Will digital save print?

Some interesting conversations with publishers last week about digital editions of magazines. The excitement of the launch of these products has settled into a realism about their use and about their limitations.

There are still a few publications where the digital version is being set up as the replacement for the print edition, but in many more cases the new medium is viewed as supplementary to the old.

As the Dovetail Digital Subscriber Survey shows, the number of “digital only” subscribers (i.e. ones that have no print product subscriptions) is vanishingly small (<1%). It will grow, but the much greater number are those mixing print and digital products.

This chimes with publishers’ experience. They had initial euphoria as large numbers of shell apps/sample editions were downloaded, but this growth wasn’t (indeed couldn’t be) sustained or turned into digital-only revenue streams. Digital only subs are still growing for most publishers, but these growth rates are much slower and, in some cases, have completely levelled out. The potential for substantially expanding a title’s market through digital editions is much more limited than publishers first thought.

Where publishers are seeing interesting stats is with ‘bundled’ subscriptions. What seems to be happening is that the digital version deepens these readers’ relationship with their title. Rather than just reading the magazine in the same way, at the same time, in the same place as they always have with the print version, the digital edition allows for different engagements. We’re not talking here about consumption of different content, but a more frequent interaction with the magazine – it allows a reader to, say, dip in and out of their magazine during the week without having to carry the physical product around every day, or revisit an older issue that wasn’t finished, or even just for subscribers to be able to read the new edition when they’re away from home.

It is early days, but subscribers are using the digital version to engage with the magazine more frequently and seem to be renewing their subscriptions at significantly higher rates and so have much better lifetime values.

If that’s true, then, far from being a threat to print magazines, digital editions might just help (some of) them survive.



  1. Hi Don

    A very interesting article and what I find to be interesting from the Dovetail survey was definately the reading habits. For a print version most read it from cover to cover, or a large proportion of it, and for digital the complete opposite. That certainly follows what you are saying about dipping in and out.

    What are you thoughts about the potential future for the type of magazine i.e. the hobby market compared to lifestyle/mainstream. Which would suit digital better or is there really little in it?



    1. The other VAT anomoly is whether the “additional” charge for a bundle is vatable and the rest remains excempt.

      1. This is still an unresolved question, although the tide is moving towards charging more for the bundle with an element of this being either vatable or the VAT payment. When Dennis launched The Week app they talked to HMRC and agreed on a VAT amount for the app – this is basically what they now charge customers who trade up from the print-only edition.

        My view has always been that if a stand alone version of the digital product exists then you have to incorporate some VAT charge into the cost of the bundle. If the digital product is only available in a bundle and the price of the subscription hasn’t changed since you added the digital version you might (might) be able to fight HMRC for as long as the digital product remained free. I really can’t see this as a long term solution though, so one is better to get this sorted sooner rather than later.

    2. Interesting article Don. Lets hope too many toes aren’t blasted off with the VAT thing. RE Paul, I suspect the obvious answer is that the more often the digital editions are updated the more they will be dipped into via mobile etc. Those that keep the heightened reading experience as their main objective (as opposed to information provision) – along with the production values, will see less mobile activity. Its a bit chicken and egg as well I would think?

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