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Giving Up on Print

Posted on Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 12:58 PM

Is ditching your print edition an advisable strategy?

By Meredith L. Dias

For some of you, eliminating your print edition and going digital-only may seem like an intuitive cost-cutting maneuver during these lean times. Imagine a profit and loss statement devoid of postage, printing, and paper costs. Tempting, isn't it? But think twice before you proceed.

You don't need me to tell you that times are tough in the print magazine industry. If you're a print publisher, your ad sales have likely taken a hit while postage, printing, and paper costs have increased. As a result, you've likely made some painful budgetary decisions over the past few years -- layoffs, editorial page reductions, rate cuts, and perhaps even changes to the physical size of your publication. Maximizing rapidly dwindling resources has become, for many, the new print media reality.

The Case for Stopping the Presses

Some publications have made the difficult decision to eliminate their print editions. Jim Mathews, senior director of online editorial and production of Aviation Week, says that his current digital edition "goes as text and PDF to email boxes, and [subscribers] are free to print it out when they need to." This eliminated "a swath of production costs while serving the reader better."

Mathews evaluates the respective benefits of print and digital. He acknowledges that "print will never go back to the same place in the hierarchy of value it once enjoyed when it was the only game in town." However, though the scales seem to be tipping in favor of digital, "print will always be better than electronic for certain kinds of things ... just as electronic is superior for certain kinds of storytelling and content delivery."

PC World magazine stopped producing its print edition in January 2009. Editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff tells us the story behind the tech magazine's successful move to digital: "We'd spent much of the 2000s shifting our business to the digital spectrum, because it made sense for a publication covering the world of technology. In 2008, we looked ahead at the upcoming print advertising market and macro-economic conditions and realized that it wouldn't be wise to continue publishing in print. We had done so much in previous years to shift our weight to the digital side that when we did make the change, nothing in our process changed and we laid off only one employee."

The Case for Staying in Print

Not all print publishers have seen their publications ravaged by the recent economic crisis, though. "Printed circulation hasn't changed appreciably over the last decade," says Doug Peckenpaugh, managing editor of food product design for Culinology. "In my sector, people still like to have a printed version to carry with them or read in various locations -- for instance, on airplanes during work-related travel."

When STRAT surveyed over a thousand editors and publishers about giving up their print editions, many of them suggested the same: that there is still a large contingent of readers who prefer print editions. The challenge, then, appears to be finding the advertisers that will resonate with them.

For many publishers, the print edition is the heart of their multimedia presence. Jennifer Thiele Busch, editor of Contract, tells us, "We no longer consider ourselves a magazine, but rather a media brand with distinctive yet complementary print, online, and face-to-face components." Although Busch foresees a time when "current trends will move us toward reduced [print] frequency," she emphasizes that "the print publication remains at the core of the brand."

Print publishers are also fighting back against some of the anti-print rhetoric that has invaded the media discussion over the last few years. "Experts have been giving print a eulogy for quite some time now. The reality is that an online presence will never generate the kind of revenue print can," says Jesse Santiago, publisher and editor-in-chief of Texas Family Magazine. John Smalley, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, agrees: "The notion of 'eliminating the print edition' is so far from reality at this point that I find it hard to comment. That's like asking McDonald's, 'How do you think your customers would react if you quit making hamburgers?' We're a two-platform business these days -- print and Web -- and to eliminate either would not make sense right now."

Making the Decision

Our survey responses ran a wide gamut. Most editors and publishers stood strongly behind their print editions. Some touted the respective benefits of their print and online editions. A few represented digital publications that have never produced print editions, or publications that have made the transition to digital-only.

What our responses didn't include: doomsday prophesizing about the future of print. There have been so many high-profile print publication failures in the last year (see: Editor & Publisher and Newsweek) that we've overlooked the publications that have remained afloat, whose print editions are still profitable and sustaining a broad reader base. They're out there. They're industry magazines, association journals, and niche publications. You may not recognize their names or know their editors, but take notice now. They have figured out how to survive a simultaneous recession and publishing crisis.

Many of the editors and publishers who spoke to us recognize the complementary nature of print and Web publishing. Deborah Lockridge, editor of Heavy Duty Trucking and Heavy Duty Aftermarket Journal, sums it up: "We see a real need for in-depth information that can be provided in print form, while our digital efforts tend to focus more on news and other more timely content."

In other words, print can do things that digital cannot, and vice-versa. There is, at least for the time being, a place for both in the new media landscape.

Meredith L. Dias is research editor of STRAT and Editors Only.

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"Great article. Started on 'The Benefits of Being a Multichannel Magazine,' and migrated to this one! Just started reading your newsletter and am very impressed with your acumen." --Jeff Gayduk, Premier Tourism Marketing Publications. 08-25-2010.

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