Kelly Brendel: Is print dead?

Digital was definitely the catchword at a meeting of UK magazine publishers in London last week. Perhaps more surprising was how often the print medium emerged as a continuing focus in a conference about the rising number of digital platforms and channels.

At this meeting of the Professional Publishers Association’s (PPA), organisers presented the results of their annual bellwether survey, which found that an average 41% of revenue for UK publishers still derived from print, while 40% was from digital. The mood among those surveyed was also markedly buoyant compared to previous years, with respondents becoming more self assured about what lies ahead for publishing.

A trio of editors speaking in a session titled “Content: Still King?” seemed confident that print still had an important role among the other platforms that have been steadily crowding in upon its territory. And in the last session of the day, which took four big new recruits to publishing and asked them to share their vision of the future, all but one gave strong denials when asked if print media is dying an inevitable death.

The picture of publishing’s future that emerged from the day’s speakers was more complex than a simple and steady transfer of content from print to digital. Instead, it was suggested that print is likely to remain with us, assimilated alongside a growing number of formats as technology continues to develop. Here at the BMJ we have a model that is already structured like that, with a successful weekly print issue that co-exists quite happily alongside our website and iPad apps. More than one speaker laid out how their magazines have moved from existing as a print issue to becoming a brand that is spread out across different products. Each channel has strengths and weaknesses in how it presents its content, and readers all have their loyalty and preferences for different formats in different contexts.

This prospect seemed to be a source of both comfort and consternation to the gathered group of publishers. The old, simpler business model of print is still a source of revenue, but how to keep all those different plates of print, online, apps, and social media spinning is a challenge.  It requires the working processes of publishers to adapt to create content in all those formats, while remaining streamlined, but the internal implications for companies are not just practical. More than one speaker recounted the cultural kickback they had experienced from staff against moving in a digital direction. How to harmonise the more traditional skillset of journalism with digital expansion, without creating silos between teams, seemed to weigh heavily on many minds and specific solutions were scarce.

Publishers managing a multiplicity of products also have to understand their audience for every single one. Ian Hitt, Director of Integrated Marketing Group, described how publishing has moved into an “era of big data” in which mining for information about your readers is possible in ways never imagined in the days of just print. We now have access to data which tells us what content is being accessed most, which Facebook posts are getting liked, and by who, and at what times. The potential is there for publishers to understand their audience in a level of detail that would once have been mind boggling, but it rests upon the ability to manage an overwhelming flood of data. In the session “Publishing Futures” speakers identified data analysis as the skill that was proving to be most elusive as they developed.

Now that publishers are unflinchingly looking out over the digital landscape, it is not just the deluge of data that is troubling them, but the deluge of content that the internet has unleashed as well. In a sea of content how can publishers expect consumers to not only choose theirs, but to pay for it too? The consensus from the day’s speakers seemed to be that quality content, written by trained journalists, and given tailored editorial treatment, was still valued.

An unlikely illustration of this point came from Bruce Daisley, the UK Director of Twitter. He explained his vision of Twitter as more of an information network than a social network. Twitter is a kind of publishing meritocracy and in the age of camera phones and instant uploads it’s increasingly common for lay individuals to break a story—all in under 140 characters.

Daisley related an anecdote from when a helicopter crashed into a crane at the top of a building in Vauxhall, London earlier this year. One eyewitness to the accident uploaded a picture of the scene as a tweet (his first ever) and within hours it had been retweeted thousands of times and his picture splashed across the Evening Standard’s front page. Examples like this represent the unfiltered aspects of Twitter said Daisley, but they work in symbiosis with traditional news outlets, rather than replacing them.  In the aftermath of an event, trusted news outlets and the experience of their journalists are still needed for clarity, analysis, and comment.

As other speakers that day stressed, you shouldn’t underestimate the depth of relationship a reader can develop with a magazine or its brand. Over the next few year publishers will be grappling with all the tricksy technical issues digital expansion raises: whether to use native apps or html5, what business model to use, and how to develop staff skills and work processes to adapt.  But speakers throughout the day were keen to stress that editorial content is still at the heart of everything they do.

As publishers expand into new platforms so too does their relationship with the reader—connecting them not just in the moments they hold a magazine in their hands, but potentially 24/7. The conference ended on a quietly optimistic note by urging the assembled publishers to see the opportunities that level of interaction could create, rather than the technical obstacles that need to be overcome to reach it.

Kelly Brendel is an assistant web editor, BMJ.