Opinion

Digital didn’t kill print; print killed print

Digital is often blamed for the demise of print, but Net Percent's Scott Lewis sees things a little differently.

It’s no secret that the print magazine industry is in decline. IBISWorld predicts the Australian industry contracting at a rate of 4.3% a year. With a GDP growth rate of 2.7%, that’s a 7.0% fall. Compounded over four years to 2022, the industry will have shrunk relatively by over 25%.

Ask people in the industry why, and most will give you a one-word answer: “digital”.

But is that really fair, or accurate?

If we look at an industry such as taxis, while it’s true that Uber and Lyft brought some digital know-how to the market, anyone who took a cab in Sydney, Melbourne or (God help you) Canberra around 2010, knew there were big problems in terms of service.

Discontented customers gave Uber and others initial traction. Has something similar happened with print publishing? Is it just that a new, convenient channel displaced the market? Or did print fail in some way first — fail the primary market of its readers, but also fail its secondary market, the advertisers?

Photo by Vincent Delegge on Unsplash

As a digital publisher, from my perspective the answer is a clear “yes” to the last question. If I look at the field where I’ve worked as a writer and editor in the past – freely distributed print trade magazines – there is one aspect of their business models that stands out as indicating the point of failure: the distribution number.

That number, which has pride of place in any sales-driven media kit, represents how many magazines are distributed for each edition of a title. The Audited Media Association of Australia (AMAA) makes clear what that number represents under its CAB branded audits:

“The audit process is quite straightforward, commencing with proof of printing and then followed by proof of distribution, and distribution method, to establish the average net distribution per issue.”

The distribution number only indicates that x number of magazines were printed, and y number of magazines were distributed.

Audits eliminate basic fraud — inflating the number of magazines distributed — but do not address two concerns of advertisers: how many people really read the magazine, and who are they?

Some free trade magazines do attempt to build a “real” audience, but many others do not. Instead, they have a prime list of, say, 1,000 recipients that they know are important to an industry. Typically, they then “pad” that list with 40,00 or 5,000 addresses obtained from rented mailing lists.

Australian company Thomas Marsden Advertising suggested in 2016 that the average open rate for catalogues sent to mailing lists was around 60%. Being generous for magazines, we might consider a 70% open rate. That’s quite a discount on distribution.

As print magazines don’t have an “unsubscribe” button, trade publishers cannot judge the quality of any rented list (they don’t have, typically, access to the list data), which means open rates can plunge far below that.

So one magazine’s 5,000 distribution is not the same as another magazine’s 5,000. How can advertisers, then, really judge the value of a publication?

It comes down to a publication’s focus on its readers, how it attracts engagement. Using the front cover of a magazine as advertising space and featuring multiple unlabelled advertorials in the magazine pages are clear indications a magazine cares little for its readers, and only for its “distribution”.

Judged by those standards, something like 70% of all print trade magazines fail.

To go back to our analogy, the distribution number became for print what the taxi medallion developed into for the point-to-point transportation business. Medallions ended up certifying not competence, but only the ability to raise the capital to buy medallions. Similarly, distribution now just means printing magazines and distributing them. It is not, in any way, an acknowledgement of a successful publication answering market demand.

Contrast that with digital’s download numbers. These directly indicate both demand and reader engagement. That’s because in digital this relationship is direct. We can’t “push” (because spam), so we need to “pull”. The result is a direct feedback loop to the market. If we don’t engage our readers, we go out of business.

Print killed itself. The industry thought it had a kind of monopoly, and could do what it wanted, ignoring the real market. If digital does destroy anything, it’s the kind of complacency — and even narcissism — which puts profit over performance.

And I, for one, am very happy to see that aspect of publishing fail.

Scott Lewis is editor-at-large and director at Net Percent Pty Ltd.

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