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Bo Sacks: No, there isn’t a media malaise

There isn’t a week that goes by when I’m not asked about my substrate preferences. A long-time reader and publisher from England yesterday asked me for an electronic subscription to Magazine Media Quarterly “or is digital against your principles?” A pretty funny question to ask the guy who publishes the world’s oldest e-newsletter.

For the record, I am neither rabidly pro-print nor a digital zealot. I am a businessman who likes profit, and I’m willing to use any substrate that achieves a sustainable goal of revenue. I like to think of my approach as that of a pragmatic publishing prophet, and my advice, like a good prosecuting attorney’s advice, is to “follow the money”.

Publishing pragmatism brings me to the point where we understand the publisher/reader relationship as a service with a client. Determining what suits the clients’ needs best is the solution to the substrate question.

Different publishing products work better on one substrate than another, and no two media niches are alike. Enthusiast titles are performing well in both print and web-based properties. State and regional titles are also performing well.

There are a few I can name that are outperforming their own expectations, such as Our State Magazine of North Carolina or feisty W42ST, a New York City magazine that just hit its stride with its 50th Issue. The publisher of W42ST wrote to me yesterday describing his print magazine as “A bootstrapped business, built out of love, hard graft, and a little heartbreak, it’s an incredible story of how, in the digital age, print has the power to bring a community together … we have ambitious plans to grow in 2019 and beyond.”

As I sit here in the industry analyst’s seat, I see the following – a hopeful expectation that the chaos will finally settle into a period of stasis, not quite a period of inactivity but more of equilibrium. I must report to you that isn’t going to happen any time soon for the magazine media industry. Expect continued disruption at every quarter for the foreseeable future.

As I have said before, it’s incorrect to view what is happening on an industry-wide scale. The truth is all our businesses are now quite unique. We have different business models and different paths to success. Don’t compare your company or your titles to anything other than your last and next issue. Industry averages and how other titles are doing is bullshit.

The only thing that matters is how your book is doing. Don’t get distracted. Look at Condé Nast vs. Hearst to get a clear picture. Hearst revenue grew 4% to $11.4 billion in 2018 and Condé Nast reportedly lost $120 Million. Same industry and somewhat similar large publishing companies with different executions and results.

All magazines once ran on cookie cutter business plans. Large or small the publishing plans were more similar then they were different. Now it is the opposite with most publishers creating a media model as different as fingerprints.

Which brings me to an article from WWD, “Media Malaise Poised to Carry On Into New Year” by Kali Hays. I believe that Ms. Hayes has been distracted by some recent employment news to make a judgment on the overall industry. The news of last week’s layoffs where more than 1,000 media jobs were lost in one day is not in my opinion indicative of the entire industry, especially as most of the layoffs come from a single failed company. As bad and as horrifying as the Oath (now Verizon Media) layoffs sound, they shouldn’t have been unexpected to anyone. Verizon Media is expected to cut roughly 800 jobs, or 7% of its global workforce. But this isn’t really news. It was/is a failed attempt to reach digital scale from the still failing AOL-Yahoo/Verizon merger. Clearly bigger isn’t always better.

It’s horrible for anyone to get laid off. I experienced it myself a few times early in my career. Basically it sucks big time. I feel deeply for those affected.

Mostly these layoffs do not reflect an industry pattern so much as a large failed company, and the fact that the evolving publisher/reader relationship is still a process unfinished. There are literally thousands of titles and publishers going about their daily business and making reasonable profits. Don’t expect a period of equilibrium but rather a time of continuous change. We have to honestly accept that continuing transformation is now a permanent state of being. 

I think this is the new golden age of publishing. I think there’s more real opportunity than ever before, if we are smart, energetic, observant and flexible.

 A few years ago I suggested that this is a great time to rethink the unthinkable. That this is a unique and historic period where the unthinkable has never been more possible. We live in a period of experimentation, innovation, and entrepreneurism that the world has never seen before. There is no choice, we must embrace it, not fear it.

 The only time to panic is when people stop reading.

Bo Sacks, President, Precision Media Group

This commentary originally appeared on Bo Sacks daily newsletter and is re-published with kind permission. You can subscribe to Bo’s e-newsletter here.

Photo by Sebastian Koenig on Unsplash