City & Regional Magazines and the Digital Debate

With print sales slowing or even declining, we might expect city and regional publishers to be looking to digital versions to bolster circulations. And we’d probably find out that many of them are doing no such thing.

According to Talking New Media’s D. B. Hebbard, “Like B2B, the city/regional magazine category is one that has seen publishers move very slowly to create their first digital editions, then create their first native digital editions.”

Digital circulation is this niche has been growing very slowly, “with the vast majority of titles lucky to reach the 5 percent level with their digital editions,” Hebbard notes, pointing out that the niche gives case studies both for and against creating digital replicas.

“Emmis Publishing, which has a portfolio of city/regional magazines, has forced replica editions on to all its titles, even its better magazines such as TexasMonthly. The magazine has kept its circulation to around 300K for at least the past decade, and has seen only modest declines in subscriptions and single copy sales,” Hebbard writes.

“One might think that because of this good performance, it might even be able to increase its total circulation through its digital edition. But the latest report shows the magazine with only 1.5 percent of its total circulation now digital, and readers inside of iTunes have criticized the Newsstand app as being antiquated.”

What does seem to be working are apps that allow users to bookmark events or local happenings, which makes perfect sense from the reader’s perspective. In fact, Citygram of Austin has both a digital replica and a smartphone app, to appeal to both the readers and the local “doers,” who are often the same people but looking for different content at different times.

The range of business models in this space is increasingly varied, and the complexities of trying to figure out what works in a shifting market persist. Yet one thing is becoming increasingly clear. Publishers must look to their readers first, and understand how they use the content, before creating a business model based on the technology du jour.