Hyperbole and Hysteria in the Magazine Industry

[responsive]AmericanPhotomag[/responsive]I was reading my print copy of FOLIO: a few weeks back, diving into an article on their 2014 City and Regional Magazine Survey. (Yes, I was reading the article in PRINT…days before it was available online.)

The subhead of the article left me dumfounded—then it made me mad. It read:

“How long can print carry the market?”

Variations of this question have been asked in all seriousness by both print and digital advocates inside and outside the magazine industry. It’s a moot point, as far as I’m concerned.

A magazine IS a print product. Period. Without print, there is no magazine market.

Yes, you can create a digital replica of your print magazine, you can create a website full of that same content, but you have not created a magazine. There are countless news sites – niche topic, local community news and advertising, industry blogs, national news feeds, magazine apps and online resources – but they are NOT magazines. They are simply channels for digital media that is arranged in some way or another.

I’m frustrated by industry experts telling magazine publishers that print is a negative, a dying breed, a bad bet, when print is the very thing that makes them magazine publishers.

Michael Rondon (who, we have to say, usually does a credible and balanced job in his coverage of the industry) opens his article with “Print may be dying, but…”

Okay, let’s stop right there.

I would hardly call an industry that drives $640 billion in sales while printing 45 trillion pages annually a dying enterprise. The number of print periodicals in the U.S. has climbed every year for more than a decade with exception of 2009, when just about every industry took a huge hit. (Source: Statistica.com)

And from Rondon’s own article, “more print products are scheduled to launch in 2014 than at any point in the last 5 years” and “launch rates for non-print products are actually down this year.”

Print’s not dying. Beyond that, our point is this: Without print, there IS no magazine market to carry.

Yes, the market is evolving, as all do. Niche and regional magazines are gaining in popularity, and big time publishing companies are seeing some success with revenue models that include digital media. This is encouraging; a diverse revenue stream is always a good thing, and if they can leverage their print products to encourage online revenue, great. But let’s face the facts: Only a third of publishing companies making more than $25,000 a year in digital profits (also from Rondon’s piece). They’ve got a long hard climb ahead of them before digital “magazines” are “carrying” anything.

Still, that doesn’t stop others from saying that digital will soon eclipse print in terms of driving revenue.

In his piece “Is Publishing on the Verge of Digital’s Watershed Moment?” BoSacks challenges publishers to drop their delusion and face the actual facts that “the future of our industry and our ability to make an honest living is digital. The only real question on that subject is when the watershed moment of digital supremacy will arrive. I think that when we look back at the end of 2014 we will see that that moment is happening now.”

He notes the huge popularity of sites like Buzzfeed, Vox, Upworthy and Flipboard as sites that “satisfy the public’s thirst for news as it happens.”

But again, these are not magazines, not by any stretch of the definition. Immediate news – the kind that newspapers used to deliver to our doorstops – is at a much greater risk of any digital watershed than magazines. Daily news publishing as an industry can’t be easily compared to the magazine industry, either from an editorial standpoint or a business model view.

The predominant channel through which magazine publishers are making money continues to be print, a point which BoSacks concedes. And the idea that digital will soon be eating print’s lunch is more than a little overstated, as Rondon notes in a separate article about consumer magazine CEO survey results.

Rondon states that overall, it appears that the industry’s executive leadership has “consistently overestimated digital earnings and underestimated how much they’d still rely on print. The gap between expectation and reality has been as high as 5.6 percent.”

What’s most frustrating about this whole debate is who it leaves out of the discussion: the magazine readers. Do we let technology drive this train and push us toward digital, even if readers clearly have a preference for print? Some, like BoSacks who predicts that the digital watershed is upon us, cite our “romance” with print as if it’s a negative—or at least naïve. Yet what compels a purchase if not our emotions, our romance with whatever we desire to acquire?

And what do we tell the 74% of women’s magazine readers who said they could not imagine giving up their printed magazines in favor of digital substitutes? What happens to our business model when we walk away from our core fans?

Digital has its role, surely, and does some fantastic things in terms of supplementing content and enhancing brand awareness and engagement. Let it have its place in the mix. Just keep the hyperbole down to a reasonable level and let the marketplace make up its own mind.