The Future of Publishing Is Now

This is an edited version of a talk presented to the Alberta Magazine Publishers Association annual conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on March 15, 2013.

(Read a brief recap of this presentation on the AMPA website.)

I’m sure you realize that this is a time of great change and challenge in the magazine business—no doubt the greatest we’ve ever faced.

On the one hand, right now magazine-making is exhilarating. Never before have the creative teams of magazines been as engaged with the task of coming up with new ideas, new formats, and new ways of presenting information. We’re learning new skills and new technologies every day. Some days I’m having more fun and feeling more creative and fulfilled than I ever have in my career, and I imagine it’s the same for you.

Now of course, the bad news, which you’re well-acquainted with. The number of people who read printed publications continues to decline. According to a study released late last year from the Pew Research Center, over the past 10 years, the number of people who “read a print magazine yesterday” dropped from 23 percent in 2002 to 17 percent in 2012.

Magazine stacks

Both ad and circulation revenue from print editions have fallen more than 20 percent since their peak near the middle of the last decade. And forecasts for the future show no recovery from that decline.

Revenue at the world’s largest magazine publisher, Time Inc., fell to $3.4 billion in 2012. That’s roughly 38 percent below its peak in 2004. And operating profit declined to $420 million, less than half of what it was in 2004.

I’m sure here in Alberta you’re familiar with the term “peak oil.” Well, in the magazine business, we’ve hit “peak print.” The number of subscribers, the dollars from advertising, and certainly the number of viable print magazines are never going to be bigger than there are now, or were eight years ago. That’s not to say you’re not going to have the occasional success, or a record-breaking ad sales issue, but the trends are obvious, and those numbers are going to keep declining, or at best stay stagnant. Print may not be dead yet, but its viability is being called into question, and new, more forward-looking means of distributing content are popping up every day. We’re all asking, what should a magazine be and do for the future? Is it apps? Phones? What about the web? Will there even be a print edition five or 10 years from now?

There’s a daunting challenge ahead for all of us. I grew up in Buffalo, which as you know is a big hockey town like Calgary, so I know you’ll get this analogy. In the magazine business, it feels like we’re all playing short-handed right now. In fact, it might even be a five-on-three situation. And it’s not going to be enough to just kill the penalty, we’ve got to score a goal!

No one knows your audience and your market better than you do. You’ve been putting out successful and well-crafted magazines for years. You know what you’re doing. There’s no one better-positioned to respond to the challenges of the future than the people in this room. We don’t need a change in our number one asset, which is the people who produce our content, who run our businesses, who sell our ads, who manufacture the magazines.

sf-newspaper-graveyard_boston-comBut, and here’s the big but. It’s no longer a question of just making changes. What we’ve learned over the past few years is that constant change is going to be the new normal in our business. If you want to see an example of someone who didn’t see the need to change, and was happy just killing the penalty, look at the newspaper industry. Newspapers, like magazines, were fundamentally unchanged for 100 years in terms of how they delivered their content and how they interacted with their readers. They were cash cows, fat and lazy. Their response to the changing dynamic was to basically do nothing, or throw a lot of money at bad solutions, and then finally in response to falling profits, to cut back on the one thing that was their strength: their staffs and their content. The newspaper people thought they were iconic, that they couldn’t fail. Well, “iconic is not a business model,” as Forbes so smartly put it in a recent column. Ask the people at Newsweek or Gourmet, or any of the other “iconic” magazines that have folded over the past decade.

My purpose here is not to talk about business strategies or complicated high-tech content delivery systems. I’m a content creation person. I’ve spent 25 years working at high-profile magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Real Simple, Fortune, and Reader’s Digest, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that what readers want from a magazine is content, and what they love is the brand. So I think that the best response to the challenge of the future, or the future present, is to create the best possible content, to do the highest level of magazine-making and brand creation and extension possible. Look at the music industry. Despite endless predictions of its death, what they discovered was that the format, whether it was 78s, LPs, 8-Tracks, CDs or mp3s didn’t matter; it was the songs that people wanted.

So our challenge of making the best content means making it for our readers, or lookers, or listeners, or viewers, and delivering it to them in the way that reaches and engages them, in a way that is constantly updating itself to adapt to social and technological change.

Last summer when I was still at Reader’s Digest, we had a dozen very talented young interns from colleges all over the country. Once a week the staff would sit down with them and talk about a designated subject. At one meeting we talked about magazines and media and what was important in their daily lives. Here was the most revealing stat from that conversation, and it probably comes as no surprise to most of you: Their number one source of news was Twitter. And their number one vehicle for getting news and information was their phones. In fact, every single one of those young future journalists said that the phone was their number one source for media interactivity.

