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The Dirt on Online Magazines, Part II

Posted on Friday, April 30, 2010 at 1:27 PM

With all the pro and anti hype, what's at the end of the rainbow?

By Meredith L. Dias

"The iPad: Print killer" was the cartoon caption in a recent edition of The Week. The cartoon suggested that print is dead and buried. By contrast, "The Internet is fleeting. Magazines are immersive" was the headline of an ad put together by a group of print publishers. And so rages on the war of hype and anti-hype campaigns on the subject of online magazines.

If you cut through the hyperbolic claims and counterclaims, however, there are some serious issues that demand consideration.

Reader acceptance. Novelty and trendy techno-gadgets aside, will readers really want to devour all your content online in the long run?

Profitability. Publishers talk of getting pennies on the dollar for online magazine ads. Others scramble to develop yet-unproven platforms to extract "micropayments" from consumers long accustomed to free online content.

Coexistence. Proponents and opponents tend to cast online vs. print in all or nothing terms. It's black and white thinking. When will the industry embrace the concept of coexistence rather than one vs. the other?

What the Readers Want

"Fewer members have switched from print to digital than we had anticipated," reported Donald Tepper, editor of PT in Motion at the American Physical Therapy Association. It seems that the development of a digital edition does not always meet expectations. As a result, Tepper adds, "we've experienced little savings in printing or postage."

"Members continue to value our print journal, as it is highly portable and marks them as experts in their field," remarks Bridget Struble, program director for publications of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. "One member has touted JPEN as 'the jewel in my crown.'" Nonetheless, Struble appreciates the practicality and social networking capabilities of their online edition.

What can we take away from stories like these? Simply put, a digital edition will not necessarily outperform its print counterpart. However, rather than taking a black-and-white position on the issue, there is value in both online and print presences.

Why Don't You Ask Them?

Instead of engaging in the abstract and polarized dialogue typical among some industry professionals, it may be wise to turn to research. Ann Mahoney, publishing director of ICMA (International City/County Management Association), is intent on dong just that. "We're going to survey members about the ways in which they want content delivered (and/or in what ways they want to engage in creating or adding to content). Part of the survey will be about what content they want, and part will be about in what ways they'd like to access or receive that content," she explains.

What is most important is analyzing your individual audience and responding to its unique needs -- not jumping onto the digital bandwagon because digital media pundits have sworn off print or because gadgets like the iPad are so seductive. And, perhaps more importantly, don't swear off online editions because a print campaign claims that the Internet is "fleeting."

Producing Digital That Pleases Readers

Are there concrete steps that editors can take to make the most of digital publishing? There are plenty of services out there to help magazines make the transition to online or digital. We recently spoke with representatives from several digital publishing platform providers, including Mygazines and Nxtbook Media, regarding the mistakes that magazines make when digitizing.

According to Randy Frisch, chief marketing officer of Mygazines, strong design elements must be in place before creating a digital edition. "Publications need to be already appealing to the eye before going digital. Content and most of its design elements will be retained so, if that doesn't attract print readers, it will probably encounter the same problem with a digital version."

Marcus Grimm, marketing director of Nxtbook Media, shares his list of top mistakes magazines make when going digital: "Not enough email addresses, no promotion of the digital magazine on the website, content not formatted for the screen, a bad interface, and no versatility." Not only must layout be readable on a computer screen, but it must also be optimized for e-readers and smartphones, which represent a rapidly growing market segment in the digital reading population.

No More Digital Denial

The cause of online magazine profitability received a real boost recently. The Audit Bureau of Circulation has decided to include online audience in its tally of a print publication's circulation. That means publishers will have a certifiably higher rate base and presumably will be able to charge higher rates for ads.

Before ABC's decision to broaden its definition of digital editions, the organization would count online audience only if a publication's digital edition was a mirror image of its print edition. That meant the format of the advertising and editorial content online had to be identical to the print edition format. That was quite a restriction, and left out virtually anything formatted for mobile devices.

This is a timely change. A recent survey by Pew Research Center, summarized in The Mygazines Blog, finds that nearly one-third of Americans use mobile devices to read news. What's more, 75 percent of news consumers rely on social networking sites and email to get their news content. As smartphones like the iPhone and Google Android become increasingly mainstream, this number may increase significantly.

ABC would have been doing a great disservice to the industry they serve if they had withheld a definition of "digital editions" that essentially vaporized a rapidly growing circulation segment.

What This Means for Print

In early March, five major publishers (Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, Time Inc., and Wenner Media) launched a "power of print" advertising campaign to fight back against the digitize-or-die mentality. It is an undertaking of considerable proportions. According to the Wall Street Journal, the campaign involves $90 million of advertising money and approximately 1,400 advertising pages spread throughout several magazines.

This campaign is of particular importance to magazine editors. An increase in print advertising revenue could mean an increase in budget and editorial pages. As many of you know all too well, print magazine editors have had to make do with very little over the past few years. The recent publishing crisis has shrunken staffs, budgets, and the number of available editorial pages. In some cases, quality has suffered. If this campaign is successful, it could mean that, for the first time in several years, print editors may be able to breathe.

However, some feel that the Power of Print campaign takes its pro-print rhetoric a little too far -- particularly in a two-page spread featuring a photograph of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on the verso page, and a written tribute to print magazines on the recto page asserting that "the internet is fleeting" and "magazines are immersive."

But on the Other Hand...

"Every media buyer knows that is pure bunk," asserts media analyst Bo Sacks in a recent Print CEO article. "It is the Internet that is immersive, and the kids that buy the ads and spend the advertising money know it." He cautions magazine professionals not to "tell [readers] that they live in a fleeting, soon-to-be-evaporated world. That is a lie."

All this polarity between camps raises an important question: Are print and online editions complementary or competitive entities, compatible or at odds?

What About Coexistence?

The Power of Print campaign pits print versus online. But the answer may not be so black-and-white. A smarter strategy may be to harmonize print and online content. Maintain brand recognition, and appeal to a broader reader base -– one whose reading preferences is likely diverse.

"We are not just publishing magazines any longer," says designer Debbie Bates-Schrott in a recent Editors Only article. She advises editors and publishers to ask themselves the following questions:

--What is the print magazine accomplishing for the reader?
--Can it be done online?
--Online only?
--Or can you provide something different online that can strengthen the brand?"

Print vs. Online -- Final Answer?

No doubt, online and digital publishing have gained considerable momentum, and will likely continue to do so with the proliferation of smartphones and e-reading devices.

For some publications, Editors Only included, online has proven to be most efficient. As we saw with Donald Tepper and Bridget Struble, however, there are audiences for whom print is still the preferred mode of delivery.

Contrary to all the buzz, online will not obliterate every print edition. Some publications will be online, some in print, some in both. In the end, success will lie in the coexistence of print and online. That's the real future. That's the end of the rainbow.

Meredith Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

Add your comment.


"I work for a large software company and we produce both a print magazine and an online edition. The print edition is a high-quality piece, but the online edition leaves much to be desired. In fact, we're making all of the mistakes listed in this blog post. Thank you for pulling all the research together for me -- keep up the good work!" --Anne-Lindsay Beall, SAS.com. 05-13-2010.

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