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Hold on! Let’s stop the treatment!

Why are publishers blaming all of our ills on the digital revolution? Peter Jackson suggests there’s another major factor which has been overlooked – and there is historical evidence that magazines can find a way to bounce back.

By Peter Jackson

For a year my young brother was at death’s door. An investigative reporter on The People newspaper in its heyday, he developed a mysterious thrombosis which was spontaneously creating blood clots all over his body. Medical teams at a world-famous hospital fought to save him, calling in new drugs from all over the globe, rushed by motor cycle courier from Heathrow and administered to him within an hour of touchdown. But to no avail. The condition was filling his body with liquid, swelling him to the size of the Michelin Man so that he seemed on the verge of explosion.


Learning of the plight of his young journalist, Sam Campbell, barn-storming editor of The People (the Bill Shankly of the Sunday morning scandal sheets) commissioned the country’s leading blood specialist to intervene with this melodramatic brief: “Money is no object. If there’s nothing more to be done here and there’s a clinic in Tokyo or Los Angeles which might offer a solution we’ll fly him there. That lad must not be allowed to die…”

The specialist duly arrived at the bedside, studied the notes, called for new tests and then announced: “Stop the treatment!”

The hospital staff were aghast. “But then he’ll die,” they said. “On the contrary,” came the reply. “It’s the treatment that’s killing him. Somehow you have eliminated the condition without knowing it.”

Six weeks later, my brother was out of hospital and back at work. He lives to this day, his body carrying stretch marks to rival those of a mother of sextuplets.

So what’s that got to do with the greater world of publishing?

It’s because we’re in danger of making a similar mistake.

For the past six years, print publishing has seen itself in a life-or-death struggle with the malignant intrusion of digital media. The dreaded symptoms: falling ad revenue, falling sales, falling profits, long established titles going to the wall. The attempted remedy: cutting rates, cutting staff and cutting budgets while heavily investing in digital editions, blogs, social pages and apps.

Yet the prevailing prognosis remains gloomy indeed. It seems a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ print will die. Digital will have claimed a venerable victim.

But, hold on! Stop the treatment!

Don’t forget the recession

Haven’t those same six years seen an economic recession the like of which the world has not experienced for almost a century? And in any recession don’t newspapers and magazines find advertising growing short and sales dropping through people economising on discretionary expenditure? And hasn’t the usual response been to lay off staff, prune editorial budgets and trim paginations?

So this time the recession has coincided with the digital phenomenon but haven’t we been panicked into believing that digital is totally responsible for all of those ills, that print will not follow its historical pattern of bouncing back once the recession is over?

If magazine sales have slumped more sharply than in previous downturns, is it because cuts in budgets, staffing, pagination and promotion have been especially savage to enable the maximum amount of resources to be ploughed into digital manifestations? The result is that many austerity-age publications are often no longer such good value for money – cover prices up, thinner to the touch, visually less exciting, scared of offering anything approaching a good long read.

Similarly, the once powerful provincial press complains it’s in mortal danger and blames its classified ads deserting to online rivals and having to face unfair editorial competition from BBC local websites. But many of the journalist students I sent on work placement to local weeklies during my stint as a lecturer came back with stories of no-one ever leaving the office, whole days spent re-writing PR handouts, of the results of court proceedings being provided by the magistrates’ clerk, of reports of council meetings coming from the town clerk.

Local papers are in trouble because many have been so ruthlessly emasculated in favour of online dalliances that they are simply not worth reading. No wonder advertisers seek to go elsewhere.

Digital pennies

It isn’t as if this obsession with all things digital is yielding obvious results. If the missing newsstand customers went away because they prefer the immediacy and the convenience of reading their magazines online, why is the take-up of the digital editions so pitifully small – an average of less than 3,000 per issue for the 40 per cent of magazines which have invested in the production of digital replicas?

If the quest to amass a multitude of website browsers was to secure an alternative revenue stream from online advertisers by providing sheer weight of traffic, why does all this effort yield a fraction of what can still be achieved by display ads in print? Even the monolithic MailOnline - claiming that its staggering 180 million unique visitors per month is producing ads at the rate of £55 million per year – has to concede that this represents little more than a quarter of what the print newspaper generates.