This is the challenge that is confronting us. I talked with a lot of people in the industry in preparing for this talk, and what I found is that no one knows the answer, everyone has a different idea, and there’s no clarity at all, outside of a lot of chasing of technology. But most interestingly, what I discovered is that it’s not platforms or technology that are defining the future, it’s the way people are reimagining their content presentation and their brands.

5 guideposts that successful magazines are using to craft their strategies for the future.

1. A magazine is not paper and ink. It’s a brand. Darhil Crooks, the creative director of The Atlantic, says: “In the future, a magazine might still be on paper, or it might be in a pill that you swallow and the story gets absorbed into your blood stream and makes its way to your brain. At the end of the day a magazine isn’t the paper it’s printed on, it’s the stories and art inside.” This is the fundamental change of our business. People want their content delivered in a variety of ways, on multiple platforms, in multiple ways over the course of the day, week, month. What your magazine is now is a brand and content, and your job is no longer to be just a print magazine-maker, it’s to leverage that brilliant content and the powerful brand you have across all those multiple platforms, with ink, pixels, video, events, books, products, social media and whatever else is about to be invented. The key here is that you have to stop thinking of the print version as the “real” version, and every other platform as a replica of that. It’s not good enough to close the print magazine, and then throw a few extras on the website and put together a replica app.

Magazine covers

The best magazines today are the ones who have unique, compelling presences on multiple platforms, who recognize that the audiences for the web, print, and apps are different, and need to be engaged in different ways. If you want to see people who in my opinion are doing it right, look at Fast Company, The New Yorker, National Geographic, The Atlantic. They all have brilliant, well-thought out presences on multiple platforms, and have reader communities who passionately identify with the brand. As Chris Hercik, the creative director of Sports illustrated says: “The health of the brand is determined by the brand’s ability to actively recruit new readership at every touchpoint. Our audience wants to be able to access their content, when and where they choose. And each touchpoint has to be designed with that product’s strengths in mind.”

2. One size does not fit all. A magazine is not paper and ink…unless it is. Just because Reader’s Digest or Popular Mechanics has a successful app doesn’t mean that’s the right approach for your magazine. There’s nothing worse than a magazine that has produced an app because they feel like they have to, and it just sits there, a flat, boring replica, doing nothing. You don’t have to go into every platform, or every form of social media. You only have so many resources. Figure out where you audience and brand are, where and how they specifically can be reached and engaged, and go there in strength. Look at Uppercase, the crafty DIY magazine based here in Calgary. They’ve embraced print brilliantly, with all its tactile charms. And for their audience and in their format, it seems to be working wonderfully. It may be that print alone is perfect for you. Or that what you really should do is convert your print magazine to an app. Ultimately each of us has to craft a distinct and unique media presence. You should always ask these questions when moving on to a new platform or form of social media: How does this advance our brand, do we have a distinct voice and set of content that will fill this format, and are our readers engaged here?

3. Your readers are a community—engage them. Peggy Northrop, the former editor of More and Reader’s Digest says, “The conversation with readers is just as important as the act of publishing a given piece, and no one is better than writers and editors at having that real conversation.” You have to engage your readers directly and intimately at every level and on every platform where they want to interact with you, and you have to use that connection to build a greater community. People want to be hyper-engaged with their media. We’re a society of connecting, of “liking” and commenting and sharing. You’ve got the brand and you’ve got the trust. The power of multiple platforms is that you can cheaply and quickly connect with that community. The classic example of a magazine that has built a community of readers is The New Yorker. The New Yorker has built a global community of readers who recognize each other (and who honestly probably feel superior to non-New Yorker readers). Is it a surprise that the most popular feature in The New Yorker is the back page reader cartoon caption contest? It has spun off books, and even websites that analyze and discuss the best ways to win. There’s a New Yorker festival, datebooks, greeting cards, you can buy prints of the covers and cartoons, clothing and gear. And they’re one of the few who have been successful with apps and mobile apps. That’s because they know their audience and know exactly how they interact with the magazine.

At Real Simple, we started taking video cameras and interviewing people in their homes asking them how they used and read the magazine, and actually watched them interact with it. We learned, for example, that most of our readers read the magazine in bed or in the bathtub! The other thing we did at Real Simple was that we would ask the readers at the start of each year what the most important problems and concerns in their lives were. Then we would use those lists to come up with stories and covers that addressed their concerns. The idea was to not only find out how they used the magazine, but what they wanted from the magazine. The end result was one of the most passionate communities of readers in the business.

