand, a new content channel for each of the brands. Over 2600 delegates have registered as all year round “members” – it is free for buyers, and over 150 vendors have signed up to the ‘Power Connect’ pass to network and build relationships with buyers spending over £1trillion per annum. Cognitive has its first post pandemic live event scheduled for 11th November with their second on 10th February 2022 and more in the pipeline.

Overall, sponsorship revenue across the three communities is half that of the in-person events, but costs are lower and incremental to live events as they return. Roy said: “A portion of our public sector audience actually prefer virtual events, as they can dip in without having to justify travel costs at the expense of the taxpayer, but there's also a clear appetite from another segment for live events so we’ve ended up with an unexpected additional revenue stream leading to a growth in headcount by 40% in Q1 of 2021.

Rethinking print isn’t just about changing frequency, you may need to completely rework the content.

1854 Media

1854 Media serves professional and keen amateur photographers. Before Covid, they had a monthly magazine, British Journal of Photography, a series of international photography awards, a free website and a budding studio business creating imagery for major brands. They had just launched a digital membership programme that bundled award entries and the magazine content.

Lockdown hit photographers’ income, awards entries fell and studio revenues evaporated. CEO Marc Hartog and the 1854 team created a digital membership package with online content access, moved the magazine to bi-monthly, upping pagination, removing ads and doubling cover price, linking each edition to the themes of their awards programmes. So far, membership growth has been strong.

They have made a significant investment in their tech stack and hired a data scientist, providing much more granular detail on what content readers consume, and the steps on their journey from casual user to committed paying member.

Establish a culture of using customer feedback to identify opportunities and setting up a pilot or test.

HR Grapevine

HR Grapevine has provided UK HR directors with best practice content for decades. Online content has always been free to registered users and funded by advertising and sponsorship. Their annual March conference contributed substantially to revenues. But in April 2020, CEO Helen Fish knew they had to replace their in-person events. By good fortune, they had already planned to run virtual events, and their CTO was developing an in-house virtual event platform integrated into their content website. From the start, they focused on UX, and this has paid off. The first virtual event in July attracted 2000 attendees and beat sponsors’ targets for engagement. By March 2021, they had run four virtual events, and more than replaced the revenue of the in-person event. Next, they are exploring licensing the platform on a SaaS basis to HR directors for internal events.

HR Grapevine are now testing a paid digital membership package for senior HR directors with exclusive premium content and online networking.

They retained their entire publishing team working remotely and flexibly and total revenues have actually grown year on year. Their mostly empty office has been partially converted into a studio.


Singletrack is a long-established independent magazine and website for mountain bikers. Their traditional revenues included print subscriptions, newsstand sales and digital advertising on their website.

Bikers haven’t been able to get out and about in lockdown, but they have been supportive of their favourite publisher, and subs revenues have grown, compensating for a fall in newsstand sales. Sponsored digital content has been strong, with advertisers keen to continue to reach an enthusiast audience.

And e-commerce has boomed, not only branded merchandise, but also carefully curated third party products. Plus, a now empty publishing office has been converted to a warehouse.

Social Media Week

Social Media Week was an events-led business, with two major live events due to run in summer 2020 in the US. CEO Toby Daniels had to rapidly pivot to a virtual conference format – SMWOne, running over a month and incorporating both local events. They hosted 170 hours of live programming, and 10,000 people registered and participated in the event. It was pay to attend, with complimentary and discounted tickets for smaller organisations and freelancers. The 2021 programme is planned to be all virtual.

In August, they launched a new subscription service, SMW+. This is a streaming platform, hosting sessions from past virtual events. In design and terminology, it resembles Netflix, with individual video event sessions called “episodes”. It is a paid subscription service, at $39 per month, offering a free month’s trial. According to Toby, presenters rather like the idea of creating a series of sessions and building a following over time. In January 2021, Social Media Week was acquired by AdWeek, who clearly spotted the value in an events business moving into subscriptions.

Arts Professional

Long established niche publisher Arts Professional has always served senior managers in the performing arts sector. Once a fortnightly print magazine, they moved to an online only format in 2013, with a strong jobs board, buoyant recruitment ads and a series of well-read newsletters. In early 2020, they launched a digital subscription proposition, with pricing tailored to suit small arts organisations, academic institutions and freelancers. This started well, but when Covid hit, recruitment advertising collapsed. Online traffic hit new heights while concerned arts professionals kept tabs on government support for the arts, and the subs revenue kept the business alive. Now, a year on, recruitment revenue is growing again.

Tailored packages will help move your readers to feeling like members.

What can we learn?

Eight lessons to help you rethink your publishing business.

  1. Engage your audience: Your readers value your comments, insights and analysis, so make it easier for them to feedback on what they like, what they find hard to access, and what they’d like to see more off. Virtual events (or even a podcast with a postbag) provide an easy way to get fast feedback. And a more engaged audience is more loyal.
  2. Talk to your advertisers: Identify your biggest clients and discuss with them how they want to reach your audience. Take it away from annual rates negotiation and use as an opportunity to explore new avenues, from virtual events to one-off reports, custom video or social content. Run pilots with your most ambitious clients; if they work, turn them into case studies.
  3. Be prepared to rethink your (print) magazine: What is the role that print plays for your readers? Is your magazine a thing of beauty to collect and put on a bookshelf? Does it provide a thoughtful, lean back read at the end of the month? Rethinking print isn’t just about changing frequency, you may need to completely rework the content. And if you are adding editorial or production value, don’t be afraid of a big price increase.
  4. Invest in technology: If you aren’t already using gated content and added value services to collect email addresses and offering a logged in experience for at least part of your website, now is the time to start. With a comprehensive database of your entire audience (maybe across several titles), you can start to spot trends and segment your readers. I’m impressed that indie publisher 1854 Media have invested in tech to track reader behaviour, and also hired a data scientist – who works remotely, naturally – to better understand their online audience.
  5. Ask your audience for ideas: Run an all-year round programme of talking to your readers / customers and explore where else they might let you play – e-commerce on related products or awards or events or masterclasses or other services they would value. Log the best ideas and evaluate them.
  6. Create valuable packages (repackages): Your brand is about more than just newsletters or regular magazine content. Start with the audience centred feedback (see no 5) and create packages meeting the needs of different segments of your audience – beginners or pros, early career or senior management. Tailored packages will help move your readers to feeling like members.
  7. Encourage your team to experiment: You won’t get this right first time. So, establish a culture of using customer feedback to identify opportunities and setting up a pilot or test. If it doesn’t work, move on, if it does, roll out.
  8. Walk away from what’s not working: A few publishers have withdrawn their magazines from the newsstand and are fully subscription. Others have dropped print advertising completely. Or even moved publications to fully digital. It might be psychologically difficult to do this but do your research homework and make the break.

With a comprehensive database of your entire audience, you can start to spot trends and segment your readers.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.