Print publishing continues to bemuse me…

The Association of Online Publishers 2010 summit opened today, with experimentation and innovation as key items mentioned by chairman Tim Faircliff. I wasn’t in attendance, but I completely agree – both were key when I started my career back in 2001, and both were key since the dawn of business. The worrying thing is that we’re still reiterating that need in 2010.

And when it comes to print? Even more bemusing. Ignoring paywalls and iPad apps for the moment (They still count as experimentation, but neither is innovative anymore), there’s news that Bauer Media (former employers of mine for a long time) is about to trial ‘Gazetta’ – a Grazia for men featuring a strong news and fashion agenda and will also feature food, travel and automotive content. It’s being bundled with Grazia and given away free to test it without spending millions on launching first.

At the same time, The Independent is rumoured to be launching a new 20p newspaper targeting 20-somethings.

Why I’m so bemused…

Firstly, if you want to test something cheaply, £50 will do it and about 30 minutes will do it – just go and buy a domain and some hosting from somewhere like www.GoDaddy.com (aff link), and put some content up. You’ll have insights by the end of the first week.

Secondly, targetting men and 20-somethings? Ignoring the 20%+ year-on-year decreases for Bauer men’s titles FHM and Zoo, here are some interesting stats from research published back in February:

  • 99% of young males go online every day or nearly every day, with 80% saying they’d be lost without it.
  • 57% of young men have their closest technology attachment to the internet, followed by 49% for their mobile phone.
  • 25% of young men admitted to checking their email and 18% to looking at social networking sites on their mobile phone before they get out of bed in the morning. Some 94% use email at least once per day, compared with 60% that use a social network such as Facebook.
  • More than 25% of young males living with their partners watch TV on a computer in the living room while their other half uses the main TV set.

Now, this research was carried out on behalf of Microsoft Advertising, so feel free to draw your own conclusion from that, but if you’re targeting young men, would you be using print as your priority? Bauer have lined up some big name advertisers for the trial, as you’d expect, but do you think they’ll be retained long term?

And already in a similar market you’ve got the free to consumer Shortlist, radio companies such as my former employers at Absolute Radio, and numerous television offerings – the big difference between the male-targeted strategy for radio and print is that one compliments multi-tasking, the other fights against it.

And why ‘Gazetta’? A hangover from Italian football on UK TV and the rise of Starbucks a few years ago?

I’m interested to know what other people might think? Any guesses whether either new title will be successful or otherwise? Is digital too crowded?

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Thoughts on UK magazine ABC figures…

It still feels a bit weird not to be involved in the magazine industry when the ABC figures are released – although I’m getting used to examining the RAJAR figures for radio instead.

The thing is, the ABCs feel a bit odd this year, with the period-on-period and year-on-year increases feeling a bit hollow considering magazine sales grew 0.3% from last year – but that year was a historic low of 23.8 million. At the start of the decade, 30 million plus was the regular figure. And although the recession has played a part in sales, the decline started in 2005.

Looking in more detail at the top 100 titles, it’s dominated by Sky and supermarket titles. 51 of the titles posted declines year-on-year and the same number dropping period-on-period.

There are some positives for magazines in the homes, business, current affairs, and women’s sectors – although the ‘classic’ women’s magazines and several of the newer ones dropped. And it seems covermounts are more important than ever… the biggest drop was OK! magazine, which dropped 20.2%

But the men’s market trumps that with FHM down 18.1%, Nuts down 22%,Zoo down 27.9%, and Loaded down 26.3%. Free magazine Shortlist grew, as did Stuff, BBC Focus, Men’s Fitness, Esquire and Front. But two of those only grew by 1% or under (and Bauer Media is planning a new glossy men’s mag?)… That market fall is only matched by the decline in TV mags. Only two magazines didn’t drop in that area.

And out of all the publishers, BBC, Dennis, Conde Nast and Shortlist were up on last year.

It’s still a situation where slightly down or flat figures are still ‘the new up’

So where are the readers going? A lot of people have commented on the changes in the media over the years…

  • The recession – not just disposable income, but the perception of value in times of economic hardship.
  • The internet – free, accessible content which matches many of the print markets –including digital editions of the same titles. And all kinds of alternatives for entertainment from social networks to video sharing.
  • Mobile – see above, although the potential of paid apps means free content might be harder to find…
  • TV on demand – allowing you to fill up your leisure time more effectively if that’s your choice.
  • Gaming – whether social, console, mobile, or PC, gaming is a huge market and a big source of entertainment time.
  • Wifi – suddenly the internet is more accessible when you’re travelling – by train for example. Add in laptops and tablets.