4. Embrace technology.  People are constantly saying, “you need a digital strategy, you need a web strategy.” I think you need a brand strategy, and digital and web are the tools you use to make that happen. Technology is not a strategy! The idea of creating a separate strategy based on a digital platform without integrating the rest of your content platforms is silly. That’s how you end up spending a lot of money on expensive tech ideas that don’t work or are outdated as soon as you get them going. Just ask the people at Time Inc. who for years followed a never-ending series of digital and web strategies, totally cocooned from the actual content and the magazine readers, and spending millions of dollars and getting nothing for it.

That said, you do need to embrace new technologies to confront the future, because this is where your readers (and potential readers) are getting their information and interacting with media. Of course, you’re not going to rise or fall because you waited six months to create an app. On the other hand, you’re never going to learn how to do it and how to integrate it with the rest of your brand if you don’t start now. My suggestion is that rather than moving your magazine into every platform available, going wide and shallow, that you go narrow and deep. Pick those one or two platforms that work in synch with what you’re doing. Pick one social media platform, and have your staff engage with it 24/7 like The New York Times does. You don’t have to start doing a weekly or monthly app. Try doing a special issue one-shot, or an extrapolation of a popular feature in your magazine, and then promote it like crazy. This is a strategy that was embraced by Entertainment Weekly, and The Guardian, to name just two.

RD AppLet me tell you the story about the Reader’s Digest app. Now Reader’s Digest is probably the last magazine you would think that would throw itself successfully into iPad apps. But what we knew was that the magazine was very successful on the Kindle; in fact, Reader’s Digest was the top-selling magazine on that platform. So we knew that our readers had an interest in digital versions of the magazine. We didn’t know anything about making an app. We did it all in-house, and figured it out as we went along. There was a lot of trial and error. But the process was empowering. We identified people on staff who had skills that could be utilized. And we came up with a strategy for the digital editions that was in line with our overall brand strategy. Not only were the iPad editions a big success, but the process of creating the app came back and informed the print editions and other platforms. The lessons of design and usability that grew out of the app creation spread back to the print magazine, the website, books, and more.

5. Invest in the future: We need to invest in our brands. The biggest investment that I think you all need to make is not in technology, not in promotion, not in fancy offices, it’s in staff. You need talented, engaged, smart people who are coming up with a million ideas and producing great content. Our strength is integrity, authenticity, knowledge, communication. You can’t outsource that, and you can’t create that if your staff is working twice as hard with half the resources. There are plenty of things I could suggest for the publishers here to spend money on, but nothing will give return like the proper amount of staff. So when I say invest in the future, I mean it’s all about hiring smart people who understand the new media landscape and can approach it with nimbleness and imagination.

But there are other kinds of investment, too. A couple years ago I went to work at JCK, which is a trade magazine for the retail jewelry industry. They’ve been around over 100 years, they have their niche in the market, but a newer, younger-focused competitor was nipping at their heels. Their challenge was how to reimagine themselves but keep the essence of their brand. What they did was invest in the physical structure of the magazine, making it oversize, with thick, lush paper, and better printing. What had been a quality trade magazine was suddenly a stylish fashion magazine that looked and felt like W, while still keeping the trade editorial content that its readers expected. The idea was to heighten the engagement of the magazine with store owners, to get them to leave it out on the counter, show it to customers. So not only were they reading it, they were sharing it with their community, and expanding the reach of JCK at the same time.

Here are 5 ways to position your magazines for the future

* Reimagine your print pages. The smart magazines are starting with their actual content and story presentation, coming up with imaginative new ways to engage and surprise readers. At Real Simple, they’ve created a new page in the magazine called “worth sharing,” devoted to web-based content: reader polls on Facebook, Instagram photos, bookmarked blogs. Most importantly, they’ve added watermark on all pages with scannable content. When the reader holds her smartphone over the magazine, she goes to a web page with expanded content: videos, blogs, recipes and more.

Time magazine has gone the other way. They’re doubling down on longform journalism. A recent issue featured a 36-page cover story, the longest in the magazine’s history, on the overcharging of medical costs. It plays to what many people think is still print’s great strength, that it’s the most effective format for in-depth reading.

* Connect your platforms. Reader’s Digest Canada has introduced Layar content to their print magazines. It’s an easy way for print subscribers to access slideshows, videos, and other material that is on their iPad editions.



