Screens vs paper: the future for magazines?

No wonder all the publishers at the PPA conference last week were hyper-excited about the ipad, and the few grey imports were passed around from sweaty sticky fingers like contraband.  Especially for consumer publishers, the creative opportunities provided by a larger, colour screen put grey e-ink and tiny smartphones into the shade.  But how quickly will magazines migrate from paper to screens?  Very gradually is my view, based partly on some research I am carrying out among publishers for the Specialist Media Show on 25 May, and some discussions I have had with speakers taking part in the conference.  I’m contributing to a debate at IPEX on 20 May on this topic – here’s some of the themes we will be discussing:

1. Publishers are focussed on how to make all digital media pay

In the “future of specialist media” research commissioned for the Specialist Media Show, the top concerns keeping publishers awake at night are: how to charge for online content and how to make money from digital editons (both 38%).  The impact of ipads lagged behind at just 19%.  So the key issue for publishers is not the technology, it’s the business model.  They already have invested in online content and digital editions, and until they can see a revenue stream from these, most will be cautious about ipads, tablets and ereaders.

2. Consumer print will be more resilient than b2b

88% of publishers surveyed felt there will always be a market for well-produced specialist consumer magazines in print.  However, the prospects for b2b magazines are less rosy – 25% believe they will cease to exist in the next 5 years, 18% expect this point to be reached in the next 20 years; while 34% feel we will never reach that point.  This matches anecdotal evidence – with several business titles closing their print editions in the last couple of years.  There are plenty of examples of creative use of paper and print in successful consumer magazines – such as Monocle or the Dutch magazine Flow.  See also my earlier article on the unique qualities of print.

3. Larger screens offer new commercial opportunities

While mobile is a difficult environment for ads, and online banners are easy to ignore, digital editions on e-readers can offer a more immersive experience for readers, for both editorial content and advertising.  Add in simple data collection and interaction and you have much more appealing commercial opportunities for advertisers.  Already some publishers are making online digital editions pay via advertising: see my earlier blog on how to profit from digital media.

4. Experiment now, but e-readers will be slow burn

Cutting through the ipad hype, the high cost of these devices in the UK (£429-£699) will limit take up for some time.  A surprisingly high proportion of publishers in the survey (39%) plan an e-reader version in the next 2 years, but on average they expect it to generate less than .5% of their revenues.  So they are just experimenting with the format, often taking an iphone app directly to the larger device.

5. Smartphones and e-readers can drive print sales

I believe the future is more complex than an either/or of print vs screens.  Many publishers who have experimented with new digital platforms have discovered that they can use them to sell print copies.  The Spectator believes that its iphone and Kindle versions have directly contributed to newstand sales and print subscriptions, simply by helping the brand reach a new audience and sample the quality of its content. The Economist uses a mobile app to promote single copy sales posted direct to readers’ homes.

So while publishers are excited about technology, they are taking a measured approach to new platforms from a business perspective.  Print and paper will definitely have a place in consumer markets, if publishers can keep innovating in the format.

As a publisher, you can still take part in the “future of specialist media” survey – and all participants will receive a copy of the final results.

About the author: Carolyn Morgan runs Penmaen Media, a consultancy which creates practical digital media and marketing strategies for media businesses.  Clients include Guardian, Archant, CDS Global, ABC, CIO net, Eye magazine and RHS Media.  Carolyn is also content director for the Specialist Media Show, responsible for the conference programme and workshops, and frequently writes for trade publications and speaks at conferences on digital media strategy – see recent publications.  If you’d like to discuss how to develop the digital strategy for your media brand, please contact us for an initial meeting.