Finding Your Place on the Print-to-Digital Spectrum

Article ImageOver the past couple of years, the state of print and digital distribution has felt very similar to a busy cloverleaf highway intersection, with eight lanes speeding in every direction. There were print magazines and newspapers that moved to digital distribution only, such as mental_floss, Floss, Bloomberg Pursuits, and Independent UK. Others maintained a print presence, but reduced their frequency in favor of an amped-up digital presence, including Teen Vogue, Self, and EContent. Roaring into action from the opposite direction were digital publications introducing, or reintroducing, print (such as GOOD and Digiday’s Pulse quarterly).

Then, of course, there were more out-of-the-box models: Paste magazine reintroduced a quarterly print magazine packaged with vinyl; the anti-Brexit New European pop-up magazine that, months later, had yet to pop down; and Spin’s one-time return to print (sponsored by Amazon) in support of the drama series Good Girls Revolt, featuring content that tied back to the show’s 1960s musicscapes. Throw in some coffee-table-book-size editions, crowdfunding, and $20-and-up per issue pricing, and you’ve got some sense of the current print-to-digital-and-back-again spectrum.

Is it fair to say that print is dead? Hardly. But what appears to be needing last rites is the notion of print being sustained primarily by ad sales. In its place is a willingness to experiment and meet the client on the platforms where they already spend time.

Kevin Anderson, founder of media and communications consultancy Ship’s Wheel Media, observes, “Everybody’s desperately trying to find a way to profitability—you could call it experimentation, or desperation.” It’s urgency driven by an acceleration in the downturn of print advertising revenues in 2016. Pew Research Center’s “State of News Media 2016” report found that total advertising revenue among publicly traded companies in the newspaper sector fell almost 8% in 2015; those losses came both on the print and digital side. WPP’s media investment management group GroupM estimates that global magazine ad spending is set to decline 2.6% in 2017, with newspapers taking an even harder hit.

“The shift in 2016 was in people’s optimism around digital ad revenue growth,” says Anderson. “Any growth you’re seeing in digital ad revenue is largely being captured by Facebook and Google.” So publishers are experimenting with diversification of revenue streams, adding digital agencies and events to their revenue portfolios. They’re also seeking to bolster audience revenue streams. However, with magazines such as Pulse costing $395 for four print issues annually, these aren’t the subscription models of yore. Relatively high prices mean publishers must offer a highly compelling, unique print product-—as much a tactile experience as a content channel.

Josh Jackson, editor-in-chief of Paste, has shepherded the magazine through its 2002 founding in print, to ?digital-only in 2010, and back to print again, starting with a March 2017 issue. When the magazine went digital-only, says Jackson, “it wasn’t so much a decision, but a reaction to the forces of the economic downturn.” He  adds, “It didn’t have to do with the readers not liking us. It was that the model of us spending money on the print base and earning it back on advertising no longer worked.”

Jackson says that Paste had treated its digital presence as a bit of an afterthought until that point, so retrenching as a digital-only pub was a sizable transition. Still, it gave the magazine new opportunities, among them the ability to expand coverage to subjects that weren’t as close a fit with the print publication (such as craft beer, tech, and science) and to do longer-form writing on areas it cared about. Post transition, “I’ll always see us as a digital-first publication,” says Jackson. With 5.5 million unique monthly visitors, the pivot seems to have paid off.

So while the decision to reintroduce a quarterly print publication was enticing, Jackson says it needed to be a different experience than the print magazine of 2002. “When the magazine shows up, it should feel special, a more intentional read,” says Jackson. One way to ensure that is the inclusion of a colored vinyl Paste sampler. It’s truly print-magazine-as-experience, as one envisions subscribers settling in to thumb through the silky stock of the magazine’s pages, while their latest mint green vinyl sampler album spins nearby.

Also different from 2002-era print? The funding campaign via Indiegogo, which offered rewards from a single issue at $20 to a $1,000 level featuring passes to the company’s Daytrotter music festival. The campaign significantly overshot its $100,000 fundraising goal, giving Paste editors lots of leeway. “We have the freedom to make this as delightful for readers as possible,” says Jackson.

mental_floss has moved in the opposite direction, shuttering its bimonthly print edition at the end of 2016 in favor of a digital-only presence. For them, it isn’t a sudden shift but a deliberate move toward an area in which they’ve already created audience engagement. Will Pearson, co-founder and president of mental_floss, says, “We’ve been investing heavily in digital and video growth for the past couple of years, and because of the tremendous growth and opportunity on that front, we recognized it was time to complete our transition to a digital media company. The magazine will always be such an important part of how this company built an initial audience, but nothing has changed with our mission to create a terrific blend of knowledge and entertainment.”

Pearson adds, “I think what most publishers are finding in the digital space is that we all have to get better at going where the readers/viewers are—and not just relying on them to come to our sites. Our Instagram feed, for example, is one of my favorite things we do, and it’s something we haven’t been focused on for all that long. That wasn’t something we were thinking about a few years ago, and there will be plenty of new opportunities in the years to come.”

So don’t look for traffic on the print/digital spectrum to clear up anytime soon. Anderson says, “We’re in the first year of pretty chaotic experimentation. Publishers need to think about innovation as it relates to every team in their organization: digital, print, editorial, and commercial.” The alternative is to get caught in an industry pileup. 

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