On the Decline of Magazines

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People love a good a good funeral (and as David Hepworth put it “in the digital age they don’t even have to dress for it”). In only the past few days I’ve read two articles that pronounce the ‘death’ of marketing (only to then go on to explain how marketing is still very much alive, albeit changing. *Sigh*). So it is not without some disheartenment that I read articles about the troubles of a medium which is close to my heart: magazines.

David Carr’s piece in the New York Times focuses on the difficulties at Newsweek but makes a broader point about how magazines, like newspapers, have been in a steady slide that has now brought them to “the edge of a cliff”. Last week’s ABC release revealed hefty declines in US newstand circulation across just about every major magazine category: “When 10 percent of your retail buyers depart over the course of a year, something fundamental is at work”. In the UK, the circulation figures released yesterday by the ABC also revealed a market that remains extremely tough with the total circulations of the Top 100 actively purchased magazines falling by 4% in the first half of the year and only a fifth of them able to put on sales year-on-year.

Publishers traditionally have two major revenue streams: circulation (newstand, subscription) and advertising. Declining circulations are likely to be a double whammy since advertising revenue, though not directly linked, is reliant on the reach provided by circulated copies and readership. Sure enough, Carr quotes figures from the US Publishers Information Bureau showing that advertising is down 8.8% year-on-year year, suggesting that magazines are “in a downward spiral that not even their new digital initiatives can halt”.

Publishers have arguably been caught in the classic innovator’s dilemma, becoming great at improving products and processes that have an established role in the market, but less good at investing in disruptive technologies and ideas, perhaps hindered by their accountability to their existing customer base (who, as Christensen suggests, can be a substantial barrier to innovation and often ask for better versions of current products), or by ways of thinking informed by their position in the market or precedents.

On the face of it, magazine owners have much of the raw material to generate considerable digital success: an abundance of high quality content and the talent to create more of it; established relationships with commercial partners; engaged audiences focused around tightly defined common interests or outlooks (as I’ve said before, the best magazines make you feel as though you are part of an uncommon community); established subscription models; a huge offline channel which can be used for promotional purposes. Whilst it is undoubtedly a challenge to re-tool and re-work skills and processes for digital, I know that many publishers have been working hard at just this and there are some great examples of teams doing great things in the digital arena.

My favourite writer on the magazine industry, David Hepworth, noted that the CEO of Hearst Magazines in the US recently told the Economist that magazines already need five or six revenue streams in order to be successful. Whilst that may seem like a case of simply chasing the money, my hunch is that most publishers have a very good idea of what those streams will be and at least some sense of how they’re going to get there. The challenge however, is that this will take time and (much like newspapers) despite building large digital audiences, for every online user they currently derive a fraction of the revenue that is made for every reader of a print magazine. Which makes it very difficult to replace print losses with digital gains.

Finding a solution to this dilemma undoubtedly requires different thinking. If I was running a publisher right now I’d be thinking about smart applications of not just destination thinking (something publishers have traditionally been very good at) but also distributed thinking. Something akin to what has been described (I think by Emily Bell, though I couldn’t find the original source to attribute so apologies if I’m wrong on that) as “being of the web, not on it”. Or weaving content into the “fabric of the internet”, a phrase that The Guardian used when they launched their Open Platform (which allowed partners to reuse Guardian content and data for free). Here’s an example of what I mean.

Clay Shirky once wrote “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism”. So perhaps the opportunity lies (at least in part) in something magazines have always been brilliant at: great curation. But done differently. I’ve said before that I believe that the future of content will be about three pillars of content curation:

1. Algorithmic:- we see stuff because a software, or a technological process interprets, anticipates, or predicts our needs. Examples of this include Google’s personalised search, Amazon’s recommendation engine, LastFM’s scrobbling, Facebook Edgerank, aggregator apps such as Zite, Flipboard and Currents.

2. Professional:- we see stuff because skilled editors and commissioners use their insight and knowledge of audiences to determine what might interest them – magazine, newspaper and website editors, radio DJs and so on

3. Social:- we see stuff because we, our friends, or a wider audience think it’s good and/or relevant. Examples of this have been around for a long-time (links shared via social networks, social bookmarking tagging and voting, Twitter lists, most-shared etc) but this is word of mouth writ large and digital.

Over this is a layer of self-curation (the choices we make) which gives an explicit and implicit dimension to each one of these.

