Last week, I wrote that struggling magazine sales had hit the point of no return. Newsstand sales numbers are down 10 percent—closer to 20 percent in fashion, celebrity news, and women’s publications. Worse, digital subscriptions aren’t making up the difference. In short, “sales reports from the first half of 2012 indicate that the magazine industry is in deep water with no life preserver.” Or, to try on the New York Times’s metaphor of choice, “like newspapers, magazines have been in a steady slide, but now, like newspapers, they seem to have reached the edge of the cliff…When 10 percent of your retail buyers depart over the course of a year, something fundamental is at work.”
That “something fundamental” is fundamental to the content, not the medium: tablet-only magazines are in free-fall, too. The problem is not print versus digital—a battle of the ancients and the moderns—but rather, the rotten content being delivered via print and digital. For whatever reason, consumers do not want to read the content of contemporary magazines. Note that I avoid a phrase like “magazine-style content”—because I am not convinced that consumers are rejecting long-form altogether. In fact, long-form essays seem to be flourishing on non-magazine websites. The “digital ecosystems” in which long-form thrives, however, include a high density of short-form and breaking news coverage. Long-form is symbiotic with short-form—that principle was true for pre-digital magazines, too. Except that before the advent of Internet news, magazines were a compelling source of news coverage and analysis. Now, magazines cannot deliver credible short-form news; and thus, cannot deliver long-form companion pieces.
The magazine industry is encountering a totally normal evolutionary phenomenon. Going through growing pains, so to speak. The magazine ecosystem—finally, a pseudo-accurate use of the term—is overpopulated. Resources—readers and writers—are scarce. The reading public is shrinking, and the talent pool of writers is becoming shallow. There’s not enough content-generation or content-consumption to go around. So content gets spread thin between publications, resulting in what appears to be endemic, structural weakness. In actuality, the ecosystem is just beginning to adjust to these new conditions. The winnowing process is in its earliest stages. Many, many more publications will not survive the coming years. And, if publishers and executives know what’s healthy for their companies, they will let their maladapted dinosaurs die out. The real endemic, structural weakness of the publishing industry is the refusal to pull the plug on struggling publications.
An examination of the tablet-only industry supports the above conclusion. In the tablet-only magazine market, The Huffington Post made its digital magazine free after five issues. News Corp.’s The Daily only has 100,000 subscribers, no thanks to heavy promotions. Adweek quoted Mark Edmiston, former president/CEO of Newsweek and current CEO of Nomad Editions: “there is not much in a lot of these publications that you can’t find elsewhere, so what you see is a product problem. You have to give people a compelling reason to write the checks.” Watered down and redundant content is not a persuasive selling point.
I do not doubt that magazines—some magazines—will survive the print ecocide. But I do believe that over-investment in magazines, print or digital, is a serious mistake, and that publishing companies would better serve their readers by developing new, innovative media. Unfortunately, the vocabulary of the magazine industry is insufficient to imagine alternatives. The industry will need to jettison expectations and preconceptions of how publishing works in order to do more than survive: in order to achieve evolutionary success in the digital space. Backing away from the magazine cliffhanger is a matter of losing useless, nostalgic attachments to the magazine itself.