January 6, 2014 Last Updated 4:24 pm

New Year Report: magazines face continuing challenges in 2014 as digital media fragments

The tablet platform proves less a savior than simply part of the mix for many magazine companies

The magazine industry entered 2010 curious as to what Apple may launch; it entered 2011 excited by the possibilities of tablets; it entered 2012 a bit more optimistic as Apple had launched the Newsstand; and it entered last year on a mission to make digital work for them.

2014 begins with many magazine publishers more leery of their digital futures than they had been just a few years earlier. Many excellent tablet editions have been launched, a few new smartphone editions have shown what can be done on those devices. But the promise of the Newsstand has not come to pass – at least for the majority of publishers – as Apple has let the Newsstand devolve into a overcrowded mess, filled with titles that only a year or two year earlier would have been rejected by the app review team. Meanwhile, neither Google nor Amazon have as yet come up with exciting new digital publishing solutions.

NYer-Ball-iPadsFor many magazine publishers, 1999-2000 seems a million years ago. With a booming economy, many publishers were recording ad page counts that seemed to call into question whether they were still magazine publishers or had entered the catalog business. In 2000, the magazine that sold the most number of ad pages was The Industry Standard, an IDG title that a little over a year later was out-of-business.

The dot com bust was followed by 9/11 and two wars. But for today’s publishers,the most immediate challenge has been to overcome the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The one-two punch of a sinking economy along with the rise of new digital platforms, that has proved hard to recover from. For each year after 2007 the hope has been that next year will be better.

While the ABM has still not issued its ad page report for June of 2013, proving even worse than the Greek government when it comes to statistical reporting, it’s May report showed ad pages down almost 9 percent for the year. 2013 was not going to see any tangible recovery for B2B print magazines. For consumer titles, the declines have moderated, but through Q3 pages were still down nearly 4 percent for the year (the MPA issued a press release last week that its analysis shows that ad pages will be essentially flat for the year (this last sentence was changed based on the comment below from the MPA).

But the picture was not completely bleak for print and digital titles: some magazines that hold dominate positions in their categories did record big gains in pages. Condé Nast said that print advertising rose 1.7 percent, with overall print revenue rising 3.3 percent. Hearst ad pages grew 1.4 percent. After a few down years, any growth is good, but one must remember that these are gains over down years. (Also, print titles were dealt some bad news at Christmas as it was announced that the PRC voted a 6 percent “emergency” postal rate increase for 2014.)

The remedy publishers hoped for was tablet editions. Both native and replica edition downloads have grown since the very first year of 2010. For the big publishers – Condé Nast, Hearst, Time Inc., Meredith – Apple has consistently promoted their titles inside the Newsstand. Other digital newsstands, too, have promoted the big boys, figuring that the sight of Cosmo or TIME would be a sure sign of legitimacy. Amazon, Google, Zinio, Magzter, Le Kiosk, and other digital newsstands have added new sales outlets for publishers, though it has also led to further fragmentation.

In my conversations with magazine publishers I have heard consistent messages: from consumer publishers it has been that digital (along with diversification of products) will lead to a brighter future: from B2B publishers, their hopes have resided in an improving economy, and a more away from relying on print magazines for the lion’s share of their revenue.

The growth of ancillary products – from native advertising to events, from webinars to newsletters – has proved accurate. But few publishers are reporting much progress when it comes to their new digital products or from ad page growth deriving simply from increased demand.

What many publishers are now telling me is that they see their new mobile and tablet editions as part of a series of products built around their existing brands. Tablets, they say, will not replace print – but neither will mobile or other digital products. As a result, they are seeing their magazine titles very much the way Apple sees the iPhone or iPad, as part of an ecosystem.

For the first time since the launch of the iPhone, few publishers are expressing much faith in the Apple iOS platforms, but few are saying they will abandon building iPad editions just yet. Larger publishers are still seeing download gains, but others are finding that their new launches find few new readers when launched into the Newsstand. Few want to publicly admit it, but those that have confided in me have said their downloads typically are in the hundreds rather than the thousands, and few paid subscriptions are resulting from their new digital efforts.

Yet, the momentum towards digital editions probably will not subside in 2014 – it will simply shift. If a new digital edition, or digital magazine launch, gets lost inside the Apple Newsstand, can the combination of many digital newsstands produce more satisfactory results? Many are hoping so.

The number of vendors now offering publishers digital publishing solutions for tablets is well over 100. But many of these companies are poorly funded and will likely disappear as the reservoir of publishers seeking to produce their first tablet editions dries out.

Guide-iPad-infographicMany of the 44 companies that appeared in our own Tablet Publishing app issue asked us for a promo code as they did not want to pay the $3.99 necessary to see their own products displayed inside the Guide to Digital Publishing Platforms.

For 2014, producing a new tablet edition of one’s print magazine will continue to get easier and cheaper. Some vendors may decide that the profit margin for such solutions no longer makes economic sense.

A year ago I might have predicted that 2013 would be the year we see more B2B tablet and mobile editions. We have, but not a flood. It is hard for me to go out on a limb and predict that we will see even more in 2014 as the year has started with the demise of Crain’s BtoB, as well as a few other titles that have quietly gone away. But this trend is not just about print. paidContent.org has gotten rolled up into Gigaom and soon will be shuttered. Serving the publishing industry is getting less and less economically viable, it seems.

** This is the third time that appalling magazine cover has appeared here. I struggled when deciding whether to use it. But I believe Apple’s promotion of this app, which actually violates so many of their own developer guidelines, illustrates how far the Apple Newsstand’s standards have fallen in 2013.

  • I just wanted to clarify something from the article. The analysis was a preliminary analysis based on 69 magazines and their ipad editions to get an indication of how 2013 looked before the verfied year-end numbers were released using PIB Advance for pages and their tablet unit analysis for ipad ad units. Neither the MPA (nor Kantar) said the next PIB report will show print pages flat for the year. We would not know that until the numbers were released. However, our preliminary analysis using PIB Advance data and 69 ipad magazine editions showed that among these magazine brands, pages were flat and there was growth across platforms as reported.

    • D.B. Hebbard 4 years ago

      Thank you for the clarification Tony.

      The original sentence written mentions the PIB report but I’ve now edited the sentence based on your comment.

      Even if consumer magazine ad pages are flat or fall slightly, it appears that 2013 was a tougher year for the B2B segment, which continues to struggle to gain back its advertisers. Consumer publishers, on the other hand, are using digital editions to maintain readership levels, and attract new advertisers.

  • […] Talking New Media New Year Report: magazines face continuing challenges in 2014 as digital … Talking New Media New Year Report: magazines face continuing challenges in 2014 as digital media fragments.  […]

  • Ed Coburn 4 years ago

    Yes, business is hard. That’s why we get paid for it. But, magazine publishers — and if you’re one you ought to think about starting to define yourself as a multi platform niche publisher — are at the beginning of an unprecedented time of opportunity now that there finally exists a platform that permits magazines to more fully be what they can be, with embedded links, rich media, social sharing, and portability. I suggest readers take a look at my colleague Don Nicholas’s recent post http://www.mequoda.com/articles/content-marketing/why-digital-publishing-will-save-the-industry/.