And MailOnline is far, far from typical. Nielsen’s survey of global media earlier this year showed that although internet revenue was up by a third, it was from a small base and totalled only 4.5% of the total spend – smaller than radio, little more than posters and one-sixth of print magazines and newspapers.

Did someone mention an elephant being frightened of a mouse?

None of this is meant to suggest that digital is not having a massive effect in certain areas of publishing. MailOnline is delivering a death blow to celebrity magazines by its free-to-access, non-stop overnight churn of showbiz scandal, red carpet gossip and paparazzi titillation. Men’s weeklies’ offerings of soft porn are having to surrender to the real stuff online. Computer and games titles are finding their natural home is on screen rather than on paper. Practical journals (on the likes of fishing, photography, gardening, cookery, anything promising how to do-it-yourself) are discovering that the internet’s combination of interactivity, moving pictures, dynamic graphics and conversational sound gives extra dimensions to static instruction by mere ink on paper.

So some things will never be the same. But not everything. The overall shape of the market may be drastically re-ordered but print magazines are here to stay and it’s not dinosaur-think to say so. We’ve just got to believe it and do something about it.

Huge market for magazines

We have the ammunition. Three out of four adults still read magazines. As do 91% of 15-24 year-olds – the digital generation, no less. And let’s bang the drum to advertisers and agencies that almost twice as many people trust ads they see in print than do on screen. With digital traffic increasingly mobile, what pocket-sized images can equal the impact of a glossy DPS spread? Even Net-a-Porter - boasting nearly £350 million sales online – has felt the need for what Jim Bilton’s Wessenden Briefing describes as the “presence and substance” of print in launching Porter magazine into the crowded fashion market. They’ve discovered that women like to read about fashion as well as look at pretty pictures.


Why are we so coy about all this?

In this very journal not so long ago, a publisher described with great glee twelve months of intensive dedication to making his magazine’s website the ultimate all-action digital showcase. Not a single word about investing in the actual magazine!

In the spring issue, Diane Kenwood made a doughty contribution in praise of print but ended being impressed by how the BSME awards showed editors “embracing the challenge of building on their brands and their commercial revenues through fantastically creative use of digital platforms and the multiple content experiences they offer.” Not a mention of editors being fantastically creative in making their print publication a compulsive buy on the newsstand.

Both examples betray a thinking that if the digital revolution is responsible for all our ills, then we must concentrate on finding that the answer lies in all things digital.

But without going quite so far as Bill Clinton’s simplistic solution of “It’s the economy, stupid!”, I would argue that if much of our troubles really do stem from the recession then we are wasting a wonderful chance to reverse our losses.

Because the recession is ending, our economy is the fastest growing in the Western world.

Ad revenue in print magazines is set to stabilise next year and resume growth thereafter. People’s spending power is returning and it’s significant that the house-buying boom has already led to women’s home interest titles leading the way to increasing ABC figures.

Now is the time to turn away from the screen and seek to dazzle that old-fashioned institution – the newsstand. Publishers are said to be increasing their marketing budgets so let’s come up with mind-blowing promotions. Let editors have their budgets restored and incentivised to come up with dazzling covers that lead into riveting content and construct the digital appendages in a way that supports and doesn’t try to lead in the opposite direction.

Beyond argument, the most profitable business model is that of a successful paid-for print magazine that offers its readers a website providing the exciting multi-media dimensions I mentioned earlier but with the amount of content carefully controlled and presented in such a way to tempt casual traffic to go out and buy the magazine – backed up by the use of social pages to provide tantalising glimpses of the goodies that lie inside.

Editors with flagging sales used to yearn for prime-time network TV promotion – consisting of a handful of 30-second commercials sprinkled about a solitary channel over a single week. Now, the web gives them the chance to showcase the range and flavour of every issue before a potential 24/7 audience of literally millions throughout the whole year. What a recruitment device! What a pity so few magazines see it this way.

As InPublishing revealed at the turn of the year, one notable exception is Private Eye whose circulation has climbed to nearly a quarter of a million during the recession – an increase of 9% over the past decade. This after briefly following everyone else in setting up a comprehensive website and then systematically reducing content until it provides merely a taste of what’s inside the printed product.

Asked what’s the point of his digital strategy, Ian Hislop might be tempted to paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s to sell more copies of the magazine, stupid.”

Isn’t that what we should all be about?