Presumably by coincidence, Steve Rubel suggests one route that media companies should take for the future, regardless of the format their content is delivered in.

It would be interesting to compare with book sales to see if the desire for more in-depth information is holding strong, but the last figures I can find are from January 2010, with a drop of almost 7% for print books in 2009. Meanwhile ebooks have overtaken hardbacks on Amazon US.

I think it’s a sign that mass-market print titles, and profit margins, will never return to the pre-2005 levels, whatever anyone tries. The future for a sustainable print business in the long term is most likely to be much, much smaller runs of higher quality issues which are special in some way by commemorating events or providing in-depth information and experiences. But even most of those are going to face a massive challenge, particularly from tablets. I’m not a huge fan of Apple’s iPad, but I’ve found it’s great for content consumption, as is the Kindle, and as, no doubt, at least some of the Android tablets will be.

Then look at the likes of Flipboard and Pulse – two recent iPad-friendly apps which do a great job of presenting user filtered, or user’s social graph-filtered news and information. Or the semantic technology used by the likes of the idio platform for a while now.

I firmly believe the media companies who are performing best in the market, and show the signs of continuing that trend are the ones that most closely resemble tech organisations, and which are diversifying in everything to find out what works now whilst there is still some money left on the table.

Something that really made me chuckle in this context is an article on Giga Om, in which Paul Graham, the founder of tech incubator Y Combinator, convincingly explains the reason that Yahoo has struggled is that it turned into a media company at the end of the 90s. That’s not to say Yahoo can’t be successful, but the fact that one of the largest websites and digital advertising networks moved too close to becoming a media company must worry anyone who isn’t trying to innovate their media company at the moment.

Speaking to someone earlier today about their ambition to become a journalist, I could only advise them to put digital first, spend time learning at least the solid foundations of coding, SEO and social media marketing, and consider starting up something themselves rather than pursuing a print job – I’m just not sure there will be many around soon, and probably a lot of them will be extremely small start-up operations with a 20k circulation for an extremely niche product.

Newspapers, Magazines, and the Apple iPad

While newspaper and magazine publishers have seen some good opportunities and success with the iPhone, the larger form factor of the iPad has definitely seen a huge leap in interest and the number of dedicated newspaper and magazine applications being produced, with figures already being shared by various publications about their success.

The Time sold 5,000 iPad apps in 3 days at £9.99, the Wall Street Journal has 10,000 customers paying $17.29 a month (free to print/web subscribers), The Financial Times has had 130,000 downloads of it’s free application. The Australian has had 4,500 downloads at $4.99 a month, the Guardian Eyewitness free app has had 90,000 downloads. And Wired is apparently selling more copies on the iPad than in print (print sales were quoted at 79,000).

(Figures from conferences I’ve attended, Paidcontent, New York Observer, Venturebeat)

All very impressive…but…

1) Friend and former magazine colleague Dave Cushman makes a point which quite a few other people have also discussed – is this an illusion of a long term future for publishers? He picks up on the open/closed, silo/network challenge, and that many publishers seem to see print sales dropping just because we can’t buy a lovely digital version of a print product. (Ignoring the fact that I carry 2-3 digital devices past at least 2 news stands every morning, with print products which already look good, are eminently portable and mobile already, and don’t require any net connection/investment in a new device).

2) The first month of figures are pretty much meaningless. Talk to me in six months about the number of app downloads, subscriber figures, and revenue. Then it’ll be clear whether the approach you’ve taken to the iPad is actually a solution, or just a very temporary bump.

Most applications will see good figures for the first month or two. They’re new in iTunes and get a little bit of promotion purely for that. And in this case, they’re also getting the bonus of a huge amount of hype around the iPad, and large amount of cross-promotion from the existing print and digital products. Here’s a question – How much revenue was given up in house ads to get the revenue the iPad app has generated?

The iPad is still hugely important:

I’m not denying the impact and value of the Apple iPad. It’s been extremely successful so far ( 2 million already sold), and is definitely driving a new way of accessing digital content (the web as well as apps).

But it’s far to early to say with certainty that the future of digital publishing lies in applications, and particularly in products which haven’t adapted to any benefits of digital distribution other than an easy paywall via iTunes. The larger iPad screen and speedy browser means a great way to surf the web for content without cost in many, many cases. And allows me to see all the peer-created and recommended content that is filtered for value to me in a more effective way than news organisations currently manage.

