Yesterday I read the second article in two weeks speculating about the future of print media. The hook for both came from declarations by media executives about how they’re committed to the strength of print, and bullish about its future.
Both reports were fine -- fair and disinterested. But when the premise is that print will be an engine for media growth, forgive me for being skeptical. I’ve heard it all before.
The impetus was the announcement last month that magazine-media giant Dotdash Meredith is closing the print editions of six iconic magazines, including InStyle, Entertainment Weekly, Eating Well and People en Espanol. In a memo to the staff, CEO Neil Vogel said, “Naysayers will interpret this as another nail in print’s coffin. They couldn’t be more wrong — print remains core to Dotdash Meredith.”Out of that came an Axios article headlined “Digital giants eye magazines to spur growth,” and follow-on analysis from the excellent media-industry website and newsletter A Media Operator.
The articles themselves were balanced, pointing out the struggles that print media has endured for more than a decade. But the premise of both leaned on Vogel’s statement and those of some others, to the effect that it’s easier now to migrate print brands to digital.
(It’s interesting, too, that most of the executives who show up in the media extolling print are methodically shifting their centers of gravity to digital.)
The challenge, in my view, is that observations about print’s rosy future are just well-intentioned wishful thinking. They’re PR-based air cover for later decisions that will surely come. Of course the owner of People magazine believes in the power of print. It’s certainly still true that for some major consumer-magazine brands, print revenue is the single-biggest revenue stream. It’s also true, as I wrote in December, that print-magazine launches doubled last year from the prior year.
None of this matters. In the near term and the long term, print will continue to recede.
The more telling statement in Vogel’s memo was this: “It is not news to anyone that there has been a pronounced shift in readership and advertising from print to digital, and as a result, for a few important brands, print is no longer serving the brand’s core purpose.”
More than anything else, that accurately signals print’s future. If print no longer serves a brand’s core purpose for some of Dotdash Meredith’s most important titles, how will it serve the remainder? Vogel’s qualifier, “for a few important brands,” is surely ebbing.
The evidence of this is everywhere and has been for more than a decade. It’s staggering how many truly great magazine brands have reduced frequency or flat-out shut down in this century. The trend will accelerate. Often, when magazines close down in recent years, their owners hedge. “We’re keeping print alive through occasional special editions and annuals,” they’ll say. And that’s fine.
But great magazine-media brands no longer require a print component to establish gravitas and credibility. Many great digital media brands — in many markets — are strong and producing revenue and millions of readers. Consider that of the top 20 news destinations online, only five are linked to a print brand, with the highest, The New York Times, at number eight.
Going forward, the growth is in digital media. Print’s future is niche. It’s fine to keep a print magazine as long as it’s generating first-party data and profit. But when the cost exceeds the value derived -- and this is the great secular trend in magazines -- it will certainly reduce frequency slowly or shut down.