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The Future of Publishing

2012 February 15

Just a few years ago, some people were ready to write publishing off.  Social media, crowdsourcing, content farms, wherever you looked there was somebody aiming to put traditional publishers out of business.

People were understandably scared.  Red ink spewed everywhere.  Layoffs at major media companies were rampant.  Yet today, publishing is becoming a hotbed of innovation.

Major publishers like Conde Nast, Hearst and Time Inc. are transforming themselves while upstarts like BuzzMedia, Say Media and Glam Media are building new models altogether.  There are significant challenges ahead and, inevitably, some will falter. Nevertheless, the future of publishing is brighter than ever.

The Bust That Wasn’t

The crash of 2008 and 2009 hit the media world hard.  Publishers reported heavy losses. Lots of hard working, competent people were put out on the street.  Meanwhile, social media was hitting its stride and many thought the publishing model was broken.

Many, but not all and certainly not me.  I pointed out at the time that the signs pointed to magazines making a comeback and that the enormous losses at media companies were mostly due to bad investments and not to poor operational results.  The downturn, in other words, was cyclical and not structural.

That didn’t go for everybody, of course.  I also pointed out that Newsweek made grave mistakes.  Interestingly, however, their error lied in overreacting to the “digital threat” and trying to transform a mass product into a niche one (I still don’t now how they thought the numbers could work on that one).

That’s not to say that nothing has changed.   A lot has and publishers have some hard adjustments they need to make.  Nevertheless, the overall effect is positive and will make publishing more vibrant, exciting and profitable in the years to come.

What Will Happen to Print?

But wait.  Isn’t print in decline?  Aren’t circulation numbers falling?  Isn’t all the money moving online?

Those things are somewhat true, but the situation isn’t nearly as dire as some would have us believe.  Firstly, the overall decline in circulations is rather small, about 1% in the US. Second, publishers make money on ad sales, not distribution, which they subsidize to maximize readership (the cover price is often less and sometimes much less, than it costs to print and distribute.)

On the ad sales side, the story gets a bit more complicated, because we have to make a distinction between newspapers and magazines.  Newspapers have indeed been hit hard. In North America, ad revenues have declined 45% since 2007 and are projected to go down further from there.


However, newspapers are a special case.  Historically, they made their money from classifieds.  All of those people buying small boxes of text advertising jobs, cars and personals added up and made for a very good business.  In a very real sense, the hard hitting journalism basically served to promote small transactions.

That money is gone and will never come back.  The Internet is a much more efficient medium for classified advertising and newspaper companies have, for the most part, missed out.  As I’ve noted before, the drop in newspaper ad revenues roughly equals the rise in digital ad sales since 1997.

For magazines, on the other hand, the story is much different.


Magazines have always been used by marketers to build brands among discrete audiences. Digital media still struggle to consistently build awareness among consumers and therefore the drop for magazines has been far less severe.  Moreover, ad revenues should remain fairly stable in the coming years, dropping only slightly if at all.

For the foreseeable future then, we can expect the bulk of magazine publisher’s revenues to come from print.

How Tablets Will Change the Game

What’s amazing is not how much things have changed, but to what extent they have stayed the same.  For all the talk about everything going digital, roughly 80% of total ad spending goes it where it always has: traditional media.

That is, until now.  Tablets are quickly changing the face of media.  Strong Christmas sales doubled tablet penetration to about 20% and, with just about every computer manufacturer coming out with devices to compete with the iPad and Windows 8 entering the fray, that figure will rise quickly, especially in younger demographics.

Further, advances in OLED technology will make tablets, thinner, lighter and cheaper, putting screens everywhere.  To get a sense of what the future will look like, take a look at this video from Corning.

The rise of tablets represents both an enormous opportunity and an enormous challenge for publishers.  The opportunity is that tablets will allow them to integrate text, video and interactive graphics seamlessly and not only create more engaging products, but also gain access to big TV budgets.

Multiplying Revenue Streams

As I mentioned above, publishers have historically earned their money from advertising and going forward, they will remain heavily reliant on it.  Clearly, marketers will pay more for consumers than consumers will pay for content, which is why the world’s most successful publications are ad supported.

Still, there will be plenty of opportunities for publishers to increase their share of the pie. They have immensely talented people, strong brands and devoted readers.  Digital technology will allow them (impel them, actually) to deploy content over multiple devices and touchpoints.

Video, of course, is the most obvious and we can expect publishers to start deploying networks of YouTube channels which will be increasingly viewed not only on smartphones, tablets and PC’s, but on interactive TV’s as well. We can expect to see a renaissance in short form video content similar to what Bleacher Report is doing in sports.

E-commerce affiliate programs like Amazon’s represent another golden opportunity. Links from product reviews are easily monetized.  Recent reports indicate that Pinterest is already making money that way.   Moreover, companies like Flite and Stipple are developing new ways of embedding links inside images, further integrating e-commerce and editorial.

Those are just a few new revenue streams.  Others are surely to appear.  Anyway you slice it, there are more ways to make money from publishing than ever.

The Integration Imperative

The challenge, is that to take advantage of the new environment, publishers will have to acquire skills they don’t presently have and there’s bound to be quite a bit of organizational inertia.  Integrating video, for instance, is not something that immediately occurs to print editors.  It’s just not something they’ve had to do before.