It’s only when excited new iPad owners have overcome their initial app-downloading frenzy and we can analyse repeat usage we’ll see whether this new distribution channel works for magazines – and whether anyone gets away with packaging the same product.

Not sure how to monetise your eyeballs?

While newspaper and magazine owners are still trying to decide whether or not they should aim for eyeballs or paywalls, there are several other companies who are happy to take up the challenge.

For instance, online social media publisher Mashable has signed a deal to syndicate content to Thursday editions of Metro in the U.S. Mashable founder Pete Cashmore is already a regular on CNN in the U.S, and Mashable and CNN. Plus Mashable has partnered with CNN for the Mashable Media Summit 2010.

It’s interesting to see that mainstream publications and online publications are increasingly merging, but the ‘digital natives’ seem less worried and more sure that they’ve already got the monetisation aspect under control.

One reason is that by the time the likes of Mashable and Techcrunch have reached their current scale, they have already had to answer the questions of how to fund an online business. But as they grew from relatively humble beginnings, they’ve tackled it as they’ve grown without having to worry about legacy systems and overheads.

And by the same token, if you look at the staffing levels – Mashable lists 20 staff, and Techcrunch lists 21.

Compare that to the epic lists of staff at most magazines, for example, and you can see a big contrast.  There are print magazines run by smaller teams, but none that have the scale of the leading blogs (Or at least what started out as blogs).

So how do you produce so much content with a small team across all our properties? Simple, count the guest posts and the open offers to submit work to the likes of Mashable and Techcrunch.

Then consider a quote from the 2010 PPA Conference from the Chief Executive of Future Publishing, Stevie Spring:

“Advertisers are scared of the prospect of seeing their ads next to user-generated content. This won’t change. All it takes is one bad example to put brands off.”

That’s why sites which benefit from user-generated content are filtering and curating that content to get value out of it. There’s a reason why there are successful businesses based around user-generated content, but 4Chan isn’t one of them.

How much to launch a new title online?

I’ve often wondered, and indeed directly questioned, why traditional publishers pondering new markets haven’t tested the water by launching an incredibly cost effective online trial for a new idea?

I suggested it quite a lot in the past – especially using external hosting and services to launch something for a total cost that’s less than a day’s pay for the lowliest of staff writers. And don’t claim that your market doesn’t use the internet – there are more than enough people from any demographic to give you a better idea of what they’ll do than a lot of panel-based research surveys of what people might claim they’d do.

How much would it cost?

Well some web hosting would cost around $60 for a year from a mainstream hosting provider.

A domain from the same place bought at the same time would be as low as $1.99 at the moment.

And having removed the potential roadblock of an uncooperative IT department, you might come up against problems getting design help?

Well, you could install WordPress and use a free theme.

Or, if you’re not happy and want something that comes with a more ‘professional’ look and guaranteed support, you can get a Premium, or Paid WordPress Theme for a good price.

For instance, for Online Race Driver, I went with the great Metro Theme from Studiopress (disc – aff links). The cost for that theme is $59.95 – or you can buy access to all their themes for $199.95. My experience with them has been good enough I’m looking to upgrade my membership shortly.  One benefit is that although many free themes are supported by their developers and support forums etc, the paid option tends to provide a slightly better guarantee of service levels etc.

But anyway, the cost to test your next idea with a website that can be set up in about an hour or so?

About $121.

Add in free website analytics from Google, and even include your own advertising, or bung in some Adsense ads.

And that’s what I’d have suggested for anyone – there are cheaper options, such as hosted blogs, but they tend to lack a little flexibility, or the chance to test advertisers etc.

But then I found out about the Secret London Facebook Group. As reported on Techcrunch, it’s reached 182,010 members in a handful of weeks.

Started by a university graduate competing for an internship, it’s now becoming a startup with not only 180,000+ members, but already 5000 photos uploaded.

Total cost? $0.

I’m not saying that it will necessarily translate into business success, but it’s a pretty effective way of tracking interest – and Facebook Connect would allow most of those interested to also interact with any new website.

Whenever someone has an idea for a new publication, it might be worth pausing before you dismiss it – and instead investing some time and a tiny amount of cash to see if it might fly…

Hi Newspapers – can I join the party?

