The Answer to Publishing's Enigma of Survival

By Bob Sacks on January 28, 2015

Many of the people who read this blog are in one way or another devoted to the process of print. Some of them are printers, some of them are publishers and most of them have a strong and deep bias, which is clearly and understandably centered around making a profitable living. In fact, we all, regardless of what our profession is, have a biased point of view that is skewed by our need to make a living. In this discussion I am not in any way saying a bias is wrong, just that it exists and aids us in forming our opinions.

Actually this bias comes twofold. Not only is it based on our need to make a living and feed the family, but also to be in our comfort zone. This comfort zone is, for the most part, like Mom's cooking. By that I mean that the things we learned early when we were growing up are filled with a nostalgia that makes us feel most comfortable with what we knew and experienced then, something along the lines of Mom's cooking.  If you didn't grow up in an internet era your comfort in it is less than the screenager who has never experienced lack of instant access to any and all information.

My friend Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, Ph.D. who is the founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism, is filled with bias and exuberance about the printed magazine. He finds and counts every new magazine he canOpens in a new window and declares the wonderfulness of the magazine business. His love and bias for the product is infectious and fun to watch. And it is the grand diversity of the ever diminishing magazine product that will continue to keep Samir and my printer friends busy for many years to come. 

In fact most of my printer friends are doing quite well, even in an age where the printed magazine is in decline. And that is one of the main points of this essay. A fair and honest profit is still achievable in a greatly declining market for printer and publisher alike. I say bully for them that can continue to stay afloat and be at the top of their game when page counts are in a steady and predictable decline.

But, you knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? The majority of the reading public is leaving print behind. Even major magazine media associations are focused on the digital future of making a profit from reading and not on the ways in which we operated in the past. 

I have said many times that print and printed magazines are not going to go away, but their numbers will increasingly become smaller. I am starting to think that the very format of the magazine, whether print or digital, is also in decreasing demand by the public.

Five years into the venture of offering digital magazines, Next Issue Media's Morgan Guenther, the company's chief executive officer says, "No one has heard of us." Guenther suggests that the number of subscribers is "well into the hundreds of thousands." I am very suspect of that comment and wonder, how much of those are actually paid by the consumer and how much of the "hundreds of thousands" are sponsored? We don't know. It is surely worth reporting that Next Issue just raised $50 million from the private equity firm KKR and is preparing for a big marketing push. This will perhaps help, but I expect the resulting numbers to be underwhelming.

It seems that the mobile platform is increasingly the platform of choice for most readers, and it will continue to alter the future of the magazine format. The magazine industry will by necessity sell their product by the single article and not by the curated group of reading materials as in the past. The single article sales platform will include audio, video and reading components once known as articles. It is possible to foresee subscriptions to total niches that include articles from multiple publishing sources and not the traditional magazine concept. This would align with formats like Google news, a listing of articles from multiple publishers offered as a one source shopping spot for news, entertainment, and instructional/enthusiast "articles".

So, now back to the bias discussion. Is it possible that we publishers have a bias for the format of a traditional magazine? In the 21st century, is it possible that curation of reading materials will be distributed in a format other than the old-style magazine format? From my observations that seems to be a strongly developing trend.

Take your pick from Facebook to Buzzfeed, from Circa to Upworthy, from Printerest to the web pages of People and Time -- these reading experiences are not formatted as traditional magazines. Facebook has a billion people reading without pagination as we understand it. There are indeed pages in those reading platforms, but not a single folio.

These observations do not in any way sound a death knell for print or for printed magazines. But they are a suggestion that the predominant way we will read and gather information is not only digital, but unhinged from the concept of continuous pages. Is it possible to imagine that, for the most part, the public's reading will not be as our forefathers read?

The lineal, multi-article, traditional experience is changing to a non-lineal, three-dimensional collection of editorial material organized by both humans and algorithms that change for the individual person by the second. Every editorial offering will be delivered as a unique and ever-changing personal assortment of information and entertainment. The only exception to these new rules of publishing will be books. They are exempt from this observation, as the book format demands traditional styled and numbered pages, be they print or digital.


By Bob Sacks| January 28, 2015

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Bob Sacks

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