We need to stop talking about “digital”
The imprecise language people use about the “digital transformation” of publishing is getting frustrating. I just read an article that says “Hearst got a late start in digital.” Gee, thank you very much. That tells me almost nothing.
Saying that a publishing company has increased its investment (or revenue, or staff or whatever) in “digital” is about as helpful as saying that a farmer has increased his investment in plants. We need details.
“Digital” can mean so many different things. Is that website traffic? Is it desktop or tablet or smart phone? Is it on the publisher’s site or is the publisher syndicating the content elsewhere? Is it on social media? Is it in an app? Is it ad-supported or subscription-based? Is it data or articles? Or how about video?
For that matter, print on demand could be considered “digital” in some ways.
“Digital” means nothing because it means everything.
Imagine three companies. One is going great guns with a subscriber-only website. Another doesn’t have a website at all but sells 50% of its subscriptions through Google Play. (Remember, we’re imagining.) A third has ad-supported, free content that it serves on its own site and syndicates out to lots of other sites.
All these are “digital,” but they are very different models.
The confusion when people discuss “digital” with reference to magazines is almost comical. Many people read about increasing “digital revenue” with magazine publishers and they assume that means people are buying the magazine through Magzter or Apple. No. Only seven or eight people actually do that. Most of the “digital” revenue that magazine publishers report is from ads sold against content on a web page.
We need to find ways to be more precise. We should distinguish subscription, ad-supported and sponsored revenue. We should separate periodicals (or issue-based publications) from the daily stream of online posts. We should separate sales on the publisher’s terms (their own app or website) from sales in someone else’s walled garden (on Apple or Amazon).
The world of publishing is incredibly fragmented, and it’s going to get more fragmented. To keep our heads we have to be clear what we’re talking about.
Free up your teams, but maintain a common strategy
This article about goings on at Hearst includes this little comment: “their digital teams needed to be freed up to act independently.”
I think that depends on what you mean.
There are different rules and expectations on different platforms. You can’t expect tweets to follow AP style, on the one hand, or require your shy expert who sits in his corner and cranks out brilliant copy for your weekly newsletter to become a social media butterfly.
However, sometimes there are radically conflicting visions of the business of publishing between the print folk and the “new media” people. To take a somewhat extreme example, some internet-only folk are suspicious of copyright and have a “content should be free” attitude. A publisher simply can’t afford to allow that sort of perspective to warp his business practices.
It’s also easy to create conflicts over the use of your resources. Should you sell your site’s banner ad to the highest bidder, or should you use it to promote your own products? That may depend on your business model, but you want to make sure the decision is made to the benefit of the company as a whole and not only to the benefit of the people who sell ads on the website.
In short, departments should have the freedom they need to function in their niche, but it all has to tie back to a consistent strategy for the company as a whole.
New magazine launches defy “print is dead” mantra
Mr. Magazine says there have been 862 new magazine launches in the last year. I’m not sure how that compares with other periods, but it sounds like a lot to me.
The whole “print is dead” meme was aided by two things. First, the 2008 recession, which shoved advertising sales off a cliff. Second, breathless excitement about the appearance of lots of new toys — ereaders, tablets, smart phones, etc. — which had everyone staring into bright little screens.
Now that we’ve caught our breath it’s obvious that reading isn’t some monolithic thing that will all, collectively, “move to digital.” It will vary by niche. Hardly anybody looks in the paper for job postings — that transformation has been almost complete — but magazines seem to be stubbornly print-centric — not because of publisher recalcitrance or “old school thinking,” but because readers like print magazines.
Publishers can’t start with a “print is dead” mindset. They need to listen to customers and be prepared to deliver content how the user wants it.