Can we possibly save the printed magazine?

While every year this century has seen the slow demise of print magazines and newspapers, I think that things are starting to accelerate, and 2012 has certainly been a notable year in this respect. I’m not talking about magazines stopping publication completely (many of us will miss The Word), but those magazines which have thrown in the towel on their print editions, while still seeing a future for an online version. In the B2B world this has included such big names as The Engineer, and in the wider world Newsweek (and even, it was mischievously rumoured last week, The Guardian). It’s not good news for readers: the paper version is preferable not only because it’s what we’ve grown up with, but because it’s nicer to hold and look at, easier to scan and (when presented properly) shows images off to much greater effect. The change is simply market forces in action. We might prefer print editions, but we’re not prepared to pay for them in terms of the cover price, the wait or the amount of advertising required to make them even remotely affordable.

I love proper magazines, and would go back to editing one tomorrow if I thought there was a future in it. I still subscribe to several. These are a mixture of titles where the content isn’t available online (e.g Private Eye) or where I genuinely want to support the continued existence of the magazine in a small way (e.g When Saturday Comes). In the trade sector, the publishers don’t have these sorts of straws to clutch at. Few trade magazines have ever bothered to build a rapport with their readership, or even develop a personality, so few are mourned when they quietly cease publication. Apart from a handful which still genuinely try to research news about their industry which might not see the light of day otherwise, most trade magazines just run a succession of “news” items from manufacturers and trade organisations which were published on the originators’ websites weeks before. Almost none can command a cover price for that, and rely on a dwindling band of advertisers. Some of these companies just want to support the titles’ existence. Others have calculated that the advertising investment remains a profitable one, and I’m pleased for them and the title if that’s so. However, I suspect that too many of the advertisers are still there because spending their “advertising budget” is a chore, and giving the money to the ever-willing magazine sales reps who’ve been around for years is the easiest way to get the job done with as little fuss as possible. That’s sad, and as a generation of marketing managers retires, cannot possibly last.

I can think of many ways in which printed magazines can be improved, but I don’t know how to save them.

2 thoughts on “Can we possibly save the printed magazine?”

  1. Good question. I am not sure magazines help themselves. I say this, having completed an exercise for a client researching forward feature programmes for 2013. Out of a list of around 80 trade journals I found only 5 onlnine with editorial information for 2013. Most magazine/publisher web sites are poor, full of out of date data and almost impenetrable navigation.

    In fairness some of these are actual online journals without print editions – for anyone who wants to collate accurate data to make advertising and or PR targeting decisions it is an uphill struggle, after which you are still left in the realms of ‘best guess’.

    I do believe there is role for both online and print media. I use both for different reasons – online is a great for dip in dip out, answer a question, find and sift through lots of things quickly. An E-reader/tablet is fine for out of copyright books, but not good if you actually want to ‘own’ the reading matter you pay for. However, for indepth/relaxed reading I still prefer printed material. I prefer the quality of printed photography rather than on screen images.

    In the trade arena I doubt printed magazines can be saved. The economic model of charging for publishing press releases, with ever more crammed per page, was a self shot in the foot even before online started to dominate. It began a race to the bottom. As you have rightly pointed out in many previous postings, companies can bypass this model by creating their own content, self publishing and talking directly to target audiences.

    However,in the B2C and consumer only areas, there is still a role for printed, especially when it is designed to work well with online versions. It appeals much more to relaxed and indepth reading or where the content just looks better printed. Of course another decade of technological developments could see these slim advantages eroded too.

  2. I think the awkward truth is that, in order to survive, magazines have to become more customer orientated whilst remaining reader orientated.

    Providing feedback on the efficacy of advertising, and editorial content for that matter, would be a great start.

    But combining this with genuine ways of building relationships with the reader, via social media, factory tours, events (not just empty trade exhibitions) and dynamic web sites would be a good start. I haven’t mentioned the given; very high editorial standards.

    Many magazines do one or two of these things, I don’t think anyone does all of them.

    Most of the people I speak to on the commercial side of magazines say they simply can’t afford to do all of these things.

    I think there is a future for print (at least in the foreseeable future) alongside page turning titles and web sites. But I don’t think it’s going to be a pain free future.

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