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The future of print in a digital world

By K. J. Gold | September 25, 2012
The future of print in a digital world
The future of print in a digital world

There was a time when all a newspaper or magazine publisher had to worry about was pulling in readers and advertising dollars.

In the last 15 years or so, the Internet came along and changed the game for the entire print media industry. The problem was the rules of the game were changing so fast that publishers and editors struggled to keep up. Those changes have nowhere near slowed down.

The digital world has moved beyond the Internet into multi-platform media that currently take the shape of the laptop, the tablet and the smartphone– all vehicles for a groundswell of content providers directly competing for traditional print readership and ad dollars, particularly in the youth demographic.

Recently, major print players came together in Vancouver for a roundtable discussion on the topic, including John Cruickshank, Publisher of the Toronto Star; Wayne Moriarty, Editor-in-Chief of the Vancouver Province; and Mark Jamison, Chief Executive Officer of Magazines Canada.

All three suggested consolidation among print media is one way to manage non-competitive costs. That would help them survive the glut of competition they now face from online publishers of all types – news aggregators, online listings, specialty websites, professional-amateur (pro-am) bloggers, social media like Twitter and Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, and the flood of mobile apps that can provide breaking news in a heartbeat.

The threat of a different medium isn’t something entirely new to the industry, Cruickshank pointed out. Following the advent of television, nearly half of the newspaper titles in North America disappeared. Morning and afternoon papers combined to survive this period of creative destruction, giving way to the single, dominant, thriving metropolitan newspaper we now see in so many U.S. cities.

Although user-friendly digital media is far more pervasive than television, the publishing industry is entering a similar period of creative destruction where only the best in mainstream journalism will survive.

“The dynamic may also change as the number of content creators declines,” suggested Cruickshank. “So we may see a shakedown into fewer titles, and that content may not be as ubiquitous as it is right now. And it will have a higher value.” He added that subscription rates for newspapers are rising, an indication that readers are indeed ready to pay more for quality.

Newspapers, they agreed, are good value, even if subscription prices go up. In comparison, digital data rates are not low and monthly data bills are often shocking for consumers, said Moriarty. The other downside of digital-only media is that a lot of the pro-am content is issue-based writing, geared toward a niche audience. Editorial quality can swing wildly in the digital world. Newspapers have the advantage of consistency, resources, balanced reporting, layout, design and photography expertise, a fixed price, and access to high-profile sources and bureaucracies.

Magazines are a little trickier because, as Jamison pointed out, the price points are all over the map since they don’t operate in a daily competitive environment. Some specialty magazines with a limited market must charge high prices. There is also a steady stream of American publications ,websites and aggregators, such as the Huffington Post, scooping up a share of Canadian readership. One way the Canadian industry has attempted to curtail some of this loss is through the online newsstand Zinio where electronic versions of Canadian magazines are sold by reduced-rate subscription. With 200 titles, the service has sold one million paid subscriptions in the year and a half since it began.

“I agree with John, I think we have a core of customers out there who will pay a premium for our product,” said Moriarty. “But I do think it’s incumbent upon us to make our product better suited to what they want.”

And therein lies the problem. What do print customers want?

All participants agreed that there will always be a demand for thorough reporting, high-standard journalism and print publications that engage the reader—conveying the feeling that a print publication is something special; an event to be enjoyed and remembered.. But, to complicate matters, it would seem readers also want different information for unique platforms and traditional print publishers needs to find relevance within those platforms, said Jamison. They also need to find ways to advertise within, and efficiently target audiences of, each platform.

“Reading the numbers, we are beginning to understand that we have to go back and ask them [in what platform] they want to see their material again, rather than saying, ‘How are we going to monetize this platform?’”

Investing in these new digital platforms is expensive. For Canadian magazines, the lesson learned from their counterparts to the south has been to move cautiously, particularly where video is concerned.

“Now the complaint is that [electronic magazines] are too static, they’re just replications,” said Jamison. “So now everybody is putting in enriched video. It’s a question of going a little slower into it because we’ve watched the American industry closely and they did everything at once… We are on the threshold of doing better because we’ve been more cautious in all our media.”

The Vancouver Province has a full-time staffer in charge of social media and has invested in video for its website to compete with the digital realm. The Toronto Star’s website has a highly user-friendly interface. The paper has also started offering custom publications as added value for its advertisers.

Still, Moriarty doesn’t see the traditional newspaper model surviving as it exists today. Print newsrooms are already looking more like TV newsrooms with cameras and lights installed and long-time print reporters taking their turn as talking heads for the first time in their careers. He wonders if the cost of hiring a videographer to shoot and edit a video is worth the number of relatively paltry views.

“We are going to be smaller, no question. If you ask me if I’m optimistic about the future of big, robust newsrooms, I’ll say absolutely ‘No. They will not exist [in their current state].’” For now, it will continue to be a matter of cutting costs and finding ways to increase value among readers who are loyal to print.

“In traditional businesses, you are hammering costs down as hard as you can,” observed Jamison. “But you are trying to do it without undermining the value of the product with respect to the consumer’s eyes. And this is the challenge of consolidation.”

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