A Little Precision Would Be Appreciated

President’s Letter

by Jim Elliott

Too many analysts have jumped on the “print is in trouble” bandwagon without specifying which kind of print they mean.  Evidence that some print is doing just fine is buried by lumping dissimilar products together.  Distinctions are lost when labels like “print” and “publications” are indiscriminately and inconsistently applied to all magazines and newspapers.

Here’s a case in point.  According to Josh Sternberg’s Digiday.com article of 06.29.2012, “Print is in trouble.  That’s hardly news. What’s new is publications looking to cross the chasm and go from print-first models to online-only approaches.”  Because Dow Jones is shifting SmartMoney Magazine from print to the Web, he concludes that print is hurting.

It is this analysis that is in trouble, starting with a lack of precision in the terms used.  To discuss the change at SmartMoney as a new approach for publications misses other examples like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s similar change way back in 2009.  It may be that the author meant that this is a new approach for magazines, in which case “magazine” would have been a much better word than “print” to start off his article, but that would have weakened the case he seems to be trying to make. 

Coincidentally, Samir Husni, Mr. Magazine™, just announced that 100 new magazines with regular publishing schedules have appeared on the nation’s newsstands in the first half of 2012.  An additional 294 new titles appeared in the form of specials, annuals or book-a-zines.  Is all of this magazine activity a huge mistake, or could it be that Dr. Husni and the people funding these new titles have a clear picture of some new opportunities?

My company sells millions of dollars worth of space in magazines each year (as well as digital: web, newsletters, etc.).  I am not talking about “those wonderful days of yesteryear,” but this year.  And last year.  Because we are close to the action (in it up to our elbows, actually), we see that there indeed are problems with some publications.  Not all, but some.  

And, guess what!  Publishers are solving their problems just as they always have, by devising better strategies, by finding ways to sell more through better tactics, by reducing overhead, etc.  The only thing new for most of our clients is that the digital revolution has given them more options.  So, some may opt for digital-only.  Others, digital-first.  Others, print first.

The SmartMoney example is interesting, in part because financial content can be enhanced by digital treatment.  I do not have any inside knowledge as to why Dow Jones management determined that it would be in their best interest to kill a 20 year old magazine with 800,000 circulation, but they have information we do not have.

Not only do magazines and newspapers have different kinds of problems, but some categories of magazines are enabled by digital technologies, even as the ink on paper aspect of some is threatened.  To understand what is really happening requires clear thinking, which depends on precise terms.

A change in strategy by one magazine, or a dozen, does not necessarily mean that print is no longer effective.  If the Web is a more efficient delivery system for some kinds of information, does it mean that all magazines are in trouble? In a word, no.

Incidentally, the same source used to underscore the “print is in trouble” argument, the MPA’s listing of PIB Revenue and Pages, showed that some magazines are doing quite well year over year:

The total for all magazines was down slightly: 3.1% in pages, from 169,522.48 to 164,224.78.  We would rather be up 3%, but we know being down is not necessarily a sign of doom either.  It’s just part of the ebb and flow of business.