What is the future of print?

That’s easy – it’s digital! Close the presses and head online. But, are we being too hasty? After all, the advertising downturn has hit online too, and with the notable exceptions on niche and B2B, we haven’t got our online charging mechanisms right. There is a future for print, says Mike Miles, but publishers need to recognise that the consumer has changed and innovate accordingly.

By Mike Miles

This is a testing time for everybody involved with magazines, and magazine executives have been falling over themselves with warnings as to just how testing a time this year would be. Tim Brooks, managing director of Guardian Newspapers was quoted in MediaWeek earlier in the year, on the fate of the magazine market: “If I had a pound for every title that will close in 2009, I’d have enough money to subscribe to both Monocle and Intelligent Life - but that would be pointless, because neither of them will be around by the end of the year.”

Talking in the Guardian, Stevie Spring, chief executive of Future Publishing, said she expected only special interest and “need-to-have” titles to succeed. “Those publishers producing magazines that play an important part in people’s interests will weather the storms much better than those producing content that can be had quicker, cheaper and in digestible bite-size chunks online.”

Will they come?

More upbeat was Nicholas Coleridge, Conde Nast’s managing director, who, quoted in the same article, thought that though times are “challenging”, the circulations of quality glossies are likely to hold steady.

One of my favourite films is Field of Dreams. It stars Kevin Costner as a baseball-loving Iowa farmer who hears a voice telling him to, “Build it and they will come.” The “it” is a baseball field on his farm and “they” are the ghosts of old baseball players. And they did come.

I was reminded of this movie when I went to February’s Publishing Expo at London’s Olympia. As someone who has spent most of his working life associated with the world of print, I was struck by how most of the exhibitors were showing off their electronic wares. Here and there were the odd subscription companies but notable by their absence were any old style print publishers much less any magazine distributors.

I attended a number of seminars and the message was, forget print, develop your print product electronically be it via your website or some form of digital effort.

Nursing a strong cup of coffee in the restaurant afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these exhibitors were actually just building their own baseball field and hoping the market would come. How many of them were following the technology rather than the market.

A recent issue of Revolution had the following: “The decline of... magazines is an old and familiar story... If you’ve been burying your head in the sand waiting for the resurgence of print media, it’s time to bite the bullet and embrace the internet.”

InPublishing itself is replete with articles about how to make money from your online presence, or how to look for growth by moving beyond print into other platforms such as podcasts or online video.

It would be therefore tempting to turn one’s back on print and wholly embrace the electronic age but it isn’t just the luddite streak in me that says the printed magazine has a future, and it is one that should be encouraged and nurtured.

But don’t just take my word for it

Late last year, MediaWeek ran a piece with the headline: “Print titles still more popular than ezines.” There is a significant minority of consumers who are open to buying digital versions of magazines, but the majority would be unlikely to swap their print copy for a digital format.

MediaWeek cited a survey of 1,633 users of magazine subscription site iSUSBSCRiBE. 17% had read an ezine. Only 21% of these would be interested in subscribing to an ezine instead of that title’s print version. Of the respondents to whom iSUBSCRiBE gave sample ezines, 54% said they would be more likely to subscribe to the print version of that title, and 21% would be more likely to buy that title from a shop.

In 2007, the PPA undertook the Magazines Drive Online study to examine offline drivers of online search and purchase. The study found that:

* Magazine and TV advertising are the strongest forms of advertising in driving online search.

* Magazine advertising is as strong as TV for influencing online purchase.

* That, in over 70% of product categories, magazine advertising is the primary driver of online purchase.

A 2008 American research study showed that traditional media, including magazines, are still considered important by digital influencers as a source of information and news. Some 84% of influencers went online in search of more information after reading something in a magazine or other traditional media.

These studies emphasise the continuing importance of print in helping to shape opinion and buying decisions in a rapidly evolving online environment.

