Print Media and the Ad-Free Renaissance

Prevention-May2016The “give-away” culture of digital content is slowly leading publishers to realize they may have gotten it all terribly wrong.

As the pendulum swings back to print, publishers seem to be coming to some kind of awakening – rude or otherwise depending on your point of view.

“The tidal wave of free-to-read online blogs and news portals, which started a decade ago along with the sweeping penetration of the internet, has prompted some industry analysts to sound the death knell for print media,” writes Lam Hang-chi in EjiInsight.

“Indeed, we have seen a spate of newspaper and magazine closures through the years,” Hang-chi continues. “But this is no longer the case, at least in the United States, where the market is seeing a revival of print media.”

Hang-chi is referring to the number of news outlets – The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times for starters – that have “quietly raised their retail and subscription fees, but their readership continues to expand nonetheless.”

“There is no such thing as free lunch,” Hang-chi asserts. “The news industry should never treat its work as freebies. People must pay if they want to read quality news and commentaries.”

As radical as the idea of paying for content might be to the “why-pay-for-news-when-I-can-get-all-the-news-I-want-online-for-free” generation, it’s not that long ago that this was the prevailing model. People bought newspapers. And while the Internet certainly disrupted the news distribution model, it may be that the actual cost, regarding the user experience, is too steep.

Consumers seem to be increasingly amenable to paying for good content. Hang-chi notes something rather remarkable: “…for the first time in the past century, we saw last year the overall circulation income of the world’s print media outstrip advertising revenue, which used to be their main source of income.”

“Figures from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers show newspapers and magazines worldwide earned over US$92 billion from retail sales and subscriptions in 2015, US$5 billion more than their income from ads,” he continues.

Many continue to decry the loss of print advertising dollars, but this new research would indicate that the middle man of advertising may be not so critical when the content is a direct match to the reader’s interest. Take Rodale Inc., for example, and its line of health and wellness magazines.

“[Rodale’s] management has announced that starting July, its flagship Prevention, founded by Jerome Irving Rodale and currently one of the largest US magazines in terms of circulation, will break through the clutter and move to an ad-free business model for its print editions,” Hang-chi notes.

It’s a fascinating turn of events. First, we give it all away and try to make money off traffic and digital ads. Then the digital ad industry implodes under its fraud-laden weight while niche and specialty titles find favor. Now publishers are finding new business models that deal directly with the reader, and brands become lifestyle enablers. At the same time, high-end publishers (and their advertisers) are defying the so-called digital erosion.

Is an ad-free renaissance on the horizon? Too early to say, and there will likely always be a place for advertising in quality publications, as the medium is just so good at engagement. One thing is for certain; the current model of giving it all away in exchange for eyeballs isn’t going to survive for publishers.