Print is dying, but it’s not black and white

Tomorrow, the ABC figures for UK magazines will be released, and for many titles, these will show big drops in circulation. You’ll see a lot of tweets, posts and commentary about how the dead tree media is dying, and how traditional publishers are failing to deal with the hand digital is dealing them.

There is some truth to this, but of course the story is more complex than that.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with our CTO and head of PR, both to look at the ABC figures and to talk about the massive increases in digital reading we’re seeing on our websites and in particular, our apps. We went through our analytics and got together some figures showing big gains, including the fact we’ve served 4 million issues via apps in 2012, wrote up a press release… and failed to get any interest from the media press whatsoever.

“It’s just another milestone,” we were told. Which of course is exactly what the ABCs are. Only the ABCs will be used as if they offer some terrific insight into an entire industry comprising thousands of radically different businesses. It’s a classic case of confirmation bias: the decline of print is a well-established story, and what we’re saying doesn’t fit into that.

But I think it’s also that we’re not just trying to brag about a big number – the second part of the press release talked about the fact that over 75% of these issues were served via apps on our COPE system (Create Once, Publish Everywhere), and this is a pretty complex story to talk about.

My view here – and to be honest, it’s my view with a lot of digital stuff – is that we’re not talking about a straightforward decline of one thing and the rise of another. The fetishization of “disruption” blinds us to the fact the Facebook is just as likely to be disrupted by the iPhone as CNN. Mobile in particular is a nuanced area with a lot of shades of grey.

COPE is a set of tools and designs developed both internally by the in-house emerging platforms team I run, Dennis Media Factory, and by a small number of trusted agencies supplying key pieces of technology. Linking together customised Drupal CMSes for each magazine, bespoke HTML5 templates, native app code and subscriptions logic, COPE is a set of strategic directives and the product of two years of learning that let us publish to a wide range of tablets and phones.

For those titles using COPE, where we have excellent analytics, we can see a lot about changing patterns of readership: as well as serving 3.13 million digital issues to readers worldwide via these apps, they’ve attracted 445,000 new users, racking up 7.6 million reading sessions. This is for titles such as The Week, Men’s Fitness and Auto Express. All three are great examples of well-established print brands that are finding both a new audience via apps, and that are forming stronger connections with their existing audiences as well. We’ve done a lot of really difficult work on both the technical and UX side of combining print and digital subscriptions, and what we’re seeing is that print users who take digital spend more time with the content and have much higher renewal rates.

What we’re actually seeing is that a shift in reading patterns, made possible by smartphones and tablets, presents a big opportunity to media companies, both for new projects and for existing magazine brands – provided, of course, that you’re willing to work on the UX and that what you’re selling is based on a fundamentally sound proposition.

But of course, print is dying, so you know, whatever.

At this point, I’m starting to understand why Jeff Bezos has said that one of Amazon’s key strengths is that they are “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”

Oh, and yes, I am aware it’s somewhat ironic for an ex-journalist to complain about the press. Somewhat.

2 thoughts on “Print is dying, but it’s not black and white

  1. It’s fair enough that the circulation is measuring different readership patterns, but how are these new or different readership patterns generating a revenue stream? Are they all doing this? (Does it matter if some aren’t?)

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