The View From The Tree: 6 Things Magazine Publishers Should Stop Doing Now
The future of publishing ain't what it used to be.
A few years ago, "everyone" knew what was coming: except for a few old-timers and Luddites, consumers would soon switch entirely to digital media. Print was dying.
Here's proof that we're no longer all on the same page about our future: a veteran executive at a publishing company you've heard of recently rejected a seemingly slam-dunk, print-based brand extension. He was OK with the costs and the revenue projections but feared a new print product would hurt the brand, which was desperately trying to prove its relevance in the internet age.
Meanwhile, another publisher's internet whiz kid created a web product that did well with search engines (and with monetizing the traffic) but got little other traffic. His proposed solution: publish a bookazine (a special print issue sold on newsstands) to get the venture's content and brand in front of consumers.
How can publishers make sense of a world where the digital natives recognize the unique advantages of ink on paper while the old-timers run around screaming, "Print is dead!"? Let's face it, the mindset we've adopted and assumptions we've made the past few years have led us astray. (I say "we" because I, too, make my living in the magazine industry. You didn't think my cheesy-looking blog was paying the bills, did you?)
Most of us are paddling as fast as we can, so the last thing we need is to be weighed down with new additions to our "to do" list. Instead, I humbly offer the following list of six things we magazine publishers should stop doing as we attempt to navigate the unpredictable multi-media rapids:
1) Stop reading so much about the travails of daily newspapers.
It's too depressing—and largely irrelevant to the magazine business. Newspaper publishers are overly reliant on a single product line that many people no longer buy because they can get their news faster and cheaper. But magazines don't compete on speed, at least not in the same way as newspapers. Our traditional business is declining far more gradually (and actually growing for some publishers), and we're way ahead of newspapers in diversifying our revenue sources.
2) Stop jumping onto bandwagons.
Not every media-related trend—even digital ones—will create opportunities for your business. Tablet sales are booming, but so far a disappointingly small number of tablet owners are paying for digital magazines. It's easy to create ebooks these days, but not so easy to make money in that crowded market. You can pay for Facebook "likes," but that does little to earn you genuine audience engagement. Bookazines are a hot topic among publishers, but how much growth can there be in that line of business when retailers keep devoting less space to the sale of magazines?
3) Stop thinking of digital and print as enemies.
Your customers certainly don't think that way. To them it's simple: When I want digital, give me digital. When I want print, give me print.
Judging by the rapid growth of some magazines' web sites, having a print legacy seems to be a competitive advantage online. As people—and search engines—become more savvy and discriminating about the sources of web content, there's been a flight toward quality and reliability. Bylines by actual journalists used to seem so retro but are now one of the best ways to get Google juice.
4) Stop wondering whether the internet has fundamentally changed human behavior.
It hasn't. People still hate to be duped. They will tolerate native advertising just as they have tolerated advertorial—as long as it doesn't masquerade as editorial content. But once readers cannot distinguish between your journalism—whether print or web—and what you've been paid to say, you will lose your hard-earned position as a trust agent. And once you've sold your credibility, it's hard to buy back.
5) Stop using the word “digital” and run from any pundit or conference that talks about “digital strategy.”
Words are useless when they no longer have an accepted meaning. In our business, "digital" often means: "All that newfangled stuff that put our traditional business in the red." Or maybe, "All those newfangled ventures we hope and pray will get us out of the red."
"Digital" can be a synonym for the web, but it can also encompass apps, email, social media, video, white papers, e-books, etc.—and even print tie-ins like QR codes and augmented reality. A "digital strategy" that puts all of those very different items into one mental bucket may blind you to the fact that some digital efforts may pay off handsomely while others are dead ends. Just ask the folks at Barnes & Noble about the inevitable success of digital ventures.
6) Stop treating digital and print as two separate businesses.
Our world is no longer so neatly divided. If you use email to sell print subscriptions, or magazine ads to promote your web site, is that digital or print? Why do we talk about "print journalism" when most of our print content ends up being used in some kind of digital form? And to which half of the business do events and content licensing belong? And is meeting your circulation goals still just a print problem when you're increasingly relying on digital editions to meet your circulation goals? As a circulation colleague told me: "I don't care where you read it—print, tablet, laptop or on your daughter's Etch A Sketch—if it counts toward ratebase, it's a magazine."