2016: The Year Ahead for Publishing in 12 Words
From ad blocking to postal rates, here’s a handy guide to what’s likely to happen in magazine publishing next year.
A year ago, no one recognized ad blocking as a soon-to-be-hot issue; now it’s on everyone’s radar. The big question is how we publishers will react. How closely will we monitor ad blocking? Will we have the discipline to reign in slow-loading and just plain obnoxious ads? Will we erect paywalls, block those who block, or pay to get whitelisted? It could be a big year for formats that are beyond the reach of ad blockers, such as native ads, white papers, and sponsored e-books. And maybe even print.
There will be no change to this story in 2016: An increasing share of web traffic will come from smartphones, but publishers will struggle to make money from those readers. (8 Ways Publishers Can Master Mobile)
The automated buying of highly targeted is old news in digital publishing, but watch for the programmatic mindset to invade the stodgy world of print advertising. The recent rise of programmatic direct mail seems adaptable for use with magazine cover wraps and inkjetted messages. Time Inc. is seeing success with its programmatic print program. And we may even see multi-publisher programmatic magazine networks.
When it comes to Google, Facebook, and Apple, publishers will still wonder: Are they friend or foe? The answer will continue to be “Both.”
The punditocracy told us that 2015 would be the Year of Big Data, so we publishers dutifully gathered, analyzed, and tried to monetize more data. But now many of us are left asking, “WTF do we do with all this data?”
Publishers’ data audits are turning up a menagerie of databases – paid subscribers, newsletter subscribers, event attendees, advertising clients and prospects, industry leaders, web site visitors, white-paper downloaders, etc. But rarely do the databases “talk” to each other.
The Big Data hype taught publishers that there’s a goldmine in that data. Now that the hype is subsiding, we can get down to the nitty-gritty task of connecting the dots and mining that gold.
The traditional supply chain for selling magazines in stores has been at war with itself for two decades. Publishers trying to escape the declining sales, rising fees, and circular firing squad of the newsstand system will continue experimenting with new ways of getting their titles in front of readers.
Mailers are slated to get a 4.3% reduction in postal rates this spring with expiration of the exigent surcharge meant to help the U.S. Postal Service recover from the recent recession. Governments, however, are allergic to reducing fees or taxes, so of course there’s a move in Congress to make the temporary surcharge permanent (with a lot of us saying, “told you so.”) But at least the debate in 2016 will be about possible rate reductions, not rate increases. (For more on postal prices, read "Get Ready for Roller-Coaster Postage Rates.")
A year from now, Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan may be her own boss. Brennan, the Postal Service’s CEO, is supposed to report to a nine-person Board of Governors. But the Senate has not approved a presidentially nominated appointee to the board in five years, leaving it with just three members – Brennan, the deputy postmaster general, and one appointee whose term expires Dec. 8, 2016.
The governors found a loophole that supposedly enables the board to continue operating despite not having a five-person quorum. But any of its decisions could face a legal challenge on the quorum issue. In any case, the USPS is left without the oversight and advice that an independent board can provide. And it may end 2016 unable to replace or even to chastise the Postmaster General.
All of this provides an unpleasant reminder that the agency delivering the vast majority of our industry’s printed publications is subject to the whims of a Congress that treats it as a low priority.
As if the strong dollar wasn’t doing enough damage to U.S. makers of coated paper, along comes the EPA’s Boiler MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) rule. Scheduled to take effect January 31, the regulation will place strict new standards on emissions from industrial boilers.
“Reports indicate that several mills (and at least a couple of coated mills) do not meet the new, extreme standards,” says Verle Sutton in his paper-industry newsletter, The Reel Time Report. A one-year extension is possible if a company “can convince the EPA it would be able to make the necessary investments in 2016,” but he thinks it likely that beleaguered mills will simply shut down rather than investing millions of dollars to remain in a shrinking business.
Speaking of shutdowns, the only U.S. maker of magazine paper, Verso Corporation, appears to be on the verge of a bankruptcy reorganization. The company sells $3 billion worth of paper annually, but its stock is worth less than $2 million because of its mountain of debt and skimpy margins. Coupled with the Boiler MACT rule, Verso’s travails could create a volatile paper market for publishers, especially those that prefer to Buy American.
Lately, it seems that every company wants to publish a print magazine (except maybe magazine publishers). With so many digital-native publishers and even non-publishers yearning for the cache of having a magazine, it’s getting hard to distinguish “real” magazine publishers from companies that just happen to publish a magazine. No doubt we’ll see more of these pretend publishers launching magazines in 2016.
One sort-of-publishing executive told me that the trick is to be able to call your brand a magazine while printing as few copies as possible. Perhaps next year we'll see a new title with a print order of 1.
Though it’s retro-cool these days to publish a magazine, that hasn’t prevented the recent closures of established titles like Lucky and Details. In 2016, some pundits will continue to proclaim the decline of print while others tout its resurgence. The truth will be the usual Darwinian survival of the fittest: Some titles will thrive, some just survive, new ones will arise, and others finally die.