Further, publishers are used to operating on the principle of a chinese wall.  Editorial operations and business interests have been kept separate and disticnt.  However, rules need to be updated.  If editors are choosing what to promote through links, for instance, than the issues change dramatically.

Probably the most difficult area is not reconciling business and creative interests, but integrating skills.  Editorial teams used to have nearly total control over the product, but now have to share the road with technology, UX and video teams, which creates obvious tensions.  To be successful, publishers will have to bridge those divides.

The future of publishing, then, lies in capitalizing on multiple revenue streams and  integrating diverse skills effectively.

– Greg

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim Cone permalink
    February 15, 2012

    Another problem with magazines and newspapers other than new generations turning to digital and not magazines -Older generations, especially those that are educated want information without a bias political slant. The constant liberal point of view administered by Conde Naste, Hearst and Time has caused them additional red ink, as well as diluted their brand. Newsweek and the LA Times come to mind as the absolute worse culprits. As well it appears flagship magazines today are -generally speaking- written for the Millennium generation when it’s the Gen X and Baby Boomer with the bucks to buy the advertisers products. There seems to be a misconnect between content, advertisers and readers as to the business model that drives the highest return from a more thought out cohesiveness utilizing demographics, psychographics and generational synergy. The bottom line is without this well thought out vision, magazines and newspapers are nothing but rudderless ships. Technologies driving accountability is forcing Publishers -should they want to reach optimum return on their business model- to relearn this demo, psychographic, generational, synergy to their content, advertiser and reader to better compete with a thriving digital which by design, has this new synergy in place. Publishers, generally speaking- are just plain slow out of the gate.

  2. February 15, 2012

    Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

  3. February 22, 2012

    Good article – esp the discussion around moves to embedded m-commerce. The other areas where publishers really have to change their attitudes is with audience engagement and participation. The role of broad social networks as well as special interest group – both broad and narrowcast audiences. Publisher need to be data driven – while being transparent about privacy and the use of the data – publishers need to understand their audience behavior. What people say they do is not the same as what they actually do. The benefits for the audience around personalization as well as for marketers is significant when data is used appropriately. I actually believe we can enter a new golden age for publishers. Audiences are looking for trusted brands to help them navigate through a morass of content. They want quality content that’s original, from selected sources, from audience participation and from selected marketers. The consumption of content on tablets is very different to content on a laptop / desktop. The tablet environment can evolve from the unique strengths of print while taking full advantage of the device functionality. I totally agreed that multiple revenues streams are the way to go – there are obvious ones today and no doubt some we’ve not thought about. The future of publishing is an exciting one. Keep up the excellent conversation.

  4. February 22, 2012


    You make a very good point. It is a bit curious, with the success of the Huffington Post, that many publishers are still having trouble with that.


  5. Colin Crawford permalink
    February 22, 2012

    It’s a mindset. The evidence of what should be done has been out there for years. Whether it”s fear, protecting the legacy, not seeing immediate returns etc too many legacy publishers have failed to embrace their audiences preferring the broadcast to the participatory model. Given the passion around subjects and brands it is remarkable that so many fail to seize this opportunity. The role of brands and editors is important and I’m not a fan of uncontrolled or anonymous feedback. The audience wants a high quality, curated environment but one where their participation is encouraged. Marketers will response to engagement metrics (eventually). It is a data driven world so the faster publishers acquire that knowledge the better. Media companies such as Meredith have moved aggressively to get more of a 360 view of their audiences others will have to move in that direction.

  6. KayJay permalink
    March 5, 2012

    I really love your blog! You make absolutely good points in your analyses.

    However, I have some thoughts about the overbroaded usage of the word ‘publishing’.

    While (I assume) we’re all talking about paper media, there is an important difference in different commercial models. You’ve already mentioned the difference between magazines and newspapers, a very important point.

    But models differentiation don’t / shouldn’t be limited to that only. Important factors like distribution models (paid / free to reader), focus market (business, lifestyle, tourism, …) and the level of penetration/saturation/competition in that same focus market.

    We publish a wide range of stuff, ranging from newspapers, tabloids and magazines, both paid and free to reader. Both own productions and franchising content & brands. All of them are exclusively focusing on geographically, local markets.

    What we saw the last 10 years (and even more in the last 5 years).

    On level of newspapers and tabloids, profit has been tremendously down. We canceled some products because they just weren’t worth putting time in it any more.

    – News in general is very costly on level of human resources.
    – Publishing paid news definitely is not a feasible market for small players.
    – Publishing free news is still making some profit but is going the same way.
    – Several franchising paid magazines are scheduled in our next elimination round.

    What happens with our free magazines is a lot more positive though. Over the past 5 years we’ve
    – introduced 11 new productions, 8 of them are still alive
    – ad revenue has been far above expectations
    – ad sales forecasts (and bookings) for 2012/13 are very promising

    It didn’t all come for free though. Paper stock has been tripled the last 10 years, so has our human resource cost. Without serious content leverage, process finetuning/automatizing and deep (and I mean bottom deep) tweaked distribution I’m quite confident we would’ve been sacked by now.

  7. March 5, 2012

    Thx KayJay.

    For the record, I wasn’t limiting publishing to paper, but any editorial based product.

    – Greg

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