Once Considered Mortal Enemies, Print & Digital Are Living Happily Together
Both sides were wrong.
“In three years, none of this will be in print,” a senior publishing executive told me, six years ago, about two magazines that are still profitable and still in print. Mr. Print Is Dead thought magazine publishing would soon be all about apps and the web. (You see, kids, back then there was this thing called the iPad that ... oh, never mind.)
At the same time, those in the Not Dead Yet camp complained that the rush to post free content on the web was “turning print dollars into digital dimes.” It wasn’t sustainable in the long run, they pontificated.
Yeah, well, if predictions actually came true we’d all have flying cars by now. Print and digital were supposed to be adversaries but instead have developed a symbiotic (some would say co-dependent) relationship, as indicated by these recent developments:
- Unique visitors to major “digital-native” news sites were down 5% in the fourth Quarter of 2017 versus the previous year, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of comScore statistics. Pew’s definition of “news” is rather broad, encompassing the likes of Bleacher Report, Breitbart, Business Insider, and Buzzfeed.
- Also during Q4, the web sites of MPA members, which represent a broad cross-section of major U.S. consumer “magazine-media” titles, experienced a 5% increase in unique visitors, according to the MPA’s compilation of comScore statistics. Wait! What was the Digital Only crowd saying about print being a ball and chain that makes legacy publishers too slow to adapt to the web? As consumers grow increasingly disenchanted with the quality and veracity of what they read online, they are turning more to trusted online sources -- and that tends to mean sites that are associated with legacy media.
- Remember when the purpose of magazine covers was to sell copies? With the newsstand system continuing to circle the drain, cover designs are now more focused on garnering attention in digital media. Consider the social-media buzz generated by the April issue of Elle for a cover gimmick that hardly anyone saw in person and that no one saw in stores – personalized messages to a small number of select subscribers from Kim Kardashian West. Or the recent photo shoot that used 958 drones to create a huge TIME cover, including the iconic red border; that was more about getting coverage in digital and broadcast media than it was about selling copies. Come to think of it, I’m about five times more likely these days to see a cover of TIME in my Twitter feed than on an actual printed copy.
- The average number of magazines received in the mail by U.S. households decreased again in 2017 and is down 50% from 30 years ago, according to a study the U.S. Postal Service released last week. And U.S. magazine advertising spending per capita, adjusted for inflation, has decreased by two-thirds in just the past 10 years, the same study said. As I’ve said before, the supposed “resurgence” of print magazines looks “more like a reshrinkence, or maybe a resuckance.” Print is still crucial to the reputation and market positioning of many a multimedia brand stand out, but it’s hardly able to stand up on its own. (Read more of Dead Tree's analysis on the revenue decline of magazines on his blog.)
Many publishers split their print people and their digital people into separate teams. But the real world abhors silos – and our customers don’t recognize them. To the consumer, Elle.com, Elle magazine, and Elle’s social-media presence are all part of the same entity and share the same brand reputation. You can hire someone to sell only online display ads, but chances are their clients will push them into other realms, such as programmatic, newsletters, events, and/or print.
Selling magazine subscriptions these days typically requires expertise in online promotions, e-newsletters, and other non-legacy tactics. Programmatic thinking is starting to spill over into print, leading to the rise of automated platforms to buy and sell print ads. And dare we refer to that Elle cover as data-driven print?
With their recent pivot from Facebook to search engines as the main source of online traffic, publishing’s web gurus are discovering the benefits of “long-form journalism” -- what we in the print world call “articles.” It’s an approach that the digital-native sites have trouble replicating, because they can’t share the costs of in-depth reporting with a publication.
Of course, some magazines are strong enough to thrive primarily as print entities, and plenty of web publishers are doing just fine without print. Print-related brands aren’t necessarily more credible: National Enquirer and Goop are proof that digital natives don’t have a monopoly on fake news. For an accurate weather forecast, I turn to Accuweather.com, not my local newspaper.
The real lesson here isn’t about print, it’s about publishing in general: One-trick ponies face an uphill ride, as some heavily Facebook-dependent publishers learned recently. Quality web publishing tends to need other media to help build the brand and to subsidize the costs of journalism expertise -- whether those other media are events, consulting, e-commerce, newsletters, licensed products, print, or something else.
With apologies to Marshall McLuhan and to those still arguing about print versus digital, the medium is not the message. The medium – or, preferably, media – are simply the tools by which we translate our expertise into various means of informing and delighting our audiences.