Audience First and Other Essentials for Magazines and Magazine Media Survival in a Digital Age

July 8, 2013

The following is a review of my presentation at the MPA/PBAA Retail Marketplace conference By Karlene Lukovitz in IPDA Daily Publishing & Retail News, June 14, 2013.

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Perception Vs. Reality: Print’s Power in a Digital Age
Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni offered statistics and arguments demonstrating the ongoing relevance of print magazines, as well as the futility (at least to date) of trying to turn a print-plus-digital magazine brand into an economically viable digital-only entity.

While estimates of the total number of magazines currently sold at retail in the U.S. vary depending on how one defines a magazine, MagNet puts the number at approximately 10,000, noted Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi.

Husni, who tracks print magazine launches on an ongoing basis, found and purchased 870 new magazine titles in retail stores last year alone, 237 of which launched with regular frequencies (published quarterly or more often). “I’m seeing no signs of a slowdown,” he reported. Further, the numbers of magazines being folded are considerably smaller than the numbers being launched.

Those who point to Newsweek or other instances of high-profile print magazines being converted to an all-digital model, or folded, as evidence that the print magazine medium as a whole is on its last legs are ignoring the current and historical context, Husni argues.

“If one magazine dies, it’s not the end of the industry,” he said. “Do I need to tell you how many TV shows have come and gone over the years? Yet nobody said that television was dead.”

While the industry is rightfully focused on addressing magazine retail sales declines through innovation and collaboration with retailers and other supply-chain partners, the larger context is that discretionary products of all kinds experience sales declines when the economy forces many consumers to forgo non-essential purchases as they struggle to meet basic living needs, he said.

Moreover, overall print magazine circulation is stable to slightly up, and both print and digital magazine readership is increasing–while other traditional media are experiencing overall declines in audience or circulation, he added.

Meanwhile, for all of their growth, magazine apps are up against formidable odds, Husni said. As of January 2013, publishing consultant Thea Selby reported that there were 446 magazine apps available through the Nexus Google Play store, 744 in the Amazon Kindle store, and 2,954 in the Apple iTunes store. But those apps are competing for visibility, discovery and consumer dollars and time with at least 850,000 total apps of all kinds in the marketplace, he said.

The Age of ‘Transcended Infinite Media’

Many seem determined to deny the reality that all media have always been subject to change brought about by technology and other mega-trends, Husni observed.

He believes that, after a “bubble” lasting about 150 years, the age of mass media–characterized by a relatively small number of companies and media realizing large profits by reaching mass audiences–is giving way to what he calls the “transcended infinite media age,” characterized by burgeoning numbers of interpersonal networks and new technological platforms and devices.

Today, “we have the major media outlets seeing shrinking influence, and clusters of audiences who are talking and negotiating and engaging within themselves,” he said. At a time when consumers have hundreds of television channels, along with seemingly limitless blogs, Web sites and other media from which to choose, the media and the world at large need to accept the reality that audience segmentation means smaller revenues for individual media, as revenue is spread across the plethora of options available, he asserted.

Magazines have always had life cycles, he pointed out: “New magazines arrive on the scene, and other magazines depart the scene. There’s nothing new here.” This year and last, some magazines that are over a hundred years old have been publishing their largest-ever issues, he noted.

“There is a [print] magazine for every age group…for every interest…magazines large and small” and magazines spanning a wide variety of formats, he pointed out. “There are more magazines in the marketplace than ever,” even without counting digital replica versions, which have doubled in number since 2011, he said. In fact, there were just 2,000 print magazines in 1980, versus today’s 10,000.

At the same time, the models of magazines and all media are being transformed by those “transcended infinite media” dynamics, which have put far greater power and choice in the hands of consumers, he said.

The Internet and social media have enabled consumers to be content creators, forcing traditional media to “play catch-up,” Husni observed. However, with all of their ability to create or shape or choose their own media experiences (including expanded choices in terms of immediacy and formats viewable on a wide variety of devices and screen sizes), consumers still want content from trusted sources–a major advantage for trusted magazine brands, he said.

However, Husni cautioned that magazines need to beware of falling into a syndrome that’s become all too common in the media world: Surrendering content creation, which is resulting in a “welfare information society.”

Amid all of this change, the one constant is the primary importance of magazines knowing their audiences and serving them with relevant, useful, compelling content, he stressed.

The Futility of Converting Print Brands to Digital-Only

Turning to the subject of print magazines going to all-digital models, Husni listed a roster of brands that have attempted this, only to become weak presences at best on the Web, or disappear altogether.

He said that he’s been unable to identify a single magazine brand that has succeeded or thrived by going digital-only. He quoted an observation from electronic media analyst/author Thad Mcllroy: “Few magazine publishers could survive the loss of ad revenue if they discontinued their print versions. While they are becoming increasingly adept at generating revenue from their Web sites, Web-only publishing models cannot supplant a print and Web model.”

“When a print magazine is about to draw its last breath of ink, is digital really a life support for it, or just prolonging the inevitable…defining a vegetative state as new life?,” Husni asked.

His own answer: “A print magazine that can’t make it in print is not going to make it in the digital sphere. The problem is not with the medium–the problem is with the magazine.”

When a magazine declares that it’s going digital-only, several “death signs” can be counted on: staff reduction, leadership changes, blaming the advertisers, blaming the economy, and blaming the changing habits of the audience, he noted.

“If you fail to connect with your customers/readers time and time again, going to digital online heaven can’t save you,” he declared. “Cut your losses, let your magazine die in peace and don’t torture it anymore.”

However, while print magazines can’t live solely as digital entities, “there is absolutely no reason that the two can’t live side-by-side,” Husni stressed.

“In fact, today, the question is not print versus digital media. Media now are not either/or, but rather all,” he said. “And at the end of the day, it is audience first, not digital or print first.”

One comment

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