Is Publishing On the Verge of Digital's Watershed Moment?

By Bob Sacks on August 22, 2014

3 factors that will lead to digital's eclipse of print as the dominant source of magazine media revenue

There is an odd form of delusion in the publishing world, characterized by a resistance to reason in the face of actual facts. This inability to recognize modern business trends is easy for most Millennials to understand, but hard for many magazine traditionalists to reconcile. It is the concept of print's current and future position in the grand scheme of revenue production in the information distribution industry. You see, the cause of this misunderstanding is that print is still the major source of revenue for most traditional publishers and that colors their thinking, even as paper-produced revenues on the whole continue to steadily decline.

To be very clear, the future of our industry and our ability to make an honest living is digital. The only real question on that subject is when the watershed moment of digital supremacy will arrive. I think that when we look back at the end of 2014 we will see that that moment is happening now.

Obviously there are many digital only publishers today who are already making a fortune in territory that was once a print-dominated field. Newspapers, news magazines, and assorted niche publications used to rule the info-sphere. Now sites like BuzzfeedOpens in a new windowVoxOpens in a new windowUpworthyOpens in a new windowFlipboardOpens in a new window, and many others satisfy the public's thirst for news as it happens. It makes perfect sense that "news" would be the first to fall to the digital axe and behead journalism as we once knew it. Over time our perception of news has changed. Now news isn't news if it is in any way not of an immediate nature. It wasn't always that way. In colonial days news took six weeks to cross the Atlantic and when it got here, it was well received as real news, true, and valuable. Now we receive news of events as they happen in real-time, which is something that no paper-sourced delivery can ever hope to contend with.

Yet even taking those new successful news sites into consideration, the predominant method of generating revenue for traditional publishers is, for the moment, their print products. There are three main contributors to the headspace of this pulp addiction and all are easy to understand. 

1. A Dwindling Romance with Print 
The first factor is the love of the printed form itself. Those that love the format were for the most part born into the era of print. At its most basic, print appears to those with a generational bias that it is at the top of the technological food chain.

This thinking blinds many into a feeling that this is it—we have reached the ultimate moment in the technology of the reading experience and it can't be improved upon. But history shows that this is never the case, and in a while we will learn that our time period and our technologies are just as quaint and just as dated as every other time period past. Any vintage photo that shows an old-fashioned moment in life was, at the time, likely taken with the absolute peak of the medium's technology.

2. A Rising Digital Conversion Rate
The second factor, and arguably the most important in the confusion over the relevant substrate, is money. Why would you willfully transition to a digital product when most of your current revenue is from print? And rate at which a publication converts its print audience to a digital audience is greatly dependent upon the subject matter of the publication and the technological bias of its median reader. Magazines have always been social media based around attracting likeminded groups into their publications' networks of printed products. Each of these social groups has a different and common technology adaption curve. Naturally, or so it seems, the readers of computer magazines were the first to migrate to digital-only publications, while the print readers of AARP and the Watchtower still remain in the multiple tens of millions.

3. Ease of Access
I think the last hurdle in this confused mess is about the ease of access. Physical magazines are increasingly harder to get due to decades-old and still declining newsstand efficiencies combined with postal pricing insecurities that continue to chip away at the health and affordability of print. But the digital newsstand is, from this reporter's perspective, in equally horrible shape. 

The idea of any single, easy-to-use, easy-to-find, digital newsstand where any publisher could display newly created digital magazines for sale and reach a paying readership is a bit of a naïve concept. It overlooks the greed of the digital access giants like Apple, Google, and Amazon who don't want to make it easy, because they each want to fight each other to get it all. 

Yet, I think the delusions in the publishing industry are nearing an end. The exaggerated love of the printed form will diminish over time as new readers, born into the age of screens, grow into the full majority of buyers of the written word. The revenue issues will self-resolve as print gets harder and more cumbersome to contend with, while digital increasingly becomes not only easier to use but also ubiquitous, and the digital newsstand and discoverability issues get resolved by better platforms for easy distribution and a more technologically sophisticated readership. 

By Bob Sacks| August 22, 2014

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Bob Sacks

Bob Sacks

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