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Did Christmas spell the end of print?

On Christmas morning, shiny new tablets were being unwrapped the length and breadth of the country. Was this the tipping point? Will print now rapidly head the same way as vinyl? Jo Bowman gets the views of some leading industry figures.

By Jo Bowman

With the Christmas season having given a huge boost to iPad, tablet and e-reader penetration, there are many wondering whether the digitisation of reading will sound the death knell for the printed word. Magazine circulations and advertising revenues have, overall, been in steady decline for years; the number of new title launches has dropped, and, given the consumer and advertiser excitement about all things digital, logic would have it that the days of printed magazines are numbered.

But behind the bigger picture, there are micro-trends emerging that, together, signal there might yet be life in printed pages, and it’s not all about older readers with die-hard habits or even in digital’s failure – so far – to replicate the smell and feel of ink on paper. While nostalgia and habit certainly play a role in many consumers’ decision to buy a printed magazine, there are pockets of the magazine industry that are not only surviving but thriving in the current climate for other reasons. And it may be that digital reading actually helps magazine publishers – not just to make money from their brands in one way or another, but to actually fuel investment in print.

The tablet rush

Jonny Kaldor is managing director of Kaldor Product Development Group, the company behind the HTML5 publishing platform Pugpig, which publishes digital magazines including the Week, the Spectator and Economia. He thinks the digital shift has reached a tipping point that’s come about because so many consumers now have digital devices, and because it’s becoming clearer to advertisers how big an impact they can make. “Eighteen months ago, there was a clear message from brands: this looks great, but it’s not giving me the reach to warrant the sort of investment that’s required. That’s changing now.”

On one day in December alone, a tablet was bought every second in the UK, as a boon in the range and affordability of tablet devices fuelled pre-Christmas consumption. Tablet penetration was already 19% before everyone unwrapped their presents on the 25th, according to Ofcom. And where eyeballs go, publishers are following. Glamour is among the titles just launched as an iPad app, with its January 2013 issue the first available to download from newsstand. It will go monthly in April. Previously, a PDF digital replica of the title was available, and four iPhone and Android phone apps have been released over the past year. Dennis Publishing’s weekly car magazine, Auto Express, meanwhile, has launched its new iPad app, combining motoring journalism with interactive features and exclusive video content. Dennis is offering the first six issues free to consumers. Advertisers on board include Mazda, with a 360-degree photo of its CX-5 model, and Remington, which has interactive features including the possibility of shaving a face using a finger on the touchscreen.

But it’s not just brands that are aligned with technology that are going digital; the Architects’ Journal, the weekly architecture publication launched in 1895, in November announced the launch of its first ever iPad edition, and Grazia, Bauer’s weekly glossy for upscale women, has launched its innovative weekly iPad edition (described by the publishers as a “game-changing magazine product for the glossy market”), with all the editorial content of the print edition, but with the functionality that allows readers to buy items directly while they read – from fashion and tech items to theatre tickets and books.

Kaldor has seen this sort of thing before; he was at EMI Music a decade ago, back when digital music was projected as growing to perhaps as much as 20 per cent of industry revenues by 2012, a figure that sounds amusing now. “People are always very conservative about how much of the market these technologies are going to take. Then reality sets in. I’m in no doubt that 90 per cent of consumers will get their content digitally eventually.” As the tablet experience continues to improve, page-turning technology becomes more like a printed page, and as bandwidth improves, so downloading time isn’t given a thought. Take-up of digital magazines will only increase, he says – not, generally, as a digital replica of the printed product, but as a richer experience. “There’s so much you can do now – things like fashion shoots look pretty brilliant.”

Yet even someone as bullish about digital magazines as Kaldor doesn’t believe the whole industry will go digital. Having seen the way people interact with high-quality glossies – smelling the pages, feeling them as they read – he thinks there’ll be a core of titles and readers that will want to stick with print, in much the same way as there are some music fans who prefer to buy vinyl records. Niche publications like Monocle, he suggests, with their heavy stock and beautiful images, might stay in print. “Print will continue to be loved, but delivery of news content and just pure content … I can’t see any other way than that it’s all going to go digital.”

A more complex picture

Jamie Higginson, associate director at MediaCom, says the complete digitisation of magazines may happen eventually, but not in our lifetimes. “Eventually we may have cars that fly, space travel akin to air travel now and Arsenal might win a trophy – but it’s all unfortunately still a long way off,” he says. “For the foreseeable future, there will still be a group of individuals that want a physical printed product and the relationship that brings. There are plenty of examples of this – the obvious one being the birth of Kindle not eradicating the world of books – I have friends who only read through their Kindle and others who only read through traditional books; that’s not changing any time soon.”