Even the issue of Revolution I referred to earlier admitted that magazine brands are commanding larger audiences than ever. “With recruitment advertising moving rapidly online and display not far behind, print and digital media have never been more closely entwined. The days of the double-page spread are numbered, but savvy marketers are identifying new online opportunities that enable print and digital advertising to work in harmony.”

The curse of free

According to a recent Pew Research Centre study, a tipping point occurred in 2008 when more people in the United States got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines.

Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine, was so dismissive of free publications that relied solely on advertising revenue that he called them “morally abhorrent” and “economically self-defeating”. His was an old-fashioned notion that good journalism required that a publication’s primary duty be to its readers and not to its advertisers. With the advertising-only revenue model, the magazine will eventually weaken the bond with its readers as it does not depend on them for much of its revenue. If he had been alive today, no doubt Luce would have expressed similar sentiments about the premise that information on the internet should be free.

Earlier this year, Time ran a cover story entitled, “How to save your newspaper”. Written by Walter Isaacson, a former managing editor of that magazine, it suggested that it is time for the dawn of a bold, old idea: getting paid by users for the services magazine publishers provide.

The notion of charging for content is an old idea not simply because magazines have been doing it for several centuries. It’s also something they used to do at the outset of the online era, in the early 1990s. Then online service companies would charge users for the minutes they spent online, and as a result content had a value. Then came along tools that made it easier for publications and users to venture into the open internet rather than remain in the walled gardens created by the online services. Banner ads brought in a rising tide of revenue, but the upshot was that paid-for content was abandoned. The web got caught up in the ethos that information should be free.

Now publishers are faced with a slowdown in online advertising growth, yet information still costs money to source and produce.


Isaacson suggested that the key to attracting online revenue is to come up with an iTunes type easy-method of micropayment. What is needed is a one-click system with a really simple interface that will permit impulse purchases of a magazine, article or even blog or video for a small sum. Admittedly, the history of the internet is littered with failed micro-payment companies, and I have seen articles on how the concept cannot work because of the technology. But Dr Johnson once said that when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully well. Perhaps the magazine industry’s fortnight is upon us. After all, Steve Jobs of Apple got music consumers, used to “free” music, comfortable with the concept of paying for a tune.

While some publishers are no doubt banking on a digital-only future, others are thinking in terms not of print’s demise, but of what role it can play.

Many years ago, when I was trying to get to grips with marketing theory, I vividly remember the example of how American railways had ultimately failed because they did not recognise they were in the transportation business, not the railway business, and, as a consequence, had been overtaken by air travel.

The parallel with magazines is the need to think in terms of content rather than paper and ink and to persuade people to pay for things they have become used to getting for free.

Innovation needed

Good content costs money and people should be willing to pay for it.

Most circulation marketing is publisher-led, requiring consumers to adhere to magazine schedules and plans out of step with the way people want to manage their media. Especially if the goal is to attract younger readers, publishers must integrate magazine purchasing into existing on-line habits.

In the States, Time Inc has developed Maghound, offering consumers a menu of magazine subscriptions they can order online for a flat, monthly fee. According to Dave Ventresca, president of Maghound, “they offer the consumer greater flexibility, choice and control than they had previously, so we saw a shift in how consumers shop for, pay for and manage the media that comes into their lives.”

Maghound currently offers subscriptions to print magazines only but hopes to evolve to incorporate some type of digital content. “The goal of Maghound,” says Ventresca, “is that it is, for consumers who are interested in magazine content, a better way to manage and pay for content, whether that is print or digitally.”

In March this year, Time Inc also launched Mine, a project that allows readers to go online and select articles from eight titles, for delivery in print, or online, as a free personalised magazine. Time is hoping that this will prove popular enough for them to be able to charge for it.

Whether a publication succeeds in print or online, or some combination of both, will ultimately be determined by reader preferences. If print, or print-style formats such as digital editions, survive and thrive, it will be because people recognise their value and decide they are willing to pay for it.

Innovation, touted as the provenance of the digital domain, must not disappear from the printed magazine realm.