6 Trends Affecting City & Regional Magazine Publishing
If you’re looking for sunshine among the clouds of uncertainty within the publishing industry, there are many city or regional publishing executives who would gladly have a conversation to help clear up your outlook. After years of either holding steady following the Great Recession or fighting for a return to normalcy, the city and regional publishers interviewed for this article shared a unanimously positive feeling about the last year and forecast a bright future for this segment of the magazine industry.
“I’d put us down as very optimistic,” says Dan Brogan, president & editor-in-chief of 5280 magazine in Denver. “I think we’re very happy with where our business is right now. We’re coming off a record year in terms of revenue and profit. We’ve finally gotten back to where we were before the recession but we’re also a different business than we were back then.”
Brogan is not alone in his enthusiasm for the sector’s health. “We are in our second year of record years, so we are very bullish in what’s going on in our space,” says Nicole Vogel, president of SagaCity Media. “The outlook couldn’t be more positive right now.”
With the worst of times in the rear view mirror for many, here city and regional publishing executives share their thoughts on the important trends affecting the resilient segment and their reasons for being optimistic.
Publishers aren’t just talking about increased income or record revenues, they’re also putting their money where their mouth is. Growth doesn’t just mean increasing rate base, bumping page count, or adding staff. While these are all welcome, more than a few publishers have made significant financial commitments by launching or working toward launching entirely new titles.
These new magazines range from city/regional, business, and shelter publications to those filling an underserved niche. There are many aggressive publishers who are seeking opportunities, and when they find them, they jump on them.
“We’re doing a couple of brand extensions and putting a toe back into the home design category -- one in Palm Beach and one in Naples,” says Terry Duffy, group publisher of Palm Beach Media Group. “I think it’s encouraging to see publishers creating new products and we are certainly following that.”
Another area experiencing a period of rebirth and that figures to see more growth going forward is custom publishing. Businesses within all industries are looking to add to the bottom line, which is why after a few lean years, companies are again partnering with local publishing companies for marketing solutions.
“I think because the economy seems to be recovering, people are discovering the ability of a city and regional magazine to supplement their business by producing catalogs or custom magazines,” says Rhode Island Monthly publisher John Palumbo, who also sits on the board of the City and Regional Magazine Association. “A number of our members have divisions that do just that. It’s an easy way to monetize and harness talent within your organization and tap revenue sources other than traditional advertising and not have to staff up or down.”
Fit to Print
While new titles and custom publishing are trending upwards, so is a re-instilled faith in print. When digital media took its foothold and the economy crashed, many thought the final nails had been pounded into print’s coffin. It was predicted that readers would permanently migrate away from hard copies in lieu of small screens and advertisers would depart soon thereafter.
That was true for a while but never to the extent that was expected. National titles bore much more of the brunt from the digital migration, perhaps because of the nature of the unique content produced by city magazines and the specific regions they serve.
“It’s the longest death I’ve ever known,” says Vogel. “I think print has been dying since 1990 and yet I still have reams of subscribers and newsstand sales. My focus is on the content and the readers tell us how they want it delivered.”
“People love to say print is dead,” says Brogan. “When they say that, they are mixing newspapers, monthly magazines, and weekly magazines as if we were all the same and we are not. Right now if you do a monthly or quarterly in a niche people are passionate about, then I think it’s a great time to be in print publishing.”
Digital Growing Pains
Though the foundation underneath print seems to have stabilized, content consumption in digital is still growing among readers. However, the role of digital varies depending on the philosophy of each publisher.
Some see the web and mobile as a compliment to the core print product while others see it as a direct revenue source. That’s the trouble with these platforms. Publishers understand the need to have a strong online presence but the book on how to turn this into a profit center is still being written. Despite a split in strategy and struggle to profit on the web and mobile, one trend all the publishers we spoke to agreed on is they will increase the resources dedicated to these platforms in the coming year.
“Digital is definitely growing,” says Brogan. “More clients are asking to include it as part of an integrated package.
