Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Don’t publishers need to be where the customers are?

Are we so Neolithic that we refuse to let what can and should be digitized not be digitized? What other industry is not transforming … everything?

I want to go through an exercise of what we know, what we don’t know and throw a few possibilities in for good measure.  

Let’s start with a report from Kali Hays at WWD: 

“Nearly 40 percent of magazines that publish on at least a quarterly basis have seen their audiences decline so far this year, according to updated data from the Alliance for Audited Media, which tracks the performance of such publications. That’s on top of a major pullback in advertising this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the related contraction of the global economy. 

“Of the major magazines from publishers such as Condé Nast, Hearst and Meredith, 15 major titles saw their audiences decline or remain flat through the third quarter, so nearly all the months of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S so far, compared to the same period last year. But that leaves 20 titles that actually saw audiences grow.”  

This sounds pretty bad, but what about the 60% that didn’t show audience declines? Magazine readership has always had an ebb and a flow. Whole sectors rise and fall over time, which is historic in the publishing industry and not an aberration. I am not saying that these aren’t hard times; they are. But as old as the saying goes, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  

I believe that when the dust and the plague settle our industry will be more vibrant and successful, reaching more customers than ever before. The trick of course is surviving and adapting.  

Take Afar magazine which according to the Alliance for Audited Media grew its audience across platforms by 130.2% from September 2019 to September 2020. That is pretty outstanding. My guess is that if people can’t travel due to Covid restrictions, they satisfy their wander lust by reading about travel.  

As reported by Media Post there were other success stories. “Backpacker (47.8%), Veranda (43.8%) and The Atlantic (34.9%) also witnessed big gains in audiences year-over-year, according to the report. 

People (89.1 million), Allrecipes (61.7 million) and Good Housekeeping (60.7 million) had the largest brand audiences across platforms in September 2020. 

Total audience on all platforms across the magazine brands was up 5.9% year-over-year.” 

Today, I had a brief email conversation with David Carey where we discussed the Covid time warp. I wrote, “The plague has definitely accelerated publishing business models. We would have arrived here, wherever that is, sooner or later, but now in this time machine we are adjusting at a very rapid pace.”

David replied, “I agree with you that this is an accelerant – the 2025 business models have arrived overnight.  For those who can readily adapt (think Darwin!) they will do fine…” 

David is right. “For those who can readily adapt (think Darwin!) they will do fine…” 

What do we need to consider in our business plans to be fine?  

One thing we need to be aware of is the change in buying habits. Are they temporary or now ingrained into the new normal?  Rob Williams points out in What Does The ‘Storeless’ Economy Mean For Publishers? – “The “retail apocalypse” of the past few years grew much worse in 2020. The pandemic led many people to avoid stores and shop from the safety of their homes. The upheaval in the retail industry will continue to shape the role of publishers next year as content and commerce become even more seamless. The pandemic is hastening the shift toward a “storeless” economy as retailers go out of business or close down unprofitable stores…” 

And in another story Media Post reports that “A majority of U.S. consumers — 67% — plan to do their holiday shopping online this year, according to a new study by Dynata, sponsored by SAP SE. And 60% expect to do at least part of it in brick-and-mortar stores.”  

So, if people aren’t going to the stores, what are we as an industry doing to avoid a Darwinian moment in the business life cycle? Why can’t we have on-line drop-down menus for magazines at retail outlets and supermarkets that carry magazines? Are we so Neolithic that we refuse to let what can and should be digitized not be digitized? What other industry is not transforming … everything? Just because our products are analog that doesn’t mean our infrastructure and processes should be, too.  

I reached out to a member of the Publishing Pandemic roundtable, my friend Joe Berger who is a Circulation Consultant, and he offered the following thoughts: 

“There are issues and they include: 

“What magazines do you offer? The best sellers? How do you get retailers to show the most current issues and get that info updated in a timely fashion? 

“How many copies should be offered? What is in store? Often the retailers don’t know what is in stock as they don’t measure that. 

“What about “dark stores”? What is offered there? What about central warehouses? How would that be handled?” 

Joe continued, “In the end it’s a combination of “will” within the newsstand portion of the industry and “will” on the part of the publishers. Especially for the major publishers who are now the drivers of the newsstand part of the publishing industry.” 

Joe’s a smart guy and these are all valid points. But it’s the fracking 21st century. There is no can’t with today’s available technologies; there is only a lack of will. I see this as an investment in the future of our industry. If magazines are not seen, they cannot be bought. We need to be developing and training the next generation of readers today, right now.  

Sure, it may be hard. Maybe you think it is near to impossible. But as Robert A. Heinlein said, “Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done.” Where is the “For those who can readily adapt (think Darwin!)” momentum at the newsstand? We are foolish not to tackle this distribution situation in earnest as the pandemic meteor crashes to earth. Magazine publishers with their 7,000 unique business plans have never played well in the same sand box, especially when it comes to the poor maligned newsstand. But there is a time and a place for mutual cooperation or mutual annihilation.  

Joe’s conclusion is humorous and spot on:  

“My guess would be it’s a back-burner issue because the newsstand is a back-burner issue for all of these guys. Think about the publishing business as a plate full of food at Thanksgiving. The plate is full of delicious stuff: Turkey, gravy, stuffing, green beans, etc. Newsstand is that tiny helping of Aunt June’s special cranberry treat you take to be polite. It’s spicy. It’s an acquired taste. You aren’t entirely sure how it got made and you may not want to know how she did it.”

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.

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