Is ‘print in vogue’? Or are we ‘stumbling to extinction?’ 3 talking points

It’s good news, bad news today in the news media world. The good: “print’s in vogue again,” if you consider these three top women editors who abandoned digital startups to return to the magazine world, in a thought-provoking look at news media economics from Women’s Wear Daily. Or, “print is dying,” depending on how you interpret the news that newspaper ad sales (print and web combined) hit a 25-year low in 2010.

The latter news comes via Alan Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur. His blog’s tagline: “Musings (and occasional urgent warnings) of a veteran media executive, who fears our news-gathering companies are stumbling to extinction.” (If you aren’t following Alan, and you’re interested in the economics of the news biz, you should be.)

I’m an optimist, so of course I’d like to think that print will be around a long time. But quite often, I see signs of the “stumbling” that worries Alan. I’d like to share three talking points that might help us frame today’s good news/bad news stories in a more productive way, since neither side is cut-and-dried:

  • AD SALES ARE DOWN, BUT HOW MUCH OF THIS IS A PROBLEM WITH THE CONTENT, VS. THE MEDIUM, OF PRINT? I’ve had several clients recently who tell me they are hearing from advertisers loud and clear: we’d like to advertise with you, we’d like to have faith in print, but there’s nothing exciting or new in the paper. We’re gonna bail. You’ve cut staff and pages (and, some argue, you seem to write nonstop about your own demise). The challenge for the industry: How to revitalize the product in a way that’s genuinely enticing to advertisers, at a time when you seem to barely be able to keep it afloat? With staff resources and morale at a low at many publications, this is a pickle. While content and spirit do seem to be imperiled, it’s not really a design challenge, at its core this is a leadership/management challenge.
  • YES, AD SALES ARE DOWN, BUT 90% OF REVENUE IS STILL COMING FROM PRINT. Let’s not lose sight of that. From the Women’s Wear Daily article: “Condé Nast still derives only about 10 percent of its revenue from digital,” which mirrors, roughly, what I hear from my newspaper clients. And with digital price points being what they are, this is not likely to change dramatically anytime soon. “In general, it seems that ad rates for even the best web sites still pale in comparison to the kind of money that can be made through a top-notch print product,” Hollywood Reporter Editorial Director Janice Min told WWD. These would have been good words to heed for the newspaper editor who told her staff a few years ago, “they can’t kill the print product soon enough for my taste,” only to see the Digital First! crusade sputter and stall on the tracks.
  • YES, AD SALES ARE DOWN, BUT IN 2010 WE WERE IN THE DEPTHS OF THE RECESSION. CAN AD SALES STAFFS RALLY TO EXPLOIT THIS YEAR’S SIGNS OF A GROWING ECONOMY? This is the question of the year, in my view. In a half dozen markets I’ve been working in, I see signs of life, or at least interest, from a beaten down ad market. Will sales teams have the motivation to get out there and sell? Will they have something exciting and new worth selling? Now is the time for newspapers to shout: we’re still here, we’re regrouping, we’re focusing on strengths and adding new destinations, for both editorial and advertising.

You can spin the latest revenue news in a variety of different ways. The “bright side,” as Alan points out: “The 6.3% tumble in newspaper advertising in 201o was the least worst since 2006 and far more tolerable than the staggering drops of 27.2% in 2009 and 16.6% in 2008. And publishers can take some comfort in the fact that sales slid ‘only’ 4.7% in the fourth quarter of last year vs. 9.7% in the first period and about 5.5% in each of the second and third quarters.” Fine. If this is a sign that the free-fall is slowing, can editors come to the table and offer up something fresh and exciting to help slow it further? And, whether that’s a big-bang redesign or just a few new destinations in the paper, can ad sales staffs take that to the streets and sell it?

The most pointed framing of this issue came from a publisher (client) who recently challenged the sales team, after they spent time reviewing and dissecting dozens of prototypes for their reinvented paper: “Based on what you have seen here today, can you hit the street and sell significantly more advertising than you had forecast for this year?” Their answer: Yes. Time will tell.

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