Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The death rattle of the periodical?

This offer came in the mail last week, and it got me thinking.

The slow death of print media

I devoured magazines as a child. There was Highlights, Cricket, National Geographic, National Geographic World, and Boys Life to name a few. By high school my taste had shifted to Mustangs Monthly, Muscle Mustangs and Fast Fords, Motor Trend, Car & Driver, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Guitar Player, Guitar World, Acoustic Guitar, Rolling Stone, etc.

I read a TON of magazines -- and I never got rid of any of them. (That was a bad habit picked up from my father who still had every issue of Byte magazine ever published in his garage when my parents moved in 2005.)

During and after college, I was somewhat transient, moving at least once a year to various dormitories, apartments, rental houses, etc. Storage became a premium -- as did my hard earned cash.

The magazine subscriptions ended, and the only magazines that remained in my closet were the various guitar magazines that had tablature in them.

Having graduated college with a journalism degree in 2000 and already having learned that I couldn't stand the incredibly large egos of incredibly fat disc jockeys, my next choice was to land a job with some glossy magazine where I could spend my days writing about sleek cars or hanging out with the coolest guitarists around, I applied to magazine after magazine. Unfortunately (or fortunately considering the current market) none of them were looking to hire some out of state guy with no experience. Thus rejected, off I went into newspapers, and the rest is history.

Early in the decade, print was already having a problem. Ethical lines started being crossed as advertisers demanded coverage of their interests. Rolling Stone actually published an article about Ford threatening to withdraw all advertising if their bands and special concert series weren't highlighted in the articles. Many smaller publications had no choice but to cave. Some just decided that was the way to go. I know my house is inundated with free monthly periodicals chock full of stories about veterinarians, dentists and plastic surgeons -- all of which are touted to be the best in the business. (It's interesting how doctors, especially cosmetic surgeons, have remained a core advertiser even in a down economy. It seems like they have the perfect mix of money and ego to fall victim to any publication willing to publish their photo.)

It was about two years ago when all the free magazine subscriptions started showing up. I went from not having any subscriptions for about five years to suddenly receiving Car & Driver, eWeek, Texas Monthly and Popular Mechanics for free. Those that weren't free cost next to nothing. I got a three-year subscription to Sailing World for $16, and I just received an offer to get National Geographic for only $12. I found out that I could care less about eWeek because it's far too focused on Information Technology for large businesses and Sailing World talks too much about racing. However, the magazines just keep coming and coming and coming.

The effectiveness of advertising is based on how many consumers it will reach. If you're running a magazine and circulation drops, your ads are suddenly worthless. Therefore, publications are now eating the cost of printing and distribution to maintain circulation. The profit margin has grown even thinner -- if there is even a profit.

Six months ago I started seeing complaints on cruisersforum.com that certain sailing magazines had notified subscribers that they would be going online only -- infuriating the subscribers who had prepaid at the much higher print rate. However, online periodicals don't seem to be doing any better than their physical forerunners. The Daily lost $10 million in the first quarter of 2011.

In a world where everything has become instantaneously tweeted and facebooked, the morning headlines are old news. We may not just be looking at the death of print, we may be looking at the death of the periodical altogether.

To me, two questions remain:
How do we add enough value to the content that people will wait to read a publication?
How do we add enough value to the content that people will save the publication and refer back to it -- whether online or in print?

Maybe every magazine just needs some guitar tablature in the back.
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