In 1999 I left my job as an editor of a well-known engineering trade magazine to set up an online equivalent. I’d tried to convince the owner of the magazine that the web and email were the way ahead, but – despite being a bright guy – he didn’t get it at all. So I left and did it myself.
Now, although history proved it to be the right move, I will admit that the prediction which I made to the owner – that free, printed trade magazines would be extinct within five to ten years – was a little premature. Over ten years on, many still exist, even if across the industries they’re still closing on an almost monthly basis. Even venerable Computer Weekly stopped printing last month, although it’s thriving online.
The reason my former boss gave for dismissing my fears for the future of our print magazine was that “reading things on the screen will never be as nice as reading them on paper, so until the two technologies merge, we’ll be alright”. And I don’t disagree with that. The arrival of What Widget? on my desk is infinitely more pleasing than any email newsletter I receive. Here’s the thing though: progress doesn’t always mean improved quality. The music I’m listening to, streamed from my computer, is undoubtedly poorer quality than the expensive, standalone CD player in the corner. But it’s more convenient, and in some ways more pleasurable, to let the computer stream random tracks from my digital record collection all day long, so I go for that option. The CD player, in turn, was an improvement in efficiency over the old record turntable, but I know plenty of people who saw that as a backward step in audio terms.
All of these changes in technology have taken place because the different approaches to doing things which came along offered a trade-off which appealed to their consumers, not necessarily an improvement in every aspect. I was wrong about the demise of printed trade magazines, but – sadly – probably only in terms of timescale. They’re still printing, but is anybody reading? I’d be interested to know if, as advertisers, you’re still getting any indications that they are.