* Build new franchises that grow out of existing formats. Fast Company’s Fastcodesign project has taken on a life of its own. It started as a channel on the magazine’s website, and now has become its own brand, with a daily email newsletter, and most importantly, an annual design competition that this year will grow into a one-day conference. Not only does it provide a steady flow of content to various platforms, but it’s a new and healthy revenue stream.

* Promote your products. You put out a magazine every month. How do you let your community know that there’s a new issue, that they should stop and take notice? One thing a lot of people are doing now is making promotional videos, for both print and app editions. Look at this brilliant promo from British men’s magazine Port.


* Build your community with new forms of social media. People magazine is using two new technologies to create multimedia coverage and to add content and reader-reaction to stories in real time. 

Storify uses social media’s response to a subject, organizes it, and presents it in short form in a way anyone coming to it can easily and quickly catch up on the story itself. They use this to post readers’ responses to stories in the magazine and on the website.

Videolicious is an app that is used on your phone or iPad, to record a short video that automatically takes still and video images from a photo library, adds music, voice over and original video, then edits, mixes and spits out a fully-formed polished video in under five minutes. This is a way for the magazine’s editors and writers to quickly produce and post video.

What’s going to happen over the next few years?

First, lots of apps.  There’s no denying that The New Yorker, Popular Mechanics, Reader’s Digest (even though they recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy!), and others are doing well with their magazine apps. As Neil Jamieson, design director of Money, and the man behind much of Time Inc.’s current app creation says, “The bottom line is that apps can boost a brand’s ‘cool factor’ and relevance. They bring much needed outreach and brand exposure. They help sell ads, serve as great PR and while they may not fill the coffers, they turn heads and generate buzz…”

Thanks to DPS, CS6 and whatever is coming next, apps will be so easy and cheap to create that magazines will be doing more of them with fewer staff, faster, more efficiently and probably on the go.

29th St.Digital replicas will have little future, although people will keep producing them. iPad users will want dynamic apps that are unique, and have a variety of experiences. I think there’s going to be a continued emphasis on special one-offs with all the bells and whistles: events for things like the Oscars, Olympics, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, as well as anniversary and memorials. The next time the Calgary Flames win hockey’s Stanley Cup, you’ll all be making commemorative apps. I think we’re also going to see the rise of free-standing, unique magazine apps. That’s already starting with projects like 29th Street Publishing and the Huffington. magazine app, and I expect a lot more of this in the next year.

Phones. I think the biggest growth over the next few years is going to be on phones. They’re going to explode! Mobile apps and the mobile web experience is going to be a place we are all going to want to be, very quickly. It’s where you can get the biggest bang for your buck, and where you can reach your community instantly at any time.

Social media is going to continue to explode and to get more sophisticated, and to reach deeper into our lives. It’s going to continue to serve as a main vehicle for communication, but also a trusted source for news, information, and reviews. And while social media is not a magazine, it’s a place that magazines have to be, in force. Even Rupert Murdoch is tweeting these days. It’s the easiest, cheapest way to extend your brand and build your community.

In terms of print, I think we’re going to see less frequent publication, more special issues, and in some cases, better production values and paper, as some publishers decide to emphasize the physical strengths of the printed form.

IndiesThe boom in independent publishing, a very localized and individualized format, will continue, with great success, at least on the editorial level.

On the other hand, I think sadly we’re going to see more print magazines disappear, or become seriously diminished. I expect a number of iconic magazines in the U.S. to cease publication in the coming year.

What we’re seeing is the ultimate personalization of magazines. We’re going to end up creating and designing many multiple versions, with wide varieties of content and design for each publication. We may end up with one version that is simply all text, another that is all photos and videos and cartoons, etc. That’s where I think the future of magazines is ultimately going, to both hyper-specialization, and also to some kind of ultimate mashup of web, digital, mobile, and print. It’s all about diversification, engagement, multiple audiences, and the brand experience. And that means it’s going to come down to the readers/viewers/experiencers trusting and believing in your product and your brand.

Special thanks to Florian Bachleda, Dirk Barnett, Matthew Bates, Darhil Crooks, Andrea Dunham, Janet Froelich, Chris Hercik, David Jacobs, Josh Klenert, Jeremy LaCroix, Michael Lawton, Jeremy Leslie, Chantelle Lesvesque, Peggy Northrop, D.W. Pine, Dominique Ritter, and Joe Zeff for their advice and contributions to this talk.