Who said print media was dead?

Let’s get it straight: newspapers and magazines will not be killed off by online media. But there will certainly be some deaths.

Many titles will eventually close, many more will have to accept much lower levels of profitability, but some traditional publishers will be able to create substantial digital businesses, quite different from their existing ones.  When it comes to paper-based publishing, some of the winners will be those companies – new or old – who meet the needs of “new” readers who are motivated by:

  1. Free or cheap: Readers increasingly expect to pay little – or nothing at all – for information and entertainment. They are also wary of the ‘bundling’ of information they want with stuff they don’t. The itunes generation will pay for some information and entertainment but only for what they actually want.
  2. Quick reading: Consumers are more attracted than ever to ‘low-volume’ reading. This is the age of bite-sized information in the mass market.
  3. “Good enough”:  Readers have become accustomed, through the internet, to accept that readily-accessible and affordable (or free) information does not have to be the best available as long as it is “good enough”.

A new “good enough” market

If you doubt that consumers of all kinds will increasingly accept “good enough” information if it is easily accessible and/or free, consider how professionals like lawyers (brought up on high-quality reference material) increasingly punch their enquiries into Google when they want something quickly. They know that the Google trawl comes with none of the “guarantees” of specialist information sources, but second-grade is often “good enough” when it’s quick and simple to get. 

Similar attitudes prevail in the consumer market. Far from killing off hard-copy, this internet-induced change of attitude among readers is showing how it can actually help revitalise the market for new newspapers and magazines. How else would you explain the UK success of : free daily newspapers like London’s  now-profitable City AM, and Metro; and also the free weekly magazines Short List (for men) and Stylist (for young women).

The Soutar magazine revolution

These giveaway national magazines are the brainchild of former Emap star editor Mike Soutar. His new wave magazines are characterised by relatively small amounts of good-quality content, well-organised distribution – and profits. 

Watching readers standing in line to collect their copies from uniformed magazine distributors in London last week reinforced for me the point that only two things distinguish Short List and Stylist from a magazines that consumers have happily paid good money for: 1) the flimsy paper and 2) the relatively small number of pages. But, then, these are free magazines and young readers, getting hooked on them week after week, are attracting advertisers and making Soutar’s company a hot property.  

The Soutar magazine revolution may point the way to the future of many more magazines in a low-cost digital world. In contrast, many traditional, paid-for magazines and newspapers are threatened by the sheer difficulty of remaining viable when the longtime relationship of  separate revenue sources (advertising and circulation) is rocked by systemic decline fused with recession. In many of these long-standing magazines, relatively high-cost content, print and paper is central to winning readers and copy sales, with real profitability driven by advertising revenue. In simple terms, readers and advertisers both have a lot more choice; and that competition is wrecking the economic model of many traditional magazines, especially in the mass market.

Reduced copy sales can lead to reduced advertising which in turn may need to be met by reduced content and production costs, which risks reducing copy sales still further. It is the competition for the time and money of readers and advertisers that threatens the viability of  many existing newspapers and magazines.

And, just as new digital “publishers” find it easier to compete online than traditional media companies with ‘legacy’ hard copy businesses to protect, existing newspapers and magazines will struggle to cope with the new advertising-dependant free publications. Difficult but not impossible, of course: witness the Daily Mail’s success with Metro in the UK. 

This (counter-intuitively) is the opportunity for many new publications (especially in the dazed and confused magazine market) – at a time when print media was predicted to die. But that may be small comfort for all but the best paid-for titles that grew up in that golden age of magazines, the second half of the 20th century. 

Focusing on the rear view mirror won’t work in a market where, over time, almost everything will be different.

What do you think?