Managing the magazine component of newspapers

This is the second part of a series about the evolution of print media. Part I here.

A few years ago, the founder of the French daily Liberation was asked what he would do if he had unlimited resources to run his paper: “I would do a magazine everyday”, he said. During the late 80’s, “Libé”, as it was called, stood at the forefront of the transition from a traditional daily newspaper to a magazine-like concept, with long pieces, narrative journalism, reportages… Later in 1994, Libé launched a daily full-page featuring an in-depth profile including a photograph specifically shot for the occasion. It was a brilliant magazine-style piece, done under a demanding editor who did not hesitate to rewrite the story to give it rhythm, breadth and, sometimes, fun. (Usually, in France, dailies don’t get that much editing.) Amazingly, even though it has lost some of its luster, a feature that largely inspired the competition still survives 16 years later.

Magazine writing is still an appealing attribute for a daily paper. Just take a quick poll among your friends: the most notable articles they’ll recall from a newspaper will be magazine-like treatments. From a pure editorial perspective, the “magazinification” of dailies make more sense than ever. Breaking news and even developing stories have been captured by the web and by the mobile internet. In itself, this shift would justify a massive resource reallocation in favor of digital medias.

Having said that, does it make an economic sense to maintain the large editorial operation needed to produce every single day a product closer to a weekly or even a monthly magazine? To what extent do we need to reconsider the journalistic morphing that appeared a smart move ten or fifteen years ago?

Three elements needs to be factored in:

1 / Time allocation. With an average of 60 hours a month spent online, including a hefty 6 hours on Facebook, plus TV time, plus messaging and prattling on mobile, attention is scarcer than ever. A daily is read for about 30-40 minutes a day, that is roughly 5% to 10% of the time it would take to absorb the entire paper. This serendipity-bearing gap was a luxury, a part of the newspaper’s mystique, one that is no longer affordable. Papers can’t avoid a decisive refocusing.

2 /  The economic perspective. Daily newspaper operations are designed for speed, for fast-paced production, a large part of which is supposed to happen within a six to ten hours time interval. The process costs a bundle in extra crews, night shifts, parallel processes for editing, assembling, proofing the pages. And once the paper is ready, the publisher has had to pay a premium for the latest printing slot, this to make sure last minute news got in, to maximize freshness.
Let’s pause for a second.
Since the hot stuff is on the net and on mobile phones, what is the justification for this technical profligacy if it results in a news product increasingly disconnected from the notion of urgency?

3 / The state of the magazine industry. Could be better, to say the least. A quick look at the US market with 2009 vs. 2008 data:

– The number of pages sold by the 250 biggest mags  fell by 25.6% last year
– The gross dollar revenue fell  by 17.5%.As revenue fell less than the number of pages, this could mean each page sold yielded more money, but these figures do not take in account the discount between the publisher’s rate card and the actual price paid by the advertisers. (Based on several indications, the two seem correlated: drops in revenue are at least in line with drops in volume, we are therefore looking at a 25% to 30% dollar evaporation, here).

Below are the most notable changes among 15 great magazines :

A few comments on this table:

– Everybody is taking a huge hit regardless of concepts or strategies.
– Journalism-heavy titles such as The Atlantic, Time or The New Yorker fare a little bit better than the rest. The fancier a mag is (e.g. Architectural Digest), the more it loses.
– Even The Economist, the only one showing positive change in 2008, is hurting.
– Newsweek results are not significant due to the deliberate cut in circulation that was part of a strategy shift (see previous Monday Note: The Niche Temptation, that includes further data on mag publishing).

The picture is not better in a magazine-hungry market such as France. Ad revenues and, to a lesser extent, circulations are dropping sharply. For newsmagazines, the tricks they used to rely on to boost sales – real estate or hospitals rankings, cyclical society or political themes –  no longer work. And, unlike anglo-saxons mags that still can tap into strong journalistic resources to find new angles, the editorial engine of French magazines is not firing on all cylinders: people are not working too hard, competitive metabolism is almost non-existent, newsroom leadership is weak. As a result, journalistic innovation is at a low point. A key factor is a generation of editors who don’t have the will to bet on young talents nor the guts to take any kind of risk. (Shareholders structures don’t help either). The situation will get much worse before it gets better.

What does all of the above mean for the evolution of daily newspapers? We can make a safe bet: five years from from now, big national outlets will have dramatically reduced their number of issues per year. The trend is already discernible as publishers increasingly skip holiday issues. Once publishers begin to cut weekdays by shedding the weakest ones, the slope will get more slippery.

Ultimately, publications with two or even one day a week will become the norm. In countries such as the United States, thanks to thick multi-section packages, weekend editions already bring more money than the rest of the week does.

Therefore, a one or two issues per week strategy could make sense. The implementation would be sustained by clever advertising tactics based on sets of high-concept newspaper/magazine sections targeted to specific audience segments. New advertising approaches  could involve “smart programming” of sections adjusted to fit the cyclical and seasonal advertising demand. For the largest markets, dynamic pricing (yield management, like the price variation for airlines) would replace the current dumb rate card.

In doing so, operational expenses would decrease dramatically as the high costs associated with the peculiar production process of a daily newspaper evaporate. Resource shifts will favor a final product with editorially rich and well-designed Friday or Saturday multi-entries “newspapers” designed for longer reading time. In the meantime, breaking news and developing stories will – at last – thrive on digital media without the fruitless internal competition from a dying product.

One could argue and suggest adjustments to these assumptions, but the basic formula won’t change. I’m 100% convinced this is the Darwinian evolution the news industry is facing.

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