Is Magazine Publishing Screwed?

The question asked by Warren Ellis on his blog. The answers all tend to think that it isn’t, but that it is evolving.

Even taking this broadly positive view it’s worth remembering that in all evolutions there are extinctions. Certain parts of the magazine business are already right royally screwed – controlled circulation B2B titles have almost ceased to exist and paid-for B2B magazines aren’t looking too clever; once popular sectors of consumer publishing are on their way out – music magazines or listings titles for example – and other genres are anaemic relics with a sell by date fast approaching. In the next couple of years we will see several big companies move out of the ink on paper business (either voluntarily or because they go bust) and a number of household name titles simply disappear. Of course, not all of magazine publishing will wither and die, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves that there is any reason why it has to evolve and survive.

Things might be in better focus if we ask the same question of other industries that have had the digital wave crash across them. Is photography screwed? or music? or books? The answer would be no in all cases, but if you’re making camera film, or pressing vinyl, or running a bookshop, you’ll be finding things a bit tough right now.

It’s the same with the ‘magazine industry’. There will always be ink on paper magazines, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right place to be. Certain companies, certain products, will evolve and thrive, but others will spiral down. Big businesses will close, big brand magazines will stop publishing. If your business model is based on delivering content to readers, you have an opportunity to survive, if you can figure out exactly how you can get them to pay for it. If your existence is based on delivering readers to advertisers, you’ve got your work cut out.

Follow the money. Magazine publishing isn’t necessarily about the product, but using the product as a platform for selling adverts. For most publishers their real customers – the people who pay their bills – are their advertisers, not their readers. That’s why large sums are spent to get on the shelves, to run promotional campaigns, to have cover mounts, to give subs discounts, to subsidise Tesco’s ’points for magazines’ promotion – because readers are a KPI to give to the ad agencies. Now that advertisers are more focused on paying for responses to their adverts or are building ways to go direct to consumers, the titles conceived as glossy advertising delivery packages are on notice.

Some titles will move out of print and will transition to some other form – but we don’t know what that form will be yet. Does anyone care to guess what the consumption or delivery model will be in five years time (remember, the original iPhone only launched in 2007 and the iPad in 2010)? B2B companies have moved brands online, and consumer businesses are getting into apps in a big way, but it is still too early to say where the audience will be in the long term and the money follows the audience.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that publishing companies have to fail (although some of them will) as the smarter ones will become different shaped businesses, selling things; one of those things will be content that consumers will buy in some form. Ad revenue will come from delivering measurable responses to advertisers (which is a reason to believe that most customer magazines will follow SKy’s lead and go digital in the next few years).

So, is magazine publishing screwed? Well, (to misquote Reverend Lovejoy), Short answer, yes, if you think of magazines as being ink on paper; long answer no, but it will be an entirely unrecognisable business in ten years time.

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