There’s been an undercurrent for some years now about the decline and even death of print—print magazines in particular—and how the rise of social platforms and Google dangerously undercut the business model of media.
Part of that narrative has been that media companies are engaging with the enemy when they use the social platforms, because those platforms are out to benefit no one but those themselves: they’re profit and growth-driven companies bent on domination, not altruism.
That undercurrent transformed into a cascade in the last month or so. It was precipitated by several things: the highly unusual departure of four big-name magazine editors within a week; plus the deaths of two magazine icons, Hugh Hefner and SI Newhouse; plus the impending divestiture of Rolling Stone magazine by Jan Wenner; plus the never-ending saga of decline and turmoil at Time Inc. This week’s installment was the news that the company is cutting the size and frequency of some of its biggest brands—including Time magazine (being cut by a third), and Sports Illustrated (reducing by nine issues).
It was in this context that this week’s Folio: Show sought to provide not just a whole slew of insights, innovations, tips, tactics, best practices and takeaways, but also, importantly, context. At our CEO Summit on Monday, an extraordinarily wide range of speakers told of innovations, challenges, successes and priorities for 2018 and beyond. Kevin Novak, chief of 2040 Digital, outlined must-do strategies for digital and tech-oriented strategies. Fara Warner, the VP of custom content at Dow Jones, described this fast-growing area of media, and how to forge meaningful partnerships with marketers, while retaining a true editorial voice for the parent brand. Hearst’s Kate Kelly Smith led a lively conversation around internal sales team structures and maximizing relationships with advertisers. Spotlight Media’s Mike Dragosavich, publisher of Fargo (North Dakota) magazine and other brands, told the entrepreneur’s tale of bootstrapping and resourcefulness in media startups. Scholastic’s Hugh Roome told of engaging in new ways with readers, even with iconic brands that have endured for decades.
And keynoter Jason Calacanis, in a very provocative closing session, talked about the threat of the duopoly—Facebook and Google. Well, actually, he didn’t talk about the threat—for him, it was more the reality of what’s actually happening. He contends that Google and Facebook are destroying media companies in a systematic way. Print advertising, he points out, has declined to levels not seen since 1975. Digital advertising spend is dominated by Facebook and Google.
“Facebook & Google don’t care about us, our industry, or this cow,” he said in one slide. “Don’t trust them!”
Instead, the future of media is in direct relationships with audiences, Calacanis said, centered around five principles:
- Keep costs low.
- Be absurdly focused.
- Challenge your audience to pay.
- Don’t trust intermediaries, bypass them.
- Stop giving free content to Google, Facebook and Snapchat.
In a time of prolonged uncertainty around the business model, the pontificators are coming out of the woodwork, sometimes with great insights, other times with superficial pabulum. You have the print proponents. You have the “brand safety” proponents. You have the “support our mission” media. And the digital true believers. But no one really knows what will have become of Facebook or Snapchat in 10 years, or whether Google will be viewed as a tech laggard in 2027—sort of like Microsoft was in the first decade after the emergence of the internet. Bill Gates, of course, famously dismissed the impact of the internet and the behemoth of the eighties and early nineties became—for a while—a mere also ran.
But there was a moment in the Folio: Eddie and Ozzie Awards on Wednesday that clarified the current media climate for me. The room was packed with media brands like Baltimore Magazine, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, The American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Aramco World, New York Police Department, Insurance NewsNet, Builder Magazine and literally hundreds of others. And they were just the select finalists in an awards program that attracts thousands of entries.
And I thought, having heard Calacanis’ remarks just two days earlier, that literally all of these thousands of brands are in fact now doing exactly what Calacanis recommended. That under the radar, below the froth and the prognosticating, exist the survivors of the digital upheaval—the brands that don’t get the attention, are not considered part of the usual dialog when it comes to media disruption.
But they’re there, and doing well.