Magazines: Far different digital disruptions
As a newspaper guy coping with massive disruption in my industry, I hadn’t thought too hard about how the digital revolution was affecting the other big print media, magazines and books. With the troubles we’ve got, who needs more?
Now, however, I’m looking more closely at those other two major print media, and I’m amazed at how different the impact of digital is.
There’s plenty of disruption, but it takes different forms and presents different challenges. On the whole, the damage seems less severe so far, and the new digital growth opportunities seem greater and more accessible.
What’s more, I’m seeing some interesting cues that could help local news media companies morph into healthier and more sustainable models.
Why am I looking at magazines and books? My work at Morris Communications continues to center on the “digital first” and “audience first” transformation of Morris Publishing Group, which we used to call a newspaper company. MPG operates a dozen daily papers, scores of websites and many other print and digital products and advertiser solutions.
But Morris also owns magazine and book companies, and the owners want to make sure those, too, are making the right moves to thrive amid digital disruption. So I’ve been charged, in partnership with Morris EVP of Digital Michael Romaner, with reconnoitering in the magazine and book industries to help those Morris divisions come up with powerful digital strategies.
To that end, we recently attended the independent magazine (I-Mag) conference of the Magazine Publishers of America in Cambridge, MA, and Book Expo America 2012 and the simultaneous International Digital Publishing Forum in New York City.
These brief immersions certainly don’t make me an expert. But after years of dealing with the disruption of newspapers, I saw some huge contrasts between what’s happening to us and what’s happening to magazines and books.
In this post, I’ll summarize what I’m seeing in magazines. In the next one, I’ll look talk about books.
Barely an hour into the magazine conference, it dawned on me: Magazines are all about passions, and those passions are as strong as ever, despite the digital revolution — maybe even stronger. Whether the subject is crocheting, backpacking or barrel-horse racing, their readers are crazy about it. They’re still spending lots of time and often money on it.
The disruption is that digital technologiesare giving these people lots of other ways to scratch their itches. Digital competitors are creating new ways for these enthusiasts to engage, communicate, learn and participate in their subjects of interest. Facebook is one of the biggest — a huge space where enthusiasts can wire themselves into big networks of like-minded people and go at it every day. Magazines still produce great content, but static monthly content can claim only a tiny piece of the user’s attention when interactive content and experiences are available 24/7.
Given that the passion base remains strong, what magazine companies need to do is stop thinking of themselves as special-interest magazine publishers and start thinking of themselves as enablers of passions. They can be infinitely creative about enabling and monetizing those passions using the digital tools now available.
We heard some great examples. Smart magazine companies are using digital tools at the legacy level, to help with print sales and renewals. They’re also using back content, combined with a little new stuff, to assemble narrow-topic single-issue publications (SIPs) and special-interest books (SIBs) priced at $10 or $15 in print, digital or both.
For some, that’s been a gateway to more ambitious e-commerce. When your customers are passionate about an interest, there’s a great opportunity to sell them the stuff they need. It begins, often, with digital archive copies, and it advances to selling digital SIPs and SIBs. From there it goes to selling clothing, gear, tools or other passion-related necessities. Some are also creating and selling interactive apps that can help users in the middle of their activities, like Backpacker’s map-making app.
One company, DRG, now operates two digital catalogs of goods with thousands of SKU’s. Others are going beyond goods into services. Yoga Journal now sells insurance to yoga instructors, and a publisher of horse magazines has acquired a towing service specializing in equine vehicles.
With a combination of these strategies — plus some very creative premium advertising and promotion programs that deliver far more customer engagement than mere print or banner ads — magazine publishers are finding there are new, passion-centered frontiers of opportunity once they start expanding their minds beyond the static, one-way relationships of print.
Magazines vs. newspapers
As I listened to all of this, it struck me how wonderful it would be if newspaper companies could build their digital strategies around passions as strong as these. But news — even local news — just doesn’t generate that kind of interest.
At best, most people think of news as something they want just enough of every day — like breakfast. It’s not something that lights fires inside them — fires about learning, doing, going, competing, etc. News is general, and it’s rarely about about things you can’t wait to get or do more of. So it’s hard to think of new digital news offerings that could drive the kind of digital participation and revenues that passion-based magazines can create.
For the large majority of people, more coverage of traditional news subjects won’t increase their engagement very much — not even with digital enhancements like video, live tweets and Facebook activity. For a few news junkies, these things increase engagement, but for the majority of the population — except when there’s a very compelling major story — it’s overkill.
However, the power of passion COULD be available to newspaper companies. People feel passionate about many aspects of their own lives in the place where they live. Place-based passions are many and varied — family, recreation sports, entertainment, shopping, dining out, home and garden and much, much more. And in this new age of social media, people could generate a large amount of content themselves on these subjects of passion.
If newspaper companies would turn the dial a quarter-turn on their definition of their role, they could set out to become the local convenors and aggregators of large amounts of unique local content that would help people lead more rewarding lives in their own communities.
Dating back several years, there have been efforts in that direction, such as the Bakersfield Californian’s Bakotopia.com and MediaNews’ YourHub.com, and, in some ways, the Chicago Tribune’s TribLocal.com project. But these and most other efforts have been built around more generalized notions of hyperlocal content, not so much around the idea of identifying local user passions and creating richly interactive ways to satisfy them.
I believe that, like magazine companies, newspaper companies could open wider vistas of opportunity for audience growth and engagement — and therefore digital profitability — by redefining themselves as enablers of local passions. There’s a lot more to living in a community than getting the local news. Just spend a few minutes thinking about yourself, and about the things you do to make a satisfying life in the place where you live. News is just a tiny bit of it. No wonder newspaper websites are only managing to capture about .5 percent or less of the web site visits people make in their communities.
In a later blog, I’ll take a look at some things I’ve learned from looking at the digital disruption of the book industry. It’s very different from magazines and very different from newspapers.