Leadership in Print Media

Print Is Not The Future, But It’s Not The Past Either

FLI Printing Press

Once a year the Newspaper Association of America pulls together its overall performance figures, so once a year we can see more clearly than ever which way the US press industry (hugely influential in terms of expected British and European performance) is heading. Current answer, for 2013 as for every year since 2007: down.

Print advertising is 10% off the previous pace. You can find some upswings – in paywall and wider subscription cash, plus sponsorship and allied devices – but the bottom line is still 2.8% worse than 2012. And the statistic that arrives with an added jolt shows digital advertising, once the supposed wonder ingredient of future prosperity, stalled: in fact at the same level as it was in 2007. Put both print and digital ads together and you’re talking $21bn. That’s plunged from $49bn in under a decade. No light in the darkness there.

Perhaps there’s been some shuffling of categories amid bundling and unbundling? Arguably. But Michael Wolff, gadfly guru and – until five minutes ago – MediaGuardian columnist, loves to swim against the tide, making waves as he goes. And here he goes again. The crucial question – not just for Wolff as it happens, but for newspaper managements everywhere, on the basis of these figures – is whether this particular tide is going out forever.

Have we figured out a way to make online pay? “I’m deeply pessimistic. I feel the secret has not been remotely unlocked here. It comes down to the really interesting transition that’s going on in the advertising business. Advertising is so significantly less effective in the digital world [that] we’ve created a world that can’t pay for itself”.

Talking of decline, what about print? “We in the print business have given it up. [But] advertising probably works better in print than in any other medium; it represents the ultimate engagement… It came about because ad agencies made more money on other kinds of advertising. Now, no one knows how to create print ads.”

There, perhaps, is the rub. Digital’s revolution rolls on excitedly, after a fashion, as other non-newspaper sites harvest the riches. But can print still play part-saviour, at least pro tem?

Listen, in Britain, to Steve Auckland, back in charge of the Metro titles and calming down his predecessor’s enthusiasm for digital operations, which had perhaps “gone over the edge”. “Ninety per cent plus of our money is coming from print”, he tells the latest issue of InPublishing. How do you divide up your resources to go digital when doing that means “taking a stack of costs out which tend to come from your print operation”? It’s an artificial weakening, an acceleration into decline.

Quite so, says Diane Kenwood, one of IPC’s most experienced magazine editors, a few pages on. “Print must stay abreast with the rest of the contention creation industry, not lag behind it bleating… There is still a lot of money to made from the sale of magazines: £2bn worth are purchased every year, 2.6m of them are sold in the UK every day. They’re read by 87% of the British population”

Now, in a way, there’s nothing very surprising in all this. It’s merely the moving finger moving on, and back, then round and round. Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen a news infrastructure posited on advertising alone followed by a rush into paywalls; an embracing of tablets as the future followed by a rush into mobiles.

No one fails to see the change, of course. You can almost feel it. Those American results can’t be brushed aside. They show an industry that hasn’t capitalised on digital yet (as well as one caught in wider recession). But they are still only part of the story: they don’t affect all papers or all countries similarly – or magazines or books. This remains bewildering work in progress. What outcomes, pray, will the latest visionaries be peddling in 2017? And what will Wolff actually be saying when they do? The safest prediction, alas, is that it will be something entirely different.

by Peter Preston for The Guardian

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FLI Peter PrestonPeter Preston is a columnist for the Guardian and the Observer. He was previously editor of the Guardian for 20 years, from 1975 to 1995, and has written two books, Bess (1999) and The 51st State (1998)

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