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Is Print Media Dead?

December 24, 2009

Wikipedia tells us that there are 269 pages of magazines that are no longer being published, and both newspapers and magazines are reducing frequency, cutting editorial-to-ad ratios, or going out of business.  Most recently the demise of Gourmet magazine, a flagship of the Conde-Nast empire, brought the declining fortunes of print media into public focus.  Business Week, the mainstay of the McGraw-Hill publishing conglomerate, is being sold to Bloomberg at a fire sale price.

On the positive side, the Magazine Publishers Association tells us that 92% of U.S. adults read magazines, and paid magazine subscriptions increased from 322 million in 2007, to 325 million in 2008.

As a nation we have been through economic cycles like the one affecting most media properties before.  As a former resident of Pittsburgh, PA,  I took the bus into the city, watching the smokestacks of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company belching out soot and chemicals into our skies.  Then came the demise of the steel industry, largely caused by foreign competition.  There was no longer any smoke because there was no factory.

What did the “Steel City” do?  Pittsburgh reinvented itself.  It examined its assets…a hard working, intelligent labor force, good transportation, good infrastructure, outstanding educational and medical facilities.  They began building on what they have, not what they used to have.  Today, if you take that same bus trip to downtown Pittsburgh, it looks largely like the skyline of Manhattan.  The air is clean, people are employed, and they win a lot of Super Bowls to boot.  The people from Pittsburgh are some of the kindest, warmest, happiest folks you will ever meet.  It is in their nature to be strong and not be defeated by economic declines.  They took a lemon, squeezed it and made lemonade.

Now back to our discussion about print media.  As a recent purchaser of the Amazon Kindle “electronic reader,”  the future of what used to be known as “print media” is fairly clear. The publishers who survive this economic downturn will no longer be in the publishing business.  They will be in the content aggregation business.  Instead of publishing information on a single platform;  they will compile information, repackage it, and push it out to audiences in one form or another on many different platforms.  Oprah Winfrey is one of the best examples of someone who knows how to market her brand in various venues.  When you look at all the different media in which journalists are now involved, it also shows that they must know how to get their story out in a variety of different channels, because that is where the eyeballs are. 

Guess what, the idea is not new. The name William Randolph Hearst is probably familiar, an incredibly successful information entrepreneur.  In the 1920’s he started one of the first print-media companies to enter radio broadcasting and in the 1940’s he was an early pioneer of television. He  was also a major producer of movie newsreels via  Hearst Metrotone News, and is widely credited with creating the comic strip syndication business. His King Features Syndicate today is the largest distributor of comics and text features in the world. In his career, William Hearst produced over 100 films including, The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine and The Mysteries of Myra.

And talk about being ahead of his time…..Bill Gates saw the future of media coming as well, and he describes a bold new future in how we would receive information in his book called “The Road Ahead.”  Published in 1999,  Mr. Gates was able to look over the horizon to see how technology would change our media habits.

Very recently we completed an assignment for a government agency that gave us a very small budget to work with.  We compiled a list of 75 large circulation magazines and sent them a digital print PSA.  We then followed up with telemarketing to make sure the right materials got to the decision maker.  Result:  the PSAs reached just under ten million readers on a budget of a few thousand dollars. 

Is print media dead?  Yes, to the content providers who do not adapt to the new realities of their audience.  No, to those who, like Mr. Gates and Mr. Hearst, were able to figure out where their audiences were going, and have delivery mechanisms in place to be there waiting.

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