Digital First: Putting the Print Model Behind You

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When Newsweek announced last year it would be scrapping its print edition after nearly 80 years and migrating fully to the web, it represented the latest example of what appears to be the print world's approach to the inroads of digital: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

2012 saw major daily news­papers such as New Orleans' The Times-Picayune and Alabama's Birmingham News shift their focus largely to the web, while reducing their printed editions to 3 days a week instead of 7 days. Meanwhile, in the book world, publishing houses such as Penguin Group and Kensington Publishing Corp.-while still very much maintaining their print presence-launched digital imprints, and another digital-only publisher, Bookouture, also started up.

The increased focus on digital is perhaps not surprising, given the increased ability of Americans to tap into the digital world from, well, wherever. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project from the Pew Research Center, 45% of Americans owned a smartphone as of September 2012, up from 35% in May 2011. Pew Internet also reports that the number of people with either a tablet computer or an e-reader climbed from 18% in late 2011 to 33% in late 2012.

In the Oct. 24, 2012, edition of Newsweek, editor-in-chief Tina Brown wrote that this adoption of digital was part of what was driving the iconic newsmagazine's move to the internet. She stated a recent comScore, Inc. report "brings us the sobering-or exhilarating-news that two out of every five Americans now read newspapers and magazines on mobile devices. These readers, and there are more and more of them every day, simply bypass print."

It's an audience Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer of U.S. News & World Report, is well familiar with. Since January 2011, the newsmagazine has been a web-only presence. The switch to digital, Kelly says, has been "a great success"--and was also a long time in coming.

Digital First, Print Later

"We decided about five years ago that the print advertising and circulation business model was going to be a losing proposition for us," Kelly says. "At the same time, we saw that our online audience was growing. We didn't have a reader problem; we had a business problem. So we decided to change the business model, phase out of print and grow in the digital world."

U.S. News & World Report had already been a part of that digital world since the mid-1990s, when the magazine launched USNews.com. Kelly describes the website as "more of a boutique web portal with a variety of products," including an education channel, a car channel, and more. At the end of 2010, U.S. News & World Report decided to make a digital version of the magazine one of these products. Those with subscriptions to the print model were offered the digital one for free, and newcomers could subscribe on USNews.com.

Kelly describes the offering-called U.S. News Weekly-as "essentially the news portion of our old magazine." It goes to subscribers on Friday mornings; most of the content is exclusive through the weekend, Kelly says, and then starts to appear on the website the following week.

Kelly admits the subscription base for U.S. News Weekly tends to be older: "[O]ur younger readers just go to the website, or, increasingly, to mobile." He theorizes this is because "older readers still value a packaged, magazine-style product."

Overall, Kelly seems pleased with the success of the digital magazine, though he stresses it's but one piece of a much larger pie. The digital magazine is "a great product," Kelly says, "but it's so far just a small portion of our audience. We have about 50,000 subscribers now and we're seeing some nice growth on the iPad. But our online audience is now more than 15 million unique visitors a month. Our peak in print [which came in the early 1990s] was about 2.5 million subscribers."

Ditching the print magazine has also been a financial win for the company. "When we made the switch, more than half of our revenue was coming from online," Kelly says. "Leaving print saved us a lot of money and we started making a profit again about a year into the switch."

Kelly admits there are fewer people employed by U.S. News & World Report than there used to be-although it's not all related to abandoning the print format. Starting in 2004, Kelly says, the company began integrating its editorial staffs. "We were fortunate to realize pretty early on that having separate web and print staffs made no sense," he says. Since that time, the overall staff size at the company has decreased by about 50%.

"The change wasn't just moving from one platform to another; it was a rethinking of what were our core values and products," Kelly says. "We're a news and information brand, not an ink-on-paper newsmagazine. We focused on what we did well and cut back on things that other people were doing better.

"In the 80 years U.S. News has been around, one of our core values has always been the ‘news you can use' concept-news and information crafted with the reader's needs in mind," Kelly adds. "That's where a lot of our big data projects, such as the Best Colleges rankings [a popular annual report issued by the company], come from. It turns out that that kind of content, information that helps people make decisions, works wonderfully well online."

Another national publication-daily newspaper The Christian Science Monitor-opted to keep a toe in the ink-and-paper world when it flipped the digital switch in 2008. That year, the company scrapped the print newspaper, and "essentially redefined" it as the company's website, CSMonitor.com, according to Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma. But a once-a-week magazine, The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, was also launched, "to satisfy readers who wanted a less fast-paced reading experience than [what] the web offered," Yemma says. He says the magazine "differs significantly" from what readers would find on CSMonitor.com.

"The value in it to readers is that it has a higher level of editorial filtering and presentation," he says. "It is much more of a lean-back experience than the web. The web is much more in-the-moment."

Yemma says 92% of subscribers to the daily version of Christian Science Monitor opted for the weekly print magazine when the company made the shift. He notes subscribers to the weekly tend to be on the older side, but, he adds, "[W]hile older readers are indeed less comfortable with computers, that has been changing because of the ubiquity of computers, wi-fi, tablets, and smartphones. I suspect in a few years the digital divide based on age will have vanished."

Scaling back the company's print presence has definitely helped the bottom line, Yemma adds. "Print costs-paper, ink, printing, distribution, marketing, production and customer service-are substantial. They fell dramatically when we went from five days a week to one day," Yemma says. "The loss of ad revenue was more than compensated for by the loss of these costs."

"The added benefit was that our workforce was freed from the old-school assembly line of daily print," Yemma says. "That energized our website. Over the past four years, that has brought about huge growth in our web traffic"-from 5 million page views a month to 50 million.

However, Yemma admits there was a "significant adjustment" involved for the newsroom when the paper switched from a daily editorial cycle to a more 24/7 web presence. "We supported the transition by constantly experimenting and adopting best practices in web-first journalism," Yemma says. He says the company brought in a new content management system, eZ Publish, to "democratize access to the web," and also hired SEO specialists "to help everyone learn what works and what doesn't." Also, Yemma says, "We gave everyone access to daily traffic reports and set traffic goals for news departments."

Ultimately, after all the changes were made, Yemma wound up with a product he's very happy with. Yemma notes, "[E]very year for the past four years we have beaten our budget estimate. We are on a path to break even by 2017."

While the scaling back of the print product and the increased focus on the web has been a success, and Yemma says "everyone is encouraged," The Christian Science Monitor is not going to simply rest on its laurels.

"There's no dancing in the end zone and there probably never will be," Yemma says. "We are constantly striving to improve the quality of what we do. We are seeking deeper engagement and we know that we are in an industry that is in constant flux, so we will always need to adapt to new news consumption patterns, new technologies, and new economic conditions."

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