« Publishers and the US Postal Service | Home | Custom Media Spending »

Publishers and Editors not Always on Same Page

Posted on Sunday, February 26, 2012 at 8:55 PM

Analysis of survey data suggests a need for a shared vision, but a herd mentality about digital is leading many astray.

By William Dunkerley

Publishers and editors each have their own set of expectations for 2012. When we surveyed each group in December about hopes for the new year, we found areas of commonality -- but also some concerns that differed.

There's shared interest in growth and survival, as well as in going digital. But there are differences in areas of emphasis.

Our Surveys

In all, we heard from over 20 publishers and editors. This was principally an anecdotal survey, and we claim no significant statistical results. In December issues of STRAT and Editors Only, we published an assortment of direct quotes from respondents. You can see what they said here and here. In preparing this article, we relied upon those and other responses, plus comments that we gleaned from various online sources.

Generally, we see that publishers conceptualize their publications as products, and look to the future with concern about the success of their products in the marketplace. Editors, on the other hand, seem to think less globally, and talk more about articles, topics, and readers. That's certainly an expected difference in focus. Each group is concerned about its own areas of principal responsibility.

Publisher Approach vs. Editor Approach

But when it comes to matters of growth and survival, and moving more into digital, this difference in focus can become problematic. Here's the rub: as publishers are looking to acquire new audiences in order to grow, editors are focused on finding better ways of serving the existing readers.

Now, if a flagging renewal rate is a problem, giving more thought to satisfying current readers should be a top concern. On the other hand, if you are looking for new readers as a source of growth, identifying and serving the needs and interests of the potential new readers should also be a top concern.

To do that, you must first learn what the hot interests are of the non-readers you want to attract. Then, editorial can go about creating content that will hook the prospective readers.

Unfortunately, based on the comments we received from publishers and editors, we don't see this kind of coordination going on. Publishers need to do a better job of getting editors to think beyond serving the current audience.

It is also remarkable that no publishers commented on the quality of their content. It may be because they are completely satisfied with it and don't regard it as an area of concern. However, for the sake of organizational unity, they must show their appreciation of the editors' dedication to quality. It is clear from the comments we received from editors that quality and reader satisfaction are high priorities for them. If you are asking your editors to stretch their purview in the name of audience building, it's important to acknowledge their dedication to quality.

Digital Reading Devices

On the matter of what to do about digital, publishers and editors seem to be more on the same page. But it might be the wrong page. Both groups want to move ahead at a quickening pace. That's not in itself bad. But neither publishers nor editors appear to be exercising much caution in the face of almost overwhelming hype from digital device purveyors.

A recent Pew survey claims that currently 29 percent of Americans own a digital reading device. Here's what the survey, which was supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said:

"The share of adults in the United States who own tablet computers nearly doubled from 10 percent to 19 percent between mid-December and early January and the same surge in growth also applied to e-book readers, which also jumped from 10 percent to 19 percent over the same time period. The number of Americans owning at least one of these digital reading devices jumped from 18 percent in December to 29 percent in January."

Those are quite impressive statistics. But how many of those owners are using their devices to read periodicals? We saw the start of an answer to that question in a report on the 2011 Rosetta Tablet Study, which shows that 38 percent of users prefer a tablet to read e-books, magazines, or newspapers. But that's 38 percent of users who have been device owners for 12 months or more. Actually, the number who have owned devices for only 3 to 6 months is higher. Fully 51 percent of them report using their devices for reading publications. For those who've had their devices less than a month, the number is 30 percent.

What scenario can explain that up-then-down trajectory? It certainly is a different course from the up-up-up path of new device sales! Here's my hypothesis: Most of the new owners (60 percent) don't even try to read a publication during the first month. Eventually, up to the sixth month of ownership, about half of the owners try out publication reading. But, by some time after the one-year point, about a quarter of the readers give up the practice.

A separate survey by GfK MRI, a producer of consumer and media research, shows that in the prior 30 days, only 26.6 percent of tablet owners used any magazine app at all. For e-reader owners, it's a mere 5.9 percent. That may be because so many e-readers are Kindles or Nooks, presumably purchased for reading books, not periodicals. But only 15.1 percent of the e-reader owners were even reading books in the last month. E-readers have been on the market longer than tablets, and it seems a greater percentage of those devices has fallen into disuse.

The picture I see here is of consumers buying into the hype offered by the device purveyors. But after the novelty of the device wears off, they abandon it -- or, at the very least, stop reading publications on it.

Analyzing the Statistics

I know that a lot of publishers have set their hopes on digital as a means of regaining revenues lost during the recession. For some, acquiring digital revenues seems like their last best chance.

However, the presently unfolding usage patterns don't seem to support the viability of that notion. If indeed 29 percent of Americans have tablets or e-readers, it means that 71 percent don't. And if only 26.6 percent of the owners are actually using the devices to read magazines, that brings down the number of potential readers in the population to only 7.7 percent. That means that for now, 92.3 percent of adult Americans are not in a position to read your magazine on a tablet or e-reader. That doesn't seem to me like fertile ground for cultivating significant revenue gains in the short run.

I don't know how accurate the figures from these external surveys are. Many digital hypesters have used numbers loosely. But my analytical conclusion is hard to mistake. For now, any potential tablet/e-reader audience acquisition efforts exclude over 90 percent of the population.

The Bottom Line

The way I see it, the best chance most publishers have to recoup lost revenues quickly is print advertising.

That may sound like nonsense if your efforts to sell more space have not brought sales up to previous levels. But I've observed that many publishers face the same obstacle to increased ad sales: sales strategies and techniques that worked before the recession no longer do. The advertisers' situation has changed, but the typical approach to selling them space hasn't. On top of that, many advertisers are confused by all the hype about digital and haven't yet discovered what is really working and want is not.

This message is not intended to be a "print forever" cry, nor is it intended to dissuade publishers from exploring the potential in digital publishing. Digital is indeed promising, and every publisher should be exploring it. But it should be explored analytically and by measuring bottom-line results (or the lack thereof). In the meantime, though, there are revenue gains to be had by retooling your sales strategies and approaches.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

Add your comment.

« Publishers and the US Postal Service | Top | Custom Media Spending »