February 14, 2014 Last Updated 8:46 am

Digital editions record nice gains, but new challenges pose threats to continued platform growth

The latest batch of reports from both the U.S.-based Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), and the UK Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) provide good news for magazine publishers as digital editions continue to show good growth.

Audits and publisher’s statements are about looking in the rear view mirror, and they often give a bit of a distorted view of things. But before one starts to talk about the challenges that lie ahead let’s give the industry a bit of a round of applause. Less than four years after the launch of the original iPad, magazine publishers are producing some excellent tablet magazines (and digital editions for smartphone, too).

ABC-Infographic-UK-lgThe ABC (UK) produced a really nice infographic to illustrate the growth of digital editions. The Media Briefing’s Henry Taylor has a good column discussing the topic of measuring combined print and digital editions that makes some excellent points, but I think the evidence is clear that over the past year digital editions are, in fact, growing in readership.

But I think that the US and UK auditing firms reports do not show the whole picture.

In my conversations publishing professionals, what is apparent is that there is a basic misunderstanding of the size and scope of the digital publishing industry as it is today. Traditional magazine publishers may still make up the largest portion of the industry, but they are not the entire industry.

TRVL-app-iconNowhere in the AAM’s or ABC’s figures will you see the circulation for TRVL, for instance. With over 1 million app installations, its readership, though unaudited, is not insignificant (installations do not equate to paid readership, of course). Neither, when looked at in total, is the readership of the thousands of independent, digital-only publications that have been launched over the past few years. Because of this, I’ve always felt that the audit reports actually underestimate the growth of digital editions, while ironically, overstating its growth among its members.

Then there is the issue of auditing rules, and its influence on design decisions. Two years ago this was a major issue in the U.S., and it appears to be a big area of discussions in the UK today. I’ve always felt that the rules regarding what could be counted as a paid, auditable sale were designed looking in the mirror, with rules that are acceptable to the large, slower moving publishing houses. Once the digital editions changed, so, too, would the rules governing them. I still feel this way. Neither the AAM or ABC will risk losing its members over technicalities regarding digital editions.

Many of the issues surrounding digital editions will be worked out over the next few years, assuming ad budgets continue to slowly stabilize – something we are seeing generally. But print ad pages continue to decline, not increase. Meanwhile, the number of physical newsstands continues to decline. The combination of these two forces is only somewhat being moderated by a barely improving economy.

I still believe that the biggest issue facing the industry is the decline in the number of young people entering the ad field that are big believers in the ad page – that large space of real estate where an advertiser can make a big branding impression.

Many publishers, back in 2010, wondered if we would begin to see new ad pages created specifically for the new digital platforms. There are plenty of good examples of amazing, interactive, tablet ad pages. Many, though, were designed by the publishers themselves, to show off the capabilities of their new digital editions. It would be nice to see more of this. But instead, many publishers are looking at native advertising and other new forms of paid content. This is all well and good, and the paid editorial content easily translates from print to digital. But it doesn’t do much to much for the magazine platform itself as these types of ads could just as easily go online. The full page print or digital ad, in contrast, is unique to the magazine platform.

The other challenge remains the condition of the digital newsstands. Print newsstands are disappearing, but the physical newsstand remains something consumers can deal with. I still find standing in front of a magazine newsstand one of life’s great pleasures – maybe I’m weird that way. But making my way through Apple’s Newsstand is like a trip to the dentist. It is like going to a clothing store and seeing the displays picked through. One immediately questions the retailers commitment to their own store.

One of the great promises of digital publishing is that launches would be less expensive, less risky than in print. But successfully launching a new digital magazine, one without a print counterpart, is very difficult if the publisher has expectations of success equal to print. There have been plenty of successful new digital-only publications launched in the past few years. But none can claim to be as financially successful as a popular print title. Digital editions need their first multi-million dollar success story.

Like television producers, magazine publishers can look out to the future and wonder if they are seeing a revolution in distribution. They have to wonder whether they will have the same relationship with their digital distributors, as they did with their print distributors. They also have to wonder if their distributors will themselves become publishers and compete with them for the attention of readers.

What does the world look like to a magazine publisher when Apple, or Amazon, is the publisher… as well as the distributor, the owner of the retail outlet, and the maker of the device it is read on? What will it be like to walk into the office of a major ad agency and instead of seeing the rep from a competing magazine walk out after their meeting, out walks the rep from a major tech company, tablet in one hand, media kit in the other?

Comments are closed.