For years, one of my favorite indicators of social trends has been the magazine rack — specifically, what types of magazines get the most shelf space. In the 1980s, the shelves were full of fitness, career and personal finance titles, reflecting in large part the obsessions of the Baby Boomers in their peak earning years. What I see now are more magazines about crafts and home maintenance.
But that indicator may be losing its usefulness, because as a whole, we’re buying far fewer magazines on the newsstand. The The Pew Research Center’s State of the Media 2011 report, using numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, shows that for the past three years, single copy sales have dropped an average of 9.5% per year. The good news (if you can call it that) is that the rate of decline has slowed a bit: In 2008, it was 11.15%, and in 2010 it was 8.2%. But there’s no way to describe single copy sales as healthy.
Overall circulation declines have been more modest – 1.05% in 2008, 2.23% in 2009 and 1.5% in 2010. Of the Big Three news weeklies (Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report), only Time can be described as reasonably healthy. US News has given up on resuming life as a print title, and Newsweek ended up getting sold by $1, though it is still business, being run by The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown.
Ultimately, much of this is about phones. With more Smart Phones and tablets handy, travelers no longer need to visit the magazine rack to avoid being bored on a long flight. A Kindle or tablet (or a phone with a Kindle or book application) can have hundreds of books and magazines available with no added weight, and most of it can be read on a plane with no data connection. Add to that the rising cost of paper copies — $7 or more for most magazines — and it’s hard to see a bright future for them.
Around 1982, the entire staff of The Birmingham News crowded into a room for a mandatory meeting. A consultant — an expert on media trends — held up a copy of the newly created USA Today.
“This,” he said, “is the most thoroughly researched newspaper ever created in America. This is where the industry is going.” The front page was littered with headlines, teasers and graphics. The consultant held up a copy of The Birmingham News next to it. It looked hopelessly gray and old fashioned.
From a technology perspective, the timing was perfect. Like The News, many newspapers had installed offset presses, which made it much easier to use color throughout the paper. And our research had been telling for years that the attention span of readers was growing shorter. USA Today took this research to its logical conclusion, with tons of color and short articles. Soon, our newspaper — like many across the United States — looked a lot like USA Today.
Last week, USA Today itself announced a major overhaul, de-emphasizing its print edition and cutting about 130 workers. Here’s how Editor John Hillkirk described it: “We’ll focus less on print … and more on producing digital content for all platforms.”
According to The Washington Post, USA Today has suffered declines in readership and advertising along with the rest of the industry. Circulation, once the nation’s largest at 2.3 million, is down to 1.83 million, and advertising is down about 50 percent.
“We have to go where the audience is. If people are hitting the iPad like crazy, or the iPhone or other mobile devices, we’ve got to be there with the content they want, when they want it,” Hillkirk said.
While I’ve been suggesting for a couple of years that the future of news was in the handset, I think that matter is settled. Statistics on press releases going out from my agency indicate that the number of people reading the news on handsets may well exceed the number accessing news on desktops and laptops.
There are still a lot of questions, of course. One of the biggest is whether we’ll access the news through handsets or through a browser. Right now, practically every major news outlet has its own app, and my own Android has a bunch of them installed. However, I’m finding that I can zip through the news more quickly by reading pages in a browser, rather than launching a series of apps.
Finally, there’s the question of how and how much we’ll pay for the news content. One school of thought is that we’ll pay for the apps, or perhaps pay a recurring charge to use them. Or the answer could be one of the dozens of payment schemes currently being tested. Or it could well be that we haven’t even hit upon the answer yet.
Jan. 30, 2010.
That’s the magic date on which my contract is up and I can trade in my old Blackberry Curve on a shiny new iPhone – unless something shinier comes along. I haven’t anticipated anything this much since Windows 95.
As almost any iPhone fanatic will tell you (they all seem to turn fanatic the day they get them), the new phones are all about the apps – little applications that let you do everything but shine your shoes. It has a Kindle App that lets you subscribe to newspapers and magazines, reading them much more easily than you can in a handheld browser. Barnes & Noble has one too. As far as I can see, the B&N app doesn’t carry news yet, but that’s inevitable.
I’ve been saying for a few months that I expect handhelds to play a major role in providing a way for newspapers to charge for content. I was starting to think the idea had lost energy until I saw Steve Outing’s column on Editor & Publisher.
