I think Time, Inc. CEO Joe Ripp had it right when he said Time, Inc. is not just a magazine publishing company but is now considered a content company. (He used the words “content powerhouse.”) It may or may not be a powerhouse but it certainly defines the way traditional magazine companies must redefine themselves for the future. All magazines in print form will not perish. But most of them will shrink substantially in circulation and audience in their current form -- and believing that the digital tablet will save the industry is folly.
I remember what happened to the weekly Life magazine (a Time, Inc. publication) back in the early ‘70s. Life, as a picture magazine, was the window to the world. Until television came along and became the video window to the world. Life tried for a time (actually quite a time) to compete with TV (going to special issues and then transitioning monthly) but it was impossible to succeed. Today, the industry and all magazine publishing companies cannot wait any longer to figure out how they will present themselves in the digital age and what steps must be taken to revaluate their assets and make major changes in their operations.
Most magazines do have great content that consumers want. But the nature of the content, how it’s presented and the method of distribution must also morph into something quite different. Certainly distribution for those that continue to publish will have to alter traditional means because it will not be profitable. Subscriptions (discounted heavily) never did cover the cost of freight, printing and production without substantial advertising revenue. And as readership continues to decline in hard copy form, single copy sales won’t produce the scale needed to shore up the shrinkage. Clearly an abnormal increase in single copy cover price (or a further reduced discount in subscriptions) won’t take hold.
So what happens now? Most important is knowing how to distribute content on the Web. Realistically it probably means changing some of the content and presenting it differently. Understanding how readers consume content on the Internet, in length and personal interest as well as mobility, is critical. It’s not a simple translation of print to digital. Attention span, engagement, interactivity and relevance to “time and place” is different than casually reading a magazine in or out of home. As Yogi Berra so aptly put it, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
Content distribution on the web is also essential through as many platforms as possible. Driving traffic to websites, creating apps, in-bound links from related sites, social media, etc. is, of course, important to build audiences. But whether there are paywalls or just advertising support (also confronting ad blocking) or a combination of both, it also requires a comprehensive monetization of the business.
Some magazine publishing companies have closed down their print property entirely for digital only publication. And in certain cases it makes the most sense. Others have decided to keep their print product, even in smaller scope, and will add an integrated digital product sold either separately or in combination. Few have made a decision to remain exclusively in print. (Those that do go that route would, in my opinion, still need a presence on the web as well as an app.)
Whatever the decision, surely content is king. Then the consideration must be how many distribution platforms and in what form the content will take (native advertising aside). Private exchanges, premium inventory and programmatic ad buying are already going over the horizon. Every magazine publishing company must know this. And, of course, growth must be profitably monetized. But, adopting the right strategy with the right staff is an immediate requirement. Otherwise, the right acquirer will be needed to change the game.
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