Continues Brogan: “I don’t think anyone has figured out the right model just yet. There are just as many challenges with digital as there are with print when you look at declining CPMs and ad blockers.”
Publishers indicate that social media has matured to the point where it now drives business. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and even emerging live streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat are becoming more than experimental extensions to a marketing plan. Moving forward, these tools will hold greater importance for reaching an audience and publishers are budgeting more investment toward them next year.
“I think the tide is turning,” says Duffy. “There were a lot of skeptics, even if you just go back 24 months -- especially with smaller titles. They asked if they put in the resources, what the return on the investment would be.”
Brogan sees the increasing value of social as a tool to drive audience to its website and help grow emerging revenue streams. “Social media has become a significant way to point people to our content and let them know about our events,” Brogan said. “We published a cookbook last year and sold 11,000 copies. Social media was definitely a big driver of that.”
Diversity is essential to survival in today’s publishing business model. A regional publishing company has evolved from just makers of magazines to multi-platform, omnipresent media companies. And just as publishers have diversified the number of tools used to distribute their content, they have also had to diversify the number of revenue sources so as to not be so reliant on the print publication.
One ancillary revenue stream that publishers agree will receive more attention and resources going forward is events. Though events aren’t necessarily a new opportunity for publishers, they’ve been adopted at varying rates. For some, events are a new extension of their brand and a value-added tool for advertisers to connect with new customers both as part of a package or stand-alone event.
Others, like Kevin Thomas, publisher at Maine magazine, have long seen the value of events and will put forth even greater effort going forward. “Events have been significant for us in two ways,” says Thomas. “Most important is connectivity. Advertisers want to layer on their print advertising with events and gain access to B2B contacts or potential buyers. Secondly, they’re a revenue producer. Midway through 2015 we decided to ramp up our events significantly and I am confident that is going to kick in for us in 2016.”
Palm Beach Media Group is also upping its bet on events. “We’ve launched a new division called Illustrated Events,” says Duffy. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years in Palm Beach but now we’ll have a group dedicated to seeking out and producing events on their own, separate from magazine revenue and advertising agreements.”
While city and regional publishers cited a number of positive trends, not all is butterflies and rainbows. One obstacle facing publishers is the challenge of building a consolidated database from all the information collected across its digital platforms.
“A consolidated database is a concept no one has gotten their hands around,” says Palumbo. “That database is something I think everybody knows has potential, but the software isn’t exactly inexpensive so many publishers are hesitant to make that investment without confidence on when they will see a return on that investment.”
Another challenging trend facing publishers is the continued decline of the retail newsstand market. Between distribution companies consolidating or closing, an increasing cost of doing business and drastically reduced distribution points, getting magazines into consumer’s hands has become much more difficult.
“I think retail distribution is a broken part of our business,” says Thomas, publisher at Maine. “It’s hard to drive business with the way distribution works. We’re not dipping, we just don’t feel like we’re reaching our potential. It’s more about how the mechanics of newsstand distribution gets in the way. This is definitely an area of focus for us in 2016.”
If the forecasts are accurate, city/regional publishers have a lot of reasons to be optimistic for the first time in a long time.
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Ron Matejko is the President of Phoenix, Ariz.-based MVP Media, an award-winning digital publishing company. Matejko has 16 years of publishing experience in print, Web and mobile and has worked on the staff of two award-winning publications.
MVP Media publishes MVP Magazine, the first interactive sports publication, which won a Bronze 2010 Digital Magazine Award for Best Sports Magazine, besting entrants from 26 countries around the world, and was a finalist for Designer of the Year. MVP Media will launch its own magazines on the iPad in 2011.
MVP Media also helps existing publishers convert their print products into dynamic publications for the web and tablets. Visit the MVP Magazine website at www.mvptoday.com. Contact Ron by e-mail at email@example.com, or connect with him on LinkedIn or on Twitter @mvp_media.