A Decade of Delusions Under the Tree

Understanding the 10 things the industry got wrong – really wrong – about publishing in the 21st century.

Do you ever read an article and find yourself nodding along, saying “yes!” and generally just agreeing wholeheartedly with everything the writer says? Yeah, it doesn’t happen that often to me either; there’s generally at least one thing I can pick on that doesn’t ring quite true.

Not this time.

D. Eadward Tree absolutely nailed it with his article “A Decade of Delusion: 10 Things We Got Wrong About Publishing in the Digital Age,” which appeared last week in Publishing Executive. Not only does the list ring true; we’ve reported on concrete evidence of each item on this list over the last few years.

Take No. 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,” Tree writes. “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.”

Bingo. There are some key differences between publishers who are crossing the gap into profitability and those who aren’t. On the one side, we have the stats on print ad revenue that continues to show declines in the market overall. On the other side, we hear plenty of stories about publishers seeing the ad sales pendulum swing back, and finding success with paid content strategies. The common denominator for success? While they may have taken different routes to get there, the one thing they have in common is a laser focus on being relevant to the audience they need to reach.

Tree writes about why simply publishing your magazine articles online doesn’t work (Mistake No. 2); why going all in on video is wrong for most media brands (Mistake No. 3); the hopeful dream that publishers will band together to fix the newsstand (Mistake No. 4). (Spoiler alert – not only have they not banded together to do this; they basically told the newsstand to fix itself.)

Mistake No. 5 on Tree’s list is believing that 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,” Tree writes. “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.”

In fact, in the age of fake news and low barriers to publishing, consumers rely more heavily on the websites of legacy media brands for trusted information. Eighty percent of consumers rank magazine media as the most trusted source for news, debunking Mistake No. 6 that publishers must go “all digital” to succeed online.

As we saw clearly four years ago, the next evolution of magazines would not be tabletized (Mistake No. 7), and the future does not necessarily belong to the behemoth consumer publisher (No 8). Rather, we are witnessing a beautiful explosion of niche titles, as the needle continues to move from mass market to niche.

Mistake No. 9 – that some kind of significant postal reform must happen soon – is a doozy, but I think we’ll be forgiven for our optimism. Finally, a significant number of titles are embracing the free model, and advertisers are eating it up (No. 10) as they get their message in front of highly relevant and actively engaged readers, another change from the mass market “quest for all eyeballs.”

The publishers we see getting it right in today’s market may have gotten there from very different paths. But for the most part, they charted their own course through these tricky times by staying true to their mission and relevant to their audience. That’s never a mistake in my book.

Read Tree’s full post here; it’s definitely worth your time.