Wednesday, December 03, 2008
The Death of Print Magazines and Other Fairy Tales
by Samir Husni, Ph.D.
Insiders Bob Sacks and Samir Husni square off in the magazine industry's hottest debate: Will print magazines survive-or even thrive-in the next century? Here's what Samir Husni had to say.
Intro: Bob Sacks, better known as "BoSacks," is a 38-year veteran of the publishing industry whose e-newsletter, "Heard on the Web: Media Intelligence," reaches nearly 12,000 readers daily. Samir Husni, nicknamed "Mr. Magazine," holds a doctorate in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and is the author of Launch Your Own Magazine: A Guide for Succeeding in Today's Marketplace. Sacks and Husni have lengthy publishing résumés. Both run private consulting firms primarily focused on magazines and media. Both are well-respected experts in the publishing world. And both have strong opinions on where the magazine industry is headed.
We asked BoSacks and Mr. Magazine to share their views and let you be the judge. Here are Mr. Magazine's thoughts on the future of magazines.
I can see the future clearly. The future is e-paper and e-readers. Magazines and newspapers will be no more. The days of ink on paper will give way to pixels on a screen. Newsstands will become oxygen bars and coffee stands. There will be no more issues with distribution because digital books, newspapers and magazines will be automatically downloaded free of charge onto personal media organizers or your BlackBerry. Printing will cease to be. Large groves of trees will begin to spring up throughout the world because paper will be in museums, not on your coffee table. Air will be cleaner. Flowers will bloom brighter. And Republicans will bring soy lattes to share with Democrats during yoga class.
If you believe all that, we need to talk business because I have a few things to sell you: the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China and a great three-for-one deal on some pyramids over in Egypt.
The big problem with all of this future talk is that I have no way to see the future or how the media world and media consumption will be five weeks from now, let alone five months or five years from now. The only two people who can tell you the future are God and a fool. I know I'm not the first, and I work every day to not be the second. So the only thing I can do is continue to track media trends and make predictions of possibilities and plausibilities.
When you look at the statistics, there's a definite relationship: Over the last 20 years, the number of new magazine launches has steadily increased in a near-direct correlation with the number of doom-and-gloom prophets. But those prophets have yet to say anything true.
Yes, the numbers from the past few years have been less than rosy for the magazine industry, but every road has a few bumps. To say the future of magazines is little more than a resting place in a graveyard full of Betamax and Laserdiscs would be ridiculous. The past year has said otherwise.
Before jumping to conclusions and fairy tale dreams about what the future has in store for us, take a look at what has recently happened in our industry. Most of the world is having no problem with media consumption. A brand-new, state-of-the-art printing plant just opened in the United Kingdom (thanks to Rupert Murdoch), a German paper mill was recently completed at a cost of €486 million, foreign newsstands are more crowded than ours, and still, European consumers want more.
But you don't even need to look as far as Europe to see that media is alive and kicking. Last year's new magazine launches totaled 715. That's an average of nearly two new magazines each day, which is substantially higher than the number of new launches in 1991, the first year that commercial use of the Internet was allowed.
And don't forget the golden goose. Condé Nast felt so sure about the current desire for good print that they fed more than $125 million into the launch of the monthly business magazine Portfolio. So far I haven't heard one whisper of disappointment concerning that investment.
The number of new magazine launches has fallen nearly 30 percent in the last two years. But you don't say a child is a failure because of one bad grade, or that a car should be traded in because it got a flat tire-and you shouldn't say the industry is irrelevant or dying because an average of "only" two new magazines were launched every day last year.
The future is bright, or at least the possibility for the future is bright. Europeans are proving this before our eyes, yet we sit in our offices with blinders on. We see the past and not the future. We should learn from the past and take it with us into a future where more magazines are created and the customer feels he's the single member of a highly niche-oriented audience.
Technology has been something we've struggled against when it comes to printed media. But just like fighting rapids in a river, the more you fight, the faster you get pulled under. Computers, the Internet and technology are the allies of magazines. Recent numbers show that the number of consumer magazine websites has increased 53 percent since 2004. Overall magazine readership has increased 5 percent in the last four years, while coverage has remained the same. These numbers are nearly the opposite of newspaper readership, which dropped 3 to 5 percent over the past few years.
More and more magazines are being launched every year with a single customer in mind. Publishers have veered away from the mass-market magazines of years past and are seeing the infinite market that is laser-targeted niche publications. This year, magazines such as Kayak Angler, Urban Ink, Bond and others continued to show that a concentrated focus on a niche dedicated to a topic may well be better than trying to reach everyone with your message.
There's hope. Money is being invested in our industry. Customers feel an attachment to print because holding a real magazine and tangibly feeling what you paid for is much more fulfilling than turning on your Kindle or e-reader and reading a digital-rights managed copy of something. Magazines provide ownership; magazines provide connections between advertisers, readers and products; magazines provide a vehicle for quality content and purposeful design; and magazines provide profit to those who can successfully balance it all.
Some prophets of doom and gloom may say magazines haven't had the best year, but try telling that to the 715 editors and publishers who introduced their newborns to the magazine world last year. They'll be quick to tell you that magazines are still the best form of media we have today, tomorrow or the next day.
Click here to read Bob Sacks' "It's a Digital World Now"