Print & Digital – Happily So Far Together

“Both sides were wrong.”

That’s the blanket statement recently issued by pseudonymous industry insider D. Eadward Tree. As he explains in a recent Publishing Executive post, the “print is dead” camp and the “digital will never work” side are both coming to terms with the new hybrid realities of the publishing business.

Tree recalls what a senior publishing executive told him six years ago, predicting that two magazines (both still in print and still profitable), would be gone in three years. 

“Mr. Print Is Dead thought magazine publishing would soon be all about apps and the web. (You see, kids, back then there was this thing called the iPad that … oh, never mind.),” Tree riffs, referring to the magazine revolution that failed to materialize.

“At the same time,” Tree continues, “those in the Not Dead Yet camp complained that the rush to post free content on the web was ‘turning print dollars into digital dimes.’ It wasn’t sustainable in the long run, they pontificated.”

The truth is somewhere in between, with print and digital now having a more symbiotic relationship than an adversarial one. He points to several recent developments to bolster his case, starting with the fact that visits to “digital-native” news sites were down by 5% in Q4 2017. 

At the same time, unique visitors to MPA member sites – representing the more traditional magazine-media brands – were up by 5%, with more traffic coming from search than social. 

Much of this Tree attributes to more quality conscious readers.

 “As consumers grow increasingly disenchanted with the quality and veracity of what they read online, they are turning more to trusted online sources — and that tends to mean sites that are associated with legacy media,” he notes.

(We’ve seen some specific examples of this, even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Fake news was a proven boon to titles like WSJ Magazine. And journalists themselves have been spurred to higher quality standards after seeing what can happen when the quest for truth succumbs to the rush for eyeballs. Those standards include better fact checking, citing credible sources, and complete transparency on the reporting process. And while social media remains an important source for the news industry, most of the journalists find traditional media – newspapers, newswires and magazines – to be their most trusted news sources.)

At the same time, digital has proven to be a powerful platform for media brands when it comes to discovery. 

“Consider the social-media buzz generated by the April issue of Elle for a cover gimmick that hardly anyone saw in person and that no one saw in stores – personalized messages to a small number of select subscribers from Kim Kardashian West,” Tree writes. “Or the recent photo shoot that used 958 drones to create a huge TIME cover, including the iconic red border; that was more about getting coverage in digital and broadcast media than it was about selling copies. 

“Come to think of it,” he continues, “I’m about five times more likely these days to see a cover of TIME in my Twitter feed than on an actual printed copy.”

I believe Tree is right about this. For print publishers, there’s no reason to hate digital or feel that it’s the enemy. Yes, it’s harder to sell print ads when so much of the ad pie is being served up to the digital duopoly, but publishers are getting much better at talking about the true value of print in the ad mix. And ad buyers and marketers are listening. And some bigger publishers are embracing the challenge to break the duopoly head on.

“The real lesson here isn’t about print, it’s about publishing in general: One-trick ponies face an uphill ride, as some heavily Facebook-dependent publishers learned recently,” Tree summarizes. “Quality web publishing tends to need other media to help build the brand and to subsidize the costs of journalism expertise — whether those other media are events, consulting, e-commerce, newsletters, licensed products, print, or something else.”

At the end of the day, it’s about “information and delighting our audience,” (the audience first mantra) no matter the channels we use.