Increasingly, I think good content production, distribution and consumption will involve smart combinations of these three elements. They work together to give me the content I want as well as allowing for a healthy dose of serendipitous discovery of new stuff. Using algorithms is an excellent way to not only anticipate needs and personalise digital content (so that, for example, I see more of the kind of content that it knows I like) but also to recommend relevant content from elsewhere (something the BBC have called Perceptive Media). Social curation is also a way of surfacing the best content about the stuff I’m interested in, or that which a community of people with interests similar to mine think is good. Combine appropriate forms of these with brilliant professional curation that remains as critical (arguably more so) as ever and you have something very interesting.

The question of openness is critical to this. One of the reasons I don’t really get closed publishing apps is because they are effectively dead ends, and research has shown that people don’t really want dead ends, they want to use digital magazines as “exploration springboards” (there’s a thought here about technology and the potential of HTML 5 to create brilliant content apps as the Financial Times have shown). If your website or app is to be a true springboard for exploration, this requires publishers to curate and promote not only their own content but high quality and relevant content from elsewhere. This is a change in mind-set as well as approach but something that also requires new skills. As David Hepworth puts it:

Editors used to be picked for their ability to predict what was about to be interesting to people. In the future, they’ll be picked for their ability to note where the interest is and minister to it. The old idea of followers and leaders doesn’t apply any more. Many of your readers know more than you do.”

As Dave Winer once said, “if you want to make money on the web, send them away”. The more you curate great stuff from not only you’re own content but from wherever it exists across the web the more useful you become (and once you start to become far more useful, who knows, perhaps you have the basis for a more rounded and attractive digital subscription model).

Which leads us to the question of scale. Approaches like that above can work with small, tightly defined audiences and interests but it’s also highly scalable. Scale brings benefits in not just reach and revenue generation, but also because it gives a bigger platform with which to do interesting things (particularly through data and targeting). There are many ways of acheiving scale. You can work hard at it over a number of years like the MailOnline have. Or you can aggregate and partner.

There are some interesting precedents here. The Huffington Post of-course, which is both a news website and a content aggregator, having a core group of regular contributors but also a huge number and range of different bloggers. Glam Media (who, in 2010, were named as FastComany’s most innovative media company) have achieived significant scale (280 million unique users) by aggregating over 1,500 lifestyle websites and blogs, curating and bringing together content from other sites in the network making them not just a simple ad network but more of what their CEO Samir Arora describes as a ‘distributed media company’. Website owners get access to revenues they would otherwise find it hard to secure, Glam gets good content and eyeballs to sell to advertisers. This is an interesting approach for publishers for a number of reasons: they are taking a leadership/facilitation role in their given market; they get access to an altogether different level of scale and reach (and more data means more targeting which means more revenue); they also have access to a wealth of great content from which to curate the best. An example of this happening is The Guardian Environment Network which brings together ‘news and comment from the world’s best environment websites’.

Once again, the metaphor of the API is an interesting one. Thinking about content as an API also pulls in aspects of both openness and scale that I think are important. Publishers have finite resource and so finding smart ways to apply that resource in the service of generating scale but also efficiency makes sense. The FT’s approach, summarised nicely here in Adam’s write up of May’s FT Mobile event, is insightful:

“Having entirely separate workflows and content systems for each digital product is clearly a non-starter. A clear separation of an expression layer – the web app, the web site, the newspaper – and the content layer, with the gap between the two being bridged by an API allows rapid and efficient development of new products for new platforms, because of good, basic infrastructure hygiene. Essentially, they’re thinking of their content as a dataset that can be interrogated by their products through APIs”.

Much of this involves a shift toward creating content driven services and experiences and that’s a hard cultural, technical and behavioural shift to make when much of it is anathema to what you’ve known for years. But as David Hepworth has said: “These challenges are going to force us to decide whether we’re people who make stuff or people who do things“. I’m not suggesting that any one of these approaches is a golden bullet but as I said at the start, much of this is about smart ways to combine distributed and destination models. Publishers have been exceptionally good at destination thinking. But if I was running a publishing business right now I’d be challenging my teams to find new ways to be the best facilitators, aggregators and curators in their markets. I’d be asking them how our content API could apply good, traditional skills and output in new ways. How we can become more embedded in the fabric of the web. I’d be asking them what’s the publishing equivalent of Google Ad Sense, or the YouTube embed functionality, or the ASOS Marketplace, or the Amazon Associates programme?

I’ll admit that I wrestled for good while with this post. Partly because these issues are structural, cultural, and deep-seated. But partly because I did not want to appear to be overly negative about the fortunes of a medium and an industry I have a lot of time for. Magazines will be around for years to come. Magazine owners potentially have a very bright future. But it’s a future that is dependent on their ability to embrace and lead change. So that’s where I’d start. I’d be interesting to know what you think.

Original Post: http://neilperkin.typepad.com/only_dead_fish/2012/08/on-the-decline-of-magazines.html