The migration from paid print to ad-supported digital

When it comes to magazine publishing, print revenues have been flat or declining. Mostly declining. There are some exceptions, but overall the industry is losing ground.

The Big Hope was that people would migrate from print to tablet, and that tablet publishing would become a new source of revenue. Or at least something to slow the decline. Or at least worth the effort.

It hasn’t turned out that way. Tablet magazines have been a huge disappointment. A few companies have made a decent go of it, but generally speaking the results are bland, at best. People simply aren’t that interested in reading magazines on tablets. Of course the “it’s a new world” people think that this will change and all of a sudden everybody’s going to be reading magazines on tablets, but I, for one, will believe it when I see it.

There are reports that “digital” revenues are up for many publishers, and sometimes people falsely assume that refers to an increase in tablet subscriptions, but generally it turns out that the “digital” revenue is coming from good old-fashioned ads on websites.

Presumably people used to buy magazines because they were interested in the subject, or liked the pictures, or something. Has the world suddenly lost interest in all such things and is now only interested in videos about cats? I don’t think so.

I have a couple theories about what’s changing and why, and what publishers should do about it.

Tablet development is distracting from real product development: Magazines come and go in the normal course of business because the world changes. People’s interests change, markets change, etc. In the old days publishers would deal with this by changing their content to suit new markets, or starting new magazines on new topics.

The “it’s a new world” folk have convinced publishers that the real need now is to adapt to digital — by which they usually mean “create an expensive app.”

I think it’s very likely that some of the effort that should have been focused on making sure the content is still meeting readers’ needs has been re-purposed and is now focused on trying to move everything to digital. IOW, magazines are losing readers because they’re not paying enough attention to the old-fashioned idea of matching content to a changing market. They’re forgetting tried and true business practices and chasing digital will-o-wisps.

In support of this theory I note that there are magazines that are thriving — yes, even in print — because they’re writing what the readers want.

The solution is obvious. Don’t forget to do the normal business of publishing.

“Always on” consumers don’t think in terms of issues: Like many people these days, I have some sort of electronic device with me almost all the time, so if I’m on the subway and want to read about fishing, I can do that. I don’t need to wait for a magazine to arrive — either in the mail, on Magzter, or whatever. To the extent that people rely on “always on” content, the issue-based subscription doesn’t seem that important.

Note that a digital issue doesn’t solve this problem. The “always on” consumer doesn’t want to wait for a new digital edition any more than he wants to wait for a new print edition.

This doesn’t mean that publishers should abandon the idea of an issue and simply move to constantly updated online content. The solution is to create a link between the issue-based service and the “always on” service. The simplest way to do this is to make the magazine and the website work together so that each one reinforces the other.

The people who want to stay in print can stay in print, and the people who need a daily fix can visit the website. The publisher needs to make it a coherent brand experience so that whether the reader is browsing an issue or browsing the website he thinks of the publisher as the source for his chosen type of content.

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