A Decade of Delusions: 10 Things We Got Wrong About Publishing in the Digital Age
A decade ago this month, despite not knowing my RSS from a hole in the ground, I created a blog called Dead Tree Edition out of desperation. As a “print guy” in a magazine industry undergoing digital disruption, I knew I would soon be obsolete if I didn’t become more versed in web publishing. So the blog was my path to learning about digital publishing, as well as being my attempt to help legacy publishers adapt to the digital age.
The idea of a digital-only outlet focused on print publishing struck many, including me, as somewhat ironic at first. But the print-versus-digital-battle mentality (mostly) died out years ago.
That’s not the only thinking that’s changed. Looking back over the past decade, there were a lot that we (publishers and pundits) got wrong. In honor of Dead Tree Edition’s 10th anniversary, I’d like to revisit 10 of my “favorite” publishing falsehoods from the past decade:
1. There’s a magic formula for 21st century publishing - we just need to figure out what it is.
The biggest mistake in publishers’ thinking during the past decade has been the search for The Answer to how we can navigate the digital transformation. Is it paywalls? Getting rid of print? Social media? Events? Ecommerce? Separate print and digital teams, or combine them? I think it’s finally sunk in that there is no single path forward: What works for one publisher will fail miserably for another. The only thing all of us have in common is that we can’t rely on a single revenue stream.
2. Web publishing means posting your magazines’ articles online.
It’s hard to believe now, but in 2008 most magazine publishers’ websites - the ones that had websites, anyway - consisted of little more than articles from the magazine. Some titles had trouble getting their staff writers to blog or to create other online-only content. Like the broadcast industry’s transition from radio to television, it took us a few years to grasp that a new medium needs new approaches to content creation and presentation. And sometimes I’m still not sure we’ve learned the lesson.
3. “Video is the next big thing.”
I’ve been hearing this off and on for at least a dozen years: Pundits scold publishers for being slow to get on the video bandwagon, publishers scramble to create and post lots of videos, and then…crickets. Wait two years and the cycle repeats itself. Sure, video is a growth area for publishing in general, but just because YouTube, Facebook and Pornhub are making a killing on it doesn’t mean you can. Many sites simply aren’t well suited to video.
4. The big publishers will join together to fix the newsstand system because that’s the only option.
It turns out that major publishers like Time Inc. and Rodale had bigger problems on their hands that distracted them from figuring out how to tilt at the newsstand windmill without getting embroiled in messy antitrust litigation. And they certainly haven’t bought the misguided argument that they had some kind of moral obligation to the rest of the industry to ensure a healthy channel for retail sales of magazines.
5. Print is dead.
“In a few years, these titles will all be online,” a senior executive told me in 2011, predicting that the titles would no longer be printed. Some of those publications are still doing quite well - almost entirely in print - while others have been shut down. Print has indeed lost its near-monopoly on information distribution, resulting in many shortened and discontinued press runs. But, as Dr. Samir Husni (alias Mr. Magazine), points out, printed magazines still fulfill the three human needs of “ownership, membership and showmanship.”
6. Legacy publishers must go all-digital to succeed on the web.
Until we get out of print media, the Print Is Dead types told us, consumers won’t take our online efforts seriously. The opposite has turned out to be true: In an age of fake news, consumers and search engines tend to rely on web sites of legacy-media brands. A slew of digital-native sites even started their own print magazines. And such titles as TIME and Elle have leveraged their covers into major social-media events.
7. Digital editions will revolutionize publishing.
When first shown the iPad edition of a magazine, I thought I was looking at the future of publishing. Apple, instead, pretty much deep-sixed the concept of digital editions, first by overpromising and grossly under-delivering to publishers - making them reluctant to invest further into the format - and then inventing the iPhone, bringing the tablet and laptop booms to an end. Even Amazon seems to have given up on making the Kindle hospitable to illustrated publications. As a fellow Publishing Executive columnist, Andy Kowl, tweeted: “Digital editions are like sofa beds: kinda a sofa, kinda a bed, but sucks at both.”
8. The future belongs to the big, sophisticated publishers.
Only the powerful “aircraft carriers,” the thinking went, could navigate the choppy waters facing the industry. But aircraft carriers don’t turn on a dime. The big consumer publishers have struggled to adapt their organizations and thinking to the new realities while also retooling their legacy business. And with advertisers shifting to targeted audiences rather than mass eyeballs, big-circulation titles have struggled the most. Meanwhile, regional and hobbyist titles are thriving, and B2B publishers have been better at creating multiple revenue streams than their larger consumer brethren.
9. Some kind of postal reform must happen soon.
Like most postal “experts,” I believed this one for years, not seeing how the U.S. Postal Service could avoid collapse without significant legislative changes. What we didn’t anticipate was the USPS’s “just say no” policy: It simply stopped making the required multibillion-dollar annual “retiree health benefits” payments to the federal treasury that are actually interest-free loans to the federal government. That, and the ecommerce-fueled growth in its package delivery business, has kept the agency (barely) above water. Otherwise, not much has changed: The only postal legislation Congress can pass is the naming of post offices, and USPS management is still looking for ways to pass the costs of its mistakes along to postal customers, especially publishers.
10. Advertisers hate free copies.
Perhaps it used to be true, as publishers widely assumed, that advertisers viewed someone paying for a copy or buying a subscription as a sign of “wantedness” and that free circulation was suspect. But in this age of hypertargeting, what most advertisers really hate is putting their ads in front of people who aren’t prospects. Makers of recreational boats are more interested in copies sent free to marinas than to $5-per-year subscribers who have no interest in buying a boat. I recently heard of one publisher that asks its print advertisers if they would like free copies sent to the advertisers’ top 10 clients; the response is almost always an enthusiastic yes.
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