Advertising Addiction will be the Death of Magazines (Again)

NEWSSTAND by panavatar
NEWSSTAND by panavatar, via Flickr

The Audit Bureau of Circulation must go back to counting subscriptions that count and not just counting. A penny paid for a subscription should not count as a paid subscription. Remember when paid subscriptions used to be at least half of the basic subscription price. Those were the days my friend and they have to come back. I know that is only one of the many problems surrounding the advertising driven business model, but we have to start somewhere. It is never too late.

“The Insane American Magazine Business Model is Back with a Vengeance!” Samir Husni

Most magazines, print and digital, are little more than advertising platforms whose readers are defined as “targets”, valued in quantity over quality, and when the advertising revenue stream dries up, the magazines usually fold, readers be damned. It’s a business model that has ruled for decades, with the print side built upon a smoke and mirrors combo of deeply discounted, often unprofitable subscriptions; expensive newsstand distribution; and deceptive metrics long accepted as industry standards.

On the digital side, expenses related to the creation and acquisition of content often get buried on the print side (or worse, valued differently), fluffing up the digital margins and sending misleading signals about the true ROI for each. Meanwhile, most successful digital pure plays are small, scrappy efforts where editorial teams wear multiple hats and reader engagement is a priority, even when advertising is the primary, or only, source of revenue.

The Columbia Journalism Review published a thorough report on the business of digital journalism this past Spring, and among its many critical insights was this blunt take on the advertising model and an engaged readership:

“Media companies should redefine the relationship between audience and advertising. They have spent a great deal of time and resources building masses of lightly engaged readers. And the industry has turned online ads into what Rothenberg calls low-value ‘direct-response advertising—a.k.a., junk mail.’

That kind of advertising is dependent on volume—a game publishers will never win when competing with behemoths like Facebook and Google. This is not a goal that can be accomplished just by the business side. Journalists must make a fuller commitment to understanding the audiences they have and the ones they want, and to revamping their digital offerings to ensure deeper loyalty.”

For multi-platform publishers, I’d argue that it’s not just their digital offerings that need to be revamped, but the print ones, too, as the definition of a “magazine” has evolved and the use case for the printed version isn’t always as clear as it used to be.

Portability and endurance are two theoretical advantages that print magazines have over their digital counterparts, but the ability to deliver engaging, focused and original content cheaply and on a consistent basis is much harder to do in print than it is online, where expectations are lower and the exchange rate is typically more favorable. Paradoxically, magazines’ own online presences are, more often than not, commensal partners at best, if not outright parasites.

In a typical ad-supported print magazine, even the best editorial intentions are constricted by the costs of printing and postage which are subsidized by the diminished and ever-fluctuating advertising revenues that ultimately dictate page counts, especially for those offering heavily discounted subscriptions. They’re further contradicted by mixed messages about the actual value of the content itself, as in the insulting subscription offers Husni noted from Hearst and Conde Nast.

When ranting a couple of years ago about heavily subsidized subscription offers that devalue content, I noted my container-neutral definition of a magazine as “quality content curated with an emphasis on a specific community over generic demographics.”

Content + Context = Value.

The magazines that put their readers first and assign clear value to the content they publish for them (eg: The AtlanticHarvard Business ReviewCook’s Illustrated), will be the ones best positioned to weather inevitable shifts in advertising revenue.

I wrote this back in June 2009 and, sadly, it bears repeating:

In an ideal world, traditional publishers would take the opportunity to reinvent their business model and approach 2010 as follows:

Place a clear value on all content and offer it in a variety of mediums, as dicated by the community’s needs, not the publisher’s budget line items;

Abolish the rate card and don’t accept spreadsheet-based RFPs;

Most importantly, ensure their content, and the products they’re advertising, are all worth paying for.

There’s only so many ad dollars to go around these days and the media contraction that’s already underway will continue to weed out the weakest brands and seasick investors. If a pure-play brand is a legitimate competitor to your established print brand – whether for readers, advertisers or both — you don’t have a viable business model anymore. Period.

If the viability of your magazine in 2012 hinges on maintaining the fickle lucre from 4-5 major advertisers, you’re doing it wrong.

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