But not everyone is convinced that the struggles many print publishers have had to maintain circulation and ad revenue are due to a drift towards digital. Stephen Hirst, managing director of Marketforce, points out that women account for a disproportionately high number of magazine sales, and that three million more women in the UK read magazines than go online. He puts the decline in sales overall down to economic constraints on personal budgets, noting that titles that help people save money – craft magazines, home improvement and recipes – are actually proving resilient, along with children’s titles, and television listings.

Jonathan Bunting, managing director of Smiths News, has tracked a similar trend. “It’s fair to say the market’s in structural decline, but that kind of hides the more complex picture of what’s going on,” he says. Children’s titles, usually linked to TV programmes that serve as massive ad campaigns for characters, are up 5 per cent this year, he says, and TV listings buyers are extremely loyal, so while the number of copies sold has dipped, those still buying are paying more and the total value of sales is up. Cookery and craft are growing, reflecting popular television content, and while sports titles are generally down, there’s been a surge in interest in all things cycling, thanks to Bradley Wiggins’ success in the Tour de France and at the Olympics.

Lads’ mags have been declining, not, Bunting says, because of the digital shift but because the culture of laddism that they served has waned. Readers of buying and selling titles, though, have moved to digital at the expense of print; tracking trading listings online, where they can be instantly updated, does make sense. Women’s celebrity titles have been hit more recently not by the rise of tablets, Bunting says, but by the growth of Twitter, which is widely used by celebrities to give them a direct link to the public. “There’s a view that you don’t need to buy a magazine when you can hear from a celebrity three times a day,” says Bunting. Strong online propositions such as MailOnline, which have a strong female following and more celebrity content than in the printed paper, have also lured readers. He’s not convinced there’s a clear link between the rise of tablets and the fall in printed magazine sales, and while the current hunger for crafts and home-maker titles might be cyclical, the resilience of kids’ mags and TV listings could well have longevity.

Hirst also thinks the decline is due to the economy; not only do consumers have less money to spend, but publishers have less to invest in launches and redevelopment. “We’re not seeing consumers switching from print into digital. Digital is a new opportunity to reach people in a broader market, give brands a broader reach and generate new revenue streams.” IPC has 62 brands on Newsstand and 30-plus on Kindle Fire, not to replace print titles but to extend their reach. “Print products have a huge amount of stickiness to them,” Hirst says. “The reading experience is very, very deep; people tend to get lost in their magazines. One of the big challenges for digital is: can that same richness and deep, satisfying experience be recreated for consumers?”

It’s inevitable that as people spend more time online, advertisers will spend more money online and publishers will want to do more in that space, too, Hirst accepts, but the brands that established a following in print can usually transfer much of that loyalty. “The important thing is the brands. Brands resonate with consumers, and you’ve got to provide the content where and how consumers want to consume it. But there’s still a huge appetite out there for magazines, as long as publishers continue to be innovative and have the courage to spend.” Marketforce did a recent sales promotion with independent retailers and sold an extra 30,000 copies. “There are still wins to be had.”

Digital boosting print?

James Papworth is marketing director of the Professional Publishers Association, and thinks digital could be print’s saviour. “There’ve always been ups and downs but the overall figures show print ABCs are holding their own,” he says. “And what seems to be happening is print sales have been given a shot in the arm by exposure to tablet owners.” Research from Germany shows tablet buyers are actually driving physical newsstand sales - 68% of tablet owners say they’re reading a wider variety of heritage print titles and 52% reading more in either print or tablet. The convenience of the browsing experience and, perhaps, the cashless purchase, is encouraging people to experiment with new titles and genres on a tablet, and often to then go and buy hard copies. Sales are not just being cannibalised, Papworth insists, and UK consumers are still buying two billion magazines a year. “I don’t think the print product will be lost any time soon.”

MediaCom’s Higginson agrees that digital readership should be viewed as an exciting development for publishers, not a threat, with those adapting best reaping the rewards.

Russ Simper, trading director at the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, says there’s too little research available showing how consumers respond to advertising within digital content. “We need research for advertisers – they’re the most important people who are going to drive this,” he says. Simper fears, though, that talk about a drift in readership from print to digital will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with publishers themselves leading the decline in sales through neglect of their print products. “In the rush to digitise, companies have been losing sight of some of the basics,” he says.

Bunting also believes publishers could drive interest in print and at least reduce the overall rate of decline, if not spark a revival. Tech has become sexy at the expense of ‘old’ media. Magazines need to be seen as fashionable and read by influential people. “The very people who make trends have the ability to turn that on its head,” he says. Publishers could collaborate, in the way they’re currently sharing printing services and primary distribution, for greater economies of scale and efforts to drive excitement about the printed word.