Having spent a long time looking at, reading about, and experiencing firsthand the changes happening to print and digital mainstream media publishing, it’s a bit of a shock to find out I’ve gone down completely the wrong path.

Until now, I was siding with the view that complaining about Google ‘stealing’ the news and sending worthless visitors was more a sign of ineptitude and fear on the part of a traditional business model and industry which hasn’t radically changed in 100 years.

But then it struck me.

I write and publish content on two blogs.

That content is indexed by Google, even if I’m not a major contributor to Google News quite yet.

Google also supplies a lot of the advertising that appears on both my blogs.

Plus most of my blogging time is spent in Google Reader and Googlemail.

So that means if the newspapers can look for concessions from the Government, Google, Microsoft, and anywhere else they can think of, then so can I!

I can’t wait for the campaigning newspaper companies to get in touch and offer to help me as well. I might even get a call from Mr Murdoch himself.

And if cash isn’t forthcoming, I wouldn’t say no to a few links sending some more visitors my way… I don’t mind trying to make money from a much bigger pool of people…

The two digital publishing models of the near future

Two approaches to digital content creation and publishing are taking hold – and sadly neither of them are equivalent to the way most traditional publishers are set up.

The first is the ‘battery farm’ approach – as seen by aol. and several companies targeting content creation for primarily SEO purposes. Gather as many writers and journalists as you can keep in a warehouse, and get them to churn out as much content as possible for as many places as possible. And in the case of some companies, develop and use tools to see what people are actively searching for at the time to create the right content to capitalise on that interest (e.g. Yahoo).

The second is the ‘blogger’s niche’ approach. Start projects with just one or two people trialling an idea, see if it works, and if sustainable, built into a network model which can mean virtual offices and teams spread out wherever someone has an idea for niche content which could work. This is where you’re more likely to find great writing and insight in terms of longer, more thoughtful articles by people who can wax lyrically about their subject. See the likes of b5media, Techcrunch, Mashable, etc, etc.

The problem for traditional media companies is that they’re not geared up for either of these plans. They might have large numbers of content creators, but these people are grouped around specific products in the magazine industry, for example. The groups are too small to churn out content – and aren’t geared up yet for producing content for anyone else. Meanwhile they’re too large to use the network model – only the very smallest print magazine editorial teams are anything near compact enough, and even then the infrastructure and processes already in place mean it would be easier to scrap it all and start again.

This is all assuming a business model predominantly based on advertising revenue, which requires increasingly low costs in order to drive any profits. Other production method will exist hand-in-hand with different business models. But they will need to be created around the new business model, rather than vice-versa.

Is any magazine company leading the way digitally?

Does any magazine company have a clear strategy for their digital business? Viewing it from the outside, there seems even less chance of picking who will be successful in the future.

Dennis Publishing seemed to be leading the way with online mags Monkey, iGizmo and iMotor, but has gone on to buy The First Post and  bit-tech.net. Now it’s buying Kontraband, which has been around for 10 years, and has seen unique users decline from 10 million to 3 million as online video has solidified around the likes of Youtube and the BBC iPlayer.

Integrating video from a Dennis-controlled site into the other properties might make sense – after all, the various outlets guarantee a certain number of views, and there won’t be a need to share revenue with Google/Youtube.

Future Publishing is adding an online album club costing £3 a month for Classic Rock to let people read online reviews and download advance copies of the accompanying albums.

Meanwhile Conde Nast is closing Men.Style.com to focus on a new GQ.com website, Businessweek is up for sale by McGraw-Hill, and my former home at Bauer Media has been pretty quiet on the digital front since relaunching Aloud.com and shuttering Ditto.net (which has now been removed entirely from the internet).

So what seems to be a wise move?

Dennis expanding their portfolio seems logical, especially as they can now experiment to see whether their own revenue from Kontraband makes more sense than the bigger marketing potential of Youtube, and whether they can entice their 3 million unique users with some text to accompany their videos.

Conde Nast aligning their online and offline titles is also a good move – too often companies have tried to build portal sites which incorporate a number of magazines – to hide costs and a lack of content and resource – and have ended up trying to establish new brands whilst confusing audiences.  And there are some really viable alternatives…

What don’t make sense?

I’m not entirely convinced by an online album club – granted the Classic Rock audience are more likely to be familiar with an album club than torrenting MP3s, but is there enough to justify £3 in the face of memberships for the increasingly familiar Spotify and Last.fm? Plus the music labels are making their own moves to become content providers, along with the artist themselves.

