Future of publishing according to Tim Brooks and Stevie Spring

At Publishing Expo in London last week there was a rather ambitiously titled debate on “The Future of Publishing”. The star turns were Tim Brooks of The Guardian and Stevie Spring of Future. James Hanbury of Incisive was also there, but had few chances to contribute against his more voluble peers. Aside from the enjoyable banter, of which the most memorable soundbite was Stevie referring to the Guardian as “vanity publishing”, there were some interesting observations about the next step for print publishers. The overall mood was upbeat, with all panellists relishing the challenge ahead, but in full knowledge that print will be a far smaller part of the overall mix in a few years’ time. Here’s my take on the major insights:

1. Competition is infinite

There are no barriers to entry now – anyone can publish online – so for traditional publishers competition is now infinite. Whilst digital channels have lower distribution cost, the bar is raised on content quality – so that will keep costs high for traditional publishers to be able to maintain an edge. Real time publishing is an expensive game.

2. New channels; new content & business model

Many consumers consider the internet to be free by definition, and resist paying for content. This is definitely the case for news, although there are exceptions for specialist paid content.  However, on mobile channels there is an expectation for content to cost money.  The Guardian has been pleasantly surprised by the 200k downloads of its mobile app at £2.39 when the news is free on the web; at 1000 sales a day there is little chance of a slow down. E-readers also create an expectation of paying for content.

3. Engagement will beat reach

The abundance of online advertising inventory has pushed CPMs inexorably down. Publishers can’t compete with portals or social networking sites on sheer reach, but they do have the ability to engage an audience, and advise advertisers on how best to communicate their message. Switching the emphasis from reach to engagement is the key.

4. Customer publishing: new revenue stream

Stevie Spring defined a publishers’ core competence as creating compelling content which draws an audience. Future have seen great success with their contract publishing operation, which they see as lending their competence to clients. May well be a useful new revenue stream for publishers.

5. Involve reader in content

There’s much talk of curating content rather than creating it; involving readers in the debate and editing their contributions to make a coherent story. When the new Observer was launched, a reader panel provided feedback by 5pm the same day – invaluable intelligence for the ed team.

6. Not all products are brands

Many publishers delude themselves that their product is a brand. Only those with a strong heritage and a deep relationship with their readers can successfully stretch their content and trusted relationships into new channels and formats.

7. Next generation is screen-based

The next generation is used to consuming content on screens, and is happy with access rather than ownership; while their elders prefer a more tangible media product. The new generation will cherry pick and build their own content; they are less likely to want a publisher to prepackage it for them. Publishers will need to maximise their profits from the older generation who still want print, in order to invest in the new media channels.

So while no-one underestimates the challenges, there are clear opportunities in customer publishing, in shifting advertiser focus to engagement and expanding “paid-for” channels such as mobile and e-readers. If you’d like to continue the discussion, please comment below, or join the Specialist Media Network on Linked In. To hear the perspective of other publishers on future challenges, put 25 May 2010 in your diary, and join the debate at the Specialist Media Show.

About the author: Carolyn Morgan runs Penmaen Media, a consultancy creating practical digital media and marketing strategies, with particular expertise with media owners.  If you’d like to discuss your digital publishing strategy, please contact us for an informal chat.