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How Magazines Can Survive

Industry wise man Bo Sacks proposes a new business model

- December 15, 2006

Any magazine industry professional who doesn't yet understand that the future of all publishing is about content, please leave the room. Those of you left must now also  understand that not only is the mantra  "addictive content" important, but that the ways you deliver that content has been changing.


Content was and always will be about information, but the source and origins of that information is growing exponentially. With literally millions and millions of Web pages and blogs, how are we going to sort through the morass and find what we want? Google and Yahoo are light years ahead in the quest to be the royal content provider -- as the giant publishers were of old. But the next winner is only an algorithm away from knocking them off their substantial but most likely temporary pinnacles. The governments of Europe have invested hundreds of millions of Euros to do just that. In Europe they want develop a better search engine, and compete directly with Google head on. Can they do it? Perhaps. But if it is not the new European consortium then surely somebody else will.

Enter the new age publisher, the entrepreneurial publisher who "gets it."

"I think there is a very bright future for the printed side of the magazine business"

 Will there be giant publishing houses in the future?  Of course, there will be. There will also be countless millions of “singletons,” publishers like myself who write from the distant hills to an interested and, dare I say devoted, worldwide, public audience. The mighty algorithm that is created to perfectly match the private individual’s needs for information is the universal translator that every publisher/provider is seeking.  It is a tall task, but one that is manageable and on the near horizon. Many types of new technologies are forming ranks and are about to charge down the information highway.

To rephrase a famous Winston Churchil quote: Now, this is not the end of the information technologic onslaught. It is not even the beginning or the end of the new technologies. But, perhaps, it is the end of a naive beginning.


Publishing and publishers will outlast the current technologic trauma now before them. There are two things only that matter in this alchemy of search engines, information distribution and technology: You have to have addictive content and the appropriate business model. Nothing else is really relevant.


Adaptation is one of the keys to survival. Without adaptation we would still be in the treetops hanging from our tails. Without adaptation we don't grow. In fact, without adaptation we become extinct. This is just as true in the corporate world as it is in the biological world. It all boils down to management, vision and not only the ability, but the willingness to change.


A New Business Model


As publishers, we were and still are the pre-eminent movers of information. Our technology, the printing press, is 600 years old. Yes, we have refined the process, but essentially we do what Gutenberg did, only faster.


We now are faced with a dilemma: Do we hold on dearly to our past technology of relying upon ink on paper for our sustenance, or do we adapt and morph into something else?


Most publishers recognize that we are at a historic fork in the road. All statistics show that the reading public is diminishing. There are some literary aberrations of this statistic, but on the whole, reading seems to be on the down side. Some statistics show that the total number of all magazines sold in the U.S. has not grown for 16 years. Yes, there are more startup magazines than ever before, but we are not selling more magazines overall, just borrowing the readers we have from one another.


What we need is a new sustainable business model for the publishing industry. The barbarians are at the gate. Advertising is reassessing its reliance on mass media and instead seeks a one-on-one relationship with its clients. The public is in search of, and getting, personalized information in dozens of new and creative ways that didn't exist five years ago. There's the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, blogs, e-books, TiVo, and right around the corner will be e-paper.


Publishers need to have their most creative and visionary seers at the forefront to look over the wall and see what is coming.


The industry is in a sort of twilight zone between the way we used to operate and the way we will operate. I think there is a very bright future for the printed side of the magazine business, but not one run under the old business models.


For a few years now, in my lectures across the country, I have been putting forth the concept of a “consortium publishing” business model. This is an old, successful business model transplanted from another medium to ours.


The cable TV business combines a multitude of huge and small media aggregators together in a solo purchased package to the consumer. My suggestion is to mirror the package deals of this medium. This will work excellently for both print and online. It uses the power and accountability of the online digital business with flexibility and creativity. And it can offer many creative business models within the plan.


In the new model, we offer our customers a choice at all times. There's a  "basic plan" publishing package offers the local newspaper and two magazines of your choice to be received in either digital format, printed format or both. The next step up offers the local newspaper and four magazines of your choice from a comprehensive list of offerings. We keep offering tiers of participation up until you get to the "platinum plan" that delivers the customer everything ever printed.


The customer is allowed to make changes at any time. “Let’s see, this month, I would like to try Popular Science magazine instead of Discover.” This approach would be good for all publishers. It offers the ability of change and reader experimentation. All you need is faith in your addictive editorial package and the vision to know that change in our current business models is imperative. It is time to use the digital universe to our advantage. The current trend is to embrace it, but the question is how? I think this plan offers hope and a great future for both the printed product and the digital siblings.

The bottom line here is that it's never going to be the way it was. And it surely isn't going to be the way it is. So, the real question is about managing the changes that are coming to our advantage and keeping a content-centric business plan, with a flexible distrubition model. At the end of the day, with the proviso that we get paid, does it really matter if we distribute electrons or atoms?

bosacks_thumb.gifBo Sacks' Precision Media Group  does private consulting and publishes "Heard on the Web: Media Intelligence," a daily e-newsletter that delivers pertinent industry news to a diverse, worldwide, publishing community of over 11,750 media industry leaders. It is the longest running e-newsletter in the world.

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