Guest Columnist: It's the Publishing Model—Not Print—That's Dead
We live in interesting times. That statement reminds me of the day I was in a hospital bed surrounded by a team of doctors. They were telling each other, “This is an interesting case.” I looked up at the doctors and said, “For a journalist, anything interesting (case, times, etc.) means you have no earthly idea what is going on.” The same can be said today about the publishing industry in general and the magazine industry in particular. We live in interesting times. Not a single day passes by that you do not read a prediction of the demise of print. “The end is near!” proclaim the prophets of doom and gloom. They are quick to point to the demise of Country Home, Domino and Cosmo Girl!, among others. They use those RIPs and obituaries to pontificate that print is on its way out. It will soon be replaced by some fancy sheet of plastic that will be the be-all, end-all to all things print. This new technology will replace your magazine, your newspaper and even your books. Think how light your backpack will be once that happens.
Well, the nice thing about the predictions of the prophets of doom and gloom is that is all they are: predictions. In my book, two people, with no third, can tell you the future: God and a fool. And I know these prognosticators are not God, so if you are willing to listen to fools, then you need not read this column.
I only deal with promises that I can keep. Promises that are made based on years of experience tracking the magazine field, observing the changes (change is the only constant in our business) and commenting on the industry as an outsider looking in. And you know what? There is a lot of talk about change in our industry today.
I came to America 30 years ago. It was the Golden Age of Magazines. The industry was launching 150 to 200 new magazines a year. It was the revival period after the devastating 1960s when television (remember that thing?) claimed the lives of tens of magazines. Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post all died in the ’60s and early ’70s. Print was dead yet another time. Nobody wrote about this new rag called Rolling Stone, nor did they predict People magazine would become a major cornerstone of our industry. “Print is dead,” we were told, time and again.
Then came the Golden Age of Magazines in the 1980s—an age that lasted some 15 years and witnessed so many innovative technologies threatening to dethrone the magazine industry as we know it. Remember the magazines on videocassettes, the magazines on CD-ROM, the magazines on DVD? Then came the Internet with a capital “I.” Another threat and more prophets of doom and gloom. Well, guess what? For every magazine that shut its doors in 2008, at least 20 new magazines were born. Magazines die, and magazines are born. That is the cycle of life. It happened before the Internet, before television, before film, before radio, before the telephone—you name the technology. In fact, for you Doubting Thomases of this world, of the first two American magazines ever published (way back in 1741), one lasted six issues and the other lasted three.
So when you hear that we live in interesting times, be aware that although we may not know what the future may hold, we should take solace that we are not the first generation—nor the last—to live in interesting times. It is not the times that matter; it is what you do with that time. For many folks, interesting times mean that the cup is half full. It means that it is time to launch Everyday with Rachael Ray, Food Network, Organic Beauty and The American Dog. Print is not dead; the publishing model that we utilize is dead and six feet under.
In America, we followed a system that depended on circulation revenues until World War II. After we won that war, we gained a sense of entitlement. We became the world’s leaders, and our industries exploded and were looking for outlets to promote their products. A new publishing model was created. Advertisers picked up the bill for the magazine, and readers-turned-into-numbers paid very little for the content (not even the price of its printing). Things were great until TV came along and stole some of those ad revenues. And then the economic meltdown of September 2008 arrived. It caught everyone by surprise and put the final nail in the coffin of the publishing model as we knew it. It is over. Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to restart your engines. Did I say restart? Well, I meant that you must rebuild--- your engines first before you can restart them.
Print is not dead—its publishing model is. Success is not measured by ad pages anymore, nor by counting customers and delivering them on a silver platter to the advertiser. Success needs to be measured by finding customers who count and charging them for the content of the publication. You may say, “But there is so much free content on the Web, so why would people pay for our content?” Try telling that to the folks at Consumer Reports, Highlights for Children, Cook’s Illustrated (all with circulations of more than 1 million, some much more). They do not accept any advertising, and they charge premium prices for their content. In fact, a man by the name of Roy Reiman established his whole empire of Reiman Publications (now owned by Reader’s Digest) without selling a single ad. His empire was built on customers who count (paying readers) rather than counting customers (although he was able to do that, too, to the tune of 5 million customers for a single magazine: A Taste of Home).
We have to reinvent our publishing model. We have to continue to create that great content we are known for, but we have to charge for it. It is time for our publishing model to depend once again on circulation as a major source of revenue. We have to be in the business of selling content; if we are not, do not be surprised when another major magazine is pronounced dead this week or next.
The illness has been diagnosed: It is the publishing model and not the ink on paper. If we do not deal with the illness, the patient is going to die. But please, I beg you, do not blame that death on the Internet or TV or e-paper. The publishing model is the disease. It is time to find a cure. Long live print.
Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni is chair, professor of journalism and Hederman Lecturer at the University of Mississippi. He tracks new magazine launches and offers industry analysis at MrMagazine.com.
Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, Ph.D. is the founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. He is also Professor and Hederman Lecturer at the School of Journalism. As Mr. Magazine™ he engages in media consulting and research for the magazine media and publishing industry.