Is Print Media Dead? How Some Print Publications Are Surviving & Thriving

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Magazines have played a big part in my life. The journey started with Transformers and the Beano when I was young, through numerous gaming journals such as Your Sinclair and Warhammer, on to lad’s mags including Loaded, FHM and Maxim, and finally the publications I receive now: Private Eye and FourFourTwo.

These have occupied a proud part in my life, when a trip to the newsagent was one of the most exciting trips of the week or month. Many editions of these magazines, some decades old, sit in boxes in the attic waiting to be read just one more time. They’re folded and fusty, with pages missing amid the dust. Somehow though these musty old tomes can take me back to a different, happy time for an hour or two; I expect they’ll still be in the same box in a year or ten.

The box is actually a fitting metaphor, in that print as a whole is seemingly heading for the coffin. Look at newspapers and their slow, seemingly terminal slide into obsolescence. Circulations show drastic, double-figure descents, the results of a symptom of questionable management, a change in the way communities exist, and multiple online avenues of competition. There is a perceived lack of quality of content, which creates a circle; low quality leads to fewer readers; which leads to less willing advertisers, and eventual cuts, which lead to low quality content…the industry website Hold the Front Page reports very little positive news about newspapers, instead featuring rises in cover costs allied to staff being laid off.

News via social media is fast and available in picture form, or words or video, and you can receive it from the sources you choose. Not interested in local events, court stories or sport? Fine, follow other accounts that don’t cover them.

So other than that nostalgic feel, magazines and papers are up against it, and it’s showing. The ABC circulation figures for magazines in 2015 showed a fall of more than 15 million copies across the top 100 selling mags, in comparison to 2014. Even the top selling magazine TV Choice reported a 7.9% fall in circulation, and only a few magazines in the top 20 reported rises. Some suffered falls of more than 20%. Some, such as FHM and Zoo, didn’t even make it out of the year.

It isn’t all bad news. Digital versions are showing massive rises. The Economist has seen a year on year rise of nearly 300%, to hit 50,000 subscribers, while BBC History went up by 35.8%. And some magazines, such as those owned by Hearst including Prima and House Beautiful, are showing signs of bucking the trend.

Those magazines that are surviving or flourishing may have several things in common:

They’re doing something not available for free online

One of them is the aforementioned Private Eye, enjoying circulation figures not seen since the 1980s. The satirical heavyweight sold 228,000 copies per issue in the first half of the year, for a simple reason; it doesn’t give anything away and has few viable competitors, on or offline.

Magazine managing director Sheila Molnar told ““We have explored digital in great depth, but it doesn’t actually work,” says Sheila Molnar, the magazine’s managing director. “We can’t find something that replicates the look and feel of Private Eye. Also, I’ve never known anyone who has been able to monetise it.”

They’re building a strong brand retention

In the summer of 2014 Contently ran a story which turned the tables; rather than accepting that print is going the way of the dodo publishing giants are banking on their own brand and launching offshoots and paper versions of strong work, such as Newsweek. Meanwhile, indie developers are continuing to flourish with products such as Monocle, simply by building strong reputations.

By gaining readership through good pictures and well-written stories, the nostalgia element

of holding a high-quality, interesting product remains. People get to know the brands and want physical representations of them that just isn’t possible through a tablet, mobile or desktop device.

They’re changing the revenue model

Remember when Radiohead allowed fans to choose their price for their new album In Rainbows? Print editions are trying a similar idea.

Football is the biggest sport in the world and there are magazines to reflect all ages and likes: from the young fan of big players and teams (Match, Shoot) to the more cerebral reader who also appreciates retro games and tactical analysis (FourFourTwo, World Soccer). These are reads that have endured for decades because they know their audience, and because any price increases have been gradual – FourFourTwo now costs £4.75, almost double the original £2.40 cover price in its debut year of 1994.

How about a magazine where you decide what you pay? The Blizzard is still less than 20 issues old, but brings together world-class journalism into a half magazine, half book of diverse pieces, some spanning several thousand words. It’s quarterly, available in hard or digital copy, and you can pay whatever you wish (minimum of £6) - bearing in mind that each edition is the size of a small Argos catalogue. The pieces are long, in-depth, and immersive; reading one is more of a project than an hour or two’s simple entertainment. Here’s an example.

Radiohead, of course, was always a favourite of NME magazine, which in itself changed its revenue model drastically in September. Going free was a gamble in the face of changing appetites for music, a technological revolution, and opposition from a huge number of music blogs and indie sites that had driven the once fabled New Musical Express down to a circulation of just 15,000 a week. Time will tell if there is soon any need for a print version of NME at all.

Of course, it’s not just the titles that are evolving. The big publishing houses themselves are re-thinking the very foundations of the print business model. Time Inc. have shaken up the subscription model with the introduction of their Magazines Direct service, whilst research from Tribune Publishing suggests that they’d be better off selling the printworks and buying tablets for all their readers! Is it as crazy as it sounds?

They have a niche market

Independent magazines don’t need to cater for everyone. Magazines that try and be all things to all men/women/children are perhaps the most vulnerable to an internet that can siphon and reduce content to that which we like.

Meanwhile a specified, targeted magazine can still find favour and devotees, and for evidence look at publications such as ‘The Plant’, which works well for its (green-fingered) audience. So does Intern, Pom Pom – a 21st Century magazine devoted to knitting - and the other nine magazines noted in this round-up of the best indie magazines from The Telegraph.

They’re trying to innovate

The Nieman Lab is an American journalism research centre based at Harvard University, which looks into the future of digital journalism and offers students, authors, coders, developers and others with a keen interest a huge array of learning opportunities. During every festive period Nieman Lab asks key figures from journalism and digital media for their predictions for the industry for the upcoming year.

The list does not make much provision for new print publications as a lone venture, but does give much food for thought for those thinking of dipping their toes into the digital world. Podcasts, social media, virtual reality and many other methods of assimilating and presenting data are highlighted, but contributors are noticeably quiet on the future of print.

One piece does say that print is dead, but that level of pessimism is tempered by the assertion that those who work in print journals will possess skills that will be valuable in the digital world.

Many see digital as the only way forward, but can it make the money to succeed? It’s notoriously difficult to make money through purely online advertising. The conclusion is that no-one has quite worked out the best way of presenting print and digital as one complete package, so that both are needed for the perfect reader experience, but the more successful ones are at least trying to move the goalposts.

There are still a huge number of high quality publications available and long may it continue. Magazines have been a part of my life for virtually every year so far, and I’m hoping they’ll continue to be page-turners for the rest of it as well.

About the Author: Alex Jones is a freelance writer based in the UK. Specialising in current affairs, his work can be found in a number influential publications including the Huffington Post and the Daily Record.