Having worked on Ditto, obviously I’m biased about it, but as it was pretty much quiet on the staff/development front, it seems strange to save some minimal server costs.

Oh, and I’m still not tempted by the print UK edition of Wired. Besides the obvious ‘geeks on the internet’ issue, I’d have rather seen a larger U.S. edition which included more UK coverage and content to boost awareness of UK companies, and to go further to justifying the cover price.

Any less confused?

Ads and Paywalls won’t save newspapers and magazines

Numerous newspapers and associations of publishers are discussing the topic of paywalls for specific content or entire sites in an attempt to ‘create value by beginning to charge for it’ in the words of the American Press Institute.

Sadly for that plan, it’s not 1998 or 1898, and I’m not sure how charging for something creates value. The value that should have been created was lost when sales teams bundled online advertising as a free or low cost ‘added value’ bonus to print advertising, at a time when online adverts were capable of getting a decent click-through rate – and then not investing in helping advertisers to utilise new opportunities to better connect with their prospective customers.

The end result is that display advertising is generally decreasing in direct effectiveness and value (although there can still be branding benefits), and attempts to offer more innovative solutions generally fail because advertisers find it too much of a leap from simply booking the biggest reach at the lowest price they can negotiate. Those advertisers that are more innovative, meanwhile, have already started learning that they can create their own content and interaction directly with customers.

And the paywall debate continues to ignore the problem.

Instead it’s simply gouging consumers instead of advertisers.

I already have a paywall around newspaper content – which is one reason why I don’t buy print content. Every day I walk past racks of printed content protected by a cover price, because I can quickly access a wealth of equivalent content online, tag it and save it, interact with it, and often interact with the authors of it – whether bloggers, or increasingly mainstream media employees.

Want an example of ways to monetise a piece of content effectively – this is probably my favourite example of making the most of it.

It means investing in the content creators in your company who can connect and leverage levels of interest – whether they’re a celebrity columnist or an editorial assistant. It’s easy to forget the passion people feel for their favourite title or writers when you’re stuck inside the bubble all day.

It means creating value worth paying for and then offering people the chance to invest in it. And people need to be able to judge and justify the value for themselves – not be forced. Think forcing people works? Bugmenot begs to differ.

And it means creating value for the businesses who are looking for new customers.
I’ve seen companies move advertising budgets because a commercial person switched companies after giving them great service and helping them learn better ways to connect and make sales. If that person was able to educate more businesses, the demand from competitors and other companies would follow.

The problem is that doing all this requires more work, which could reduce the profit margin – but I’d rather have a small profit that can grow, rather than heading for losses.

US print advertising sales

US print advertising sales

U.S print ad sales dropped 28.28% in the first quarter of 2009, losing more than $2.6 billion in ad revenue. There’s a lot more analysis on Alan Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur, including breakdowns by category, but losing almost a third of the value suggests U.S. print ad sales are reaching terminal velocity, and the rest of the world isn’t going to be far behind.

Online sales also fell by a record 13.4%.

That doesn’t mean businesses don’t need to sell as many widgets and doohickies than ever.

It means they can’t see enough value in print or online newspaper advertising to use a recession-hit budget.

And those that survive the recession will have had a crash course in finding alternatives which are more cost-effective and justifiable. They won’t be rushing back.

The messy future for magazines

Two stories on the Mediaweek site today perfectly illustrate the complexity and confusion in the publishing world.

At 7.30am it was suggested that Bauer Media (Disclosure – I worked for Bauer Media/Emap until earlier this year) would be reviving The Face, with an all-digital proposition one of the possibilities. While I’m not alone in wondering why The Face would be picked, considering the recent closure of Arena, any re-launch is a rare occurrence. And particularly a digital one. Bauer Media, by the way, has officially denied any such plans.

Then at 4.10pm it was revealed that John Menzies Digital has folded. Which means the end of magazinesondemand.co.uk and white label versions for WHSmith and Asda. The service had allowed readers to download over 100 magazines in digital editions. Paid Content has some more context around the decision, which closes the business after just 14 months.

So we’ve gone from a possible digital relaunch of an iconic title to the loss of over 100 digital editions in the space of a day.

What this hopefully illustrates better than anything is that the future of publishing or broadcasting any content is full of uncertainty at the moment. And there is no ‘right answer’ to how best to transform for the future.

Actually that’s a lie.

The right answer is to try various ideas, keep optimising them, and count a reasonable time span in years rather than months.