I don’t agree with Outing’s assertion that it’s the app itself that will energize the consumer; I think it’s the convenience. But that’s a quibble. If it’s in your hand and you’re paying money that goes back to the people who write the news, what else matters?
As we talk about the shift from print to online news reporting, we tend to overlook the fact that there are virtually no barriers to entry for those wanting to start up news sites. Anybody with a few bucks (a couple of skipped lunches can cover the cost for a year if you know what you’re doing) can register a web domain, install a copy of WordPress and start cranking out something that at least looks like journalism. Read the rest of this entry »
Even on the surface, newspaper and magazine ad revenues are grim — down 7.9% in 2007 and 16.7% in 2008. And we’re probably looking at declines of 30% for 2009. While some of that is cyclical, much of it is permanent. Classifieds that have gone to Monster, Craigslist, Ebay and real estate sites aren’t coming back. Advertisers have formed new habits.
Columbia Journalism Review’s Ray Chittum spent some time with the Newspaper Association of America numbers I wrote about the other day and adjusted them for inflation. Once that’s taken into account, you have to go all the way back to 1965 to find a year when things were so lousy for publications. You can read Chittum’s article here.
We haven’t heard a lot from the magazines lately, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’re getting thinner. And Newsweek says it will skip an issue in August. Since the magazine has traditionally skipped an issue in August anyway, that’ll make it a biweekly for the month.
Meanwhile, how does one explain the remarkable success of The Economist? According to Michael Hirschorn’s excellent article in the current Atlantic, The Economist’s ad revenues rose 25 percent in 2008, while Newsweek’s fell by 27 percent and Time’s fell by 14 percent. Most amazing of all is that The Economist has focused almost entirely on its print product, with a clumsy and disorganized web presence. Read the rest of this entry »
BusinessWeek’s going to try to to sell a repackaged version of content that will remain free on its web site.
According to the MediaWeek story, Businessweek.com General Manager Roger Neal said the content would be the same as that available for free, but paid subscribers would get a “different experience” of the content. Among other things, it will be more “print-like” and users will get instant access.
I don’t want to criticize this effort sight unseen, but I’m a skeptic. Forbes and Fortune are both selling subscriptions via Kindle, and people seem to be willing to pay a small amount for the convenience. But paying just for “different experience” on the desktop? I’m not betting the rent money on that.
As noted repeatedly over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling for quite a while to identify the future business model that will ensure the continuity of the quality reporting that makes our form of democracy possible.
Since the bloodshed we saw in the first quarter of 2009, all sorts of ideas have emerged — micropayments, low-rate subscriptions, you name it. But for the first time in a couple of years I’m ready to venture a guess (that’s all it is) as to what shape it may take, and I think it has little or nothing to do with your desktop and even your laptop.
I now think it will be driven by a future generation of hardware. If I knew what it would look like and had a few billion dollars to develop it, I’d be the next Bill Gates. But I’m thinking it will be some hybrid between two products now on the market: Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPhone. Read the rest of this entry »
The first time I ever heard of Conde Nast Portfolio was when two years ago, when Luisa Kroll, then an associate editor for Forbes.com, sent me an email saying she was jumping ship for an exciting new magazine opportunity.
It was exciting, but the timing felt all wrong. A big, slick business magazine, just as the world was seriously buying into digital? I feared it wouldn’t have enough “time and space” in the marketplace define and capture its audience.
As it turns out, I was right. From the very start, other media (possibly with impure intentions) criticized CNP for its lack of focus, and yesterday, after a meeting with Advance Publications Chairman Samuel I. (SI) Newhouse, Editor Joan Lipman assembled the staff to tell them the May issue would be their last.
BusinessWeek’s Jon Fine summarized the failure this way: “Conde Nast made a classic mistake of spotting a consumer magazine ‘opportunity’ based on advertising and demographic considerations, not actual reader demand. (And judging from the last few years’ worth of ad pages at most business titles, there may have been too many of them on newsstands even before Portfolio launched.) It debuted at the end of a business boom, not at the beginning of one. It came at a time when business is a moment-by-moment bloodsport uniquely unsuited to being chronicled by a leisurely monthly frequency.”