Clients of my advertising sales and consulting company publish a wide array of periodicals, from specialized small circulation scientific digital journals to highly-regarded printed consumer magazines, newsletters, and everything in between. We often discuss publishing formats. Just a few years ago, it looked as if digital publishing would push print aside and that publishers would be able to avoid paying the high costs of paper, printing and postage. But print refused to die. Why? Some readers want printed magazines.
What is the job to be done? Our clients try to determine what their readers need and expect; to discover the options available for meeting those needs now; and to forecast what the most suitable solutions will be in the future. For example, digital solutions have been tremendously helpful to academic publishers, who can now distribute small circulation journals relatively inexpensively. Considering the high costs of small batch print processing and mailing (especially for international subscribers), digital subscriptions are often the only option that makes sense for those readers. If the content is both timely and important, those readers will pay attention when they receive email notifications that the new issues are available. On the other hand, if it is not essential that they stay on top of new issues, nothing is lost if they go directly into a research library, because digital searches are so quick and easy when the information is required. To a large extent, the readers’ needs dictate the format.
How are print magazines different? The physical presence of magazines requires that something be done with them when they arrive; they must be handled in some way, and they persist until they are read, shared, filed or discarded. This characteristic of printed copies can benefit both consumer and business-to-business magazines. High-quality magazines are often considered by their readers to be authoritative; they lend articles in them a certain gravitas. Some magazines are so beautifully designed and printed that they are kept for their aesthetic value.
Some publishers make both printed and digital issues available to their subscribers at no additional cost, or only a small incremental cost. Their subscribers can enjoy the best of both formats.
Is print easier to read? Except for hard-core technophiles, most people probably would agree that print is simply easier to read with today’s technology. It is easier to digest printed material (which is why many college students print out chapters of their digital textbooks for serious study). Printed magazines are portable and do not require any hardware to read them. Batteries never run out and they arrive with all the data loaded; there is no waiting for a 200 MB file to download. Magazines can be read in all sorts of environments, including the bathtub. And, for some people, print is a more familiar, comfortable experience.
Digital flexibility. On the other hand, digital issues can be searched electronically making them especially useful for subject matter that has a certain evergreen quality to it. Technically literate readers comfortable with digital media may be more likely to avail themselves of digital editions that offer lower subscription costs or quicker delivery. Also, fonts can be adjusted for better visibility, which can be a real benefit for readers with vision problems.
Both formats have advantages. However, as useful as digital editions can be, there is no evidence that a majority of consumers prefer to read only digital editions now, or will in the future, unless there is no print alternative. In fact, among all consumer magazines only a handful of titles even approach 10% digital-only subscriptions when they offer both print and digital alternatives. Because the job to be done for many publications in in the business to business world is different, those publishers may have found that digital-only works better for them.
What happened to tablets? Since Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, they have sold more than 250 million units worldwide through January 2015. In 2015, unit sales of all kinds of tablets passed the number of PCs, but the worldwide tablet market is now in decline (-7% Q2 Year over Year; -3.9% Q1 YoY).
From the beginning, many publishers were excited by the promises of the new technology. Following the financial shocks of the recession, tablet technology seemed to offer a way to return to profitability quickly, allowing publishers to slash costs by eliminating the expenses for paper, printing and mailing, while retaining subscription and advertising revenue. Publishers wanted to meet advertising agencies’ demands for more and better metrics (downloads, opens, time spent). At first, there was reason for optimism, as many readers eagerly downloaded magazines from apps on their tablets.
With these apps, readers could download issues to carry with them everywhere. They could carry a whole library of past issues and they could expand graphics and link directly to sources, as well as copying, pasting and sharing all or parts of articles with others. The only problem is that tablet readership remains small compared to print.
Apps vs. Web magazines? Publishers soon discovered that there were different ways to publish digitally. Digital magazine apps had their own set of problems. Publishers had to pay fees to software providers for design and to digital newsstands for distribution. The content could not be found through web searches and different types of reader software required different apps. Another approach was to create a more user-friendly web magazine hosted on the publisher’s site. Apps seem to be winning that race so far.
Tablet editions. Many tablet editions were simply replicas of the print version, but there was also much experimentation with formats that promised to enhance the user experience through native applications that made use of touchscreen capabilities such as scrolling, pinch to zoom, click-through and video. Unfortunately, some of the most interesting of these experiments have been shut down (e.g., The Magazine and Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily). After five years, tablet editions still represent only a small part of total magazines sold.
In fact, over the past couple of years there has been a trend going the opposite way; digital publishers are starting print magazines. Newsweek now publishes in print after a brief digital-only phase. So do publishers like the following, which were formerly digital-only:
Publishers: keep adjusting! In a time when one disruptive technology displaces another even before the market even has a chance to become familiar with the first, it would be foolhardy to predict total dominance for one format or another. Both print and digital technologies possess their own advantages. Readers will adopt the technologies that get the job done for them in each particular situation. Sometimes readers will choose one over the other; sometimes they will choose both. It will be important for publishers to keep talking with readers to ensure they provide access to content in